Along with Brick Lane and Drummond Street, Tooting has a longstanding reputation for its curry houses. Indeed, this south of the river enclave is an increasingly fashionable location and featured in my recent “Top 5 London food trends for 2014” post. But while there are clear signs that the area is currently in the early stages of hipsterfication, its heart and soul will always be saucy, pungent and well-spiced.
Yet since the departure of Kastoori a few years back, Tooting has – to my mind – lacked a true standout eatery. You’d have to work hard to find a really bad meal, but you’d also struggle to find anything that bordered on transcendent, with the exception of the annual Alphonso mango haul. At least, that’s what I though until I stumbled upon Apollo Banana Leaf on a recommendation.
Nestled on the edges of Tooting High Street, Apollo Banana Leaf isn’t just the most brilliantly named restaurant in town, or the nicest curry in Tooting – it’s a serious contender for the best value meal in all of London.
Not that you’d know it by the surroundings. Its bland frontage belies an equally nondescript interior that’s something between a roadside canteen and an airport departure lounge. But when the food’s as good as it is at Apollo, you can happily write off this kind of thing and instead think of it as ‘no nonsense.’
What’s probably most telling about Apollo Banana Leaf is that, despite being a fairly adventurous eater with an easily jaded palate, I order the same meal every time I go. To start, there’s a crispy yet juicy mutton roll for a frankly shocking 85p, complemented by the house’s punchy chilli sauce.
A selection of fritters – cauliflower and green banana, yes please – marked by expert cooking (no grease in sight) and a well-spiced batter are also highly recommended.
For mains, you absolutely must try the devilled mutton, ideally ordered extra hot. A dry meat dish, the mutton is delicate and tender, coming soused in a dark, delicious paste that’s probably some kind of family secret. Throw in a handful of curry leaves, onion and peppers and you have what’s surely one of London’s top five curries.
I can also never resist ordering the Chicken 65 – crispy, fluorescent purple nuggets of bird that boast bite on the outside but are incredibly moist under the hood. Again, a serious contender for one of the capital’s best uses of poultry.
Accompaniments come in the form of a moreish daal, rich saag paneer, and one of the most superb aubergine curries around – a wonderfully creamy sauce hiding delicate slivers of eggplant that are miraculously neither under or overcooked. Deserts? They don’t really get a look in, as you’ll be completely stuffed by the time you’ve trawled through the menu proper. Other dishes that come highly commended include the fish cutlet, all of the kathu dishes – a kind of Sri Lankan biryani that swaps rice for torn chapati bread – and the seafood stringhopper, fish being another one of Apollo’s strengths.
Usually, I find a meal for four (with some leftovers) runs just over £30 – a serious case of “How the fuck do they do food this good, this cheap?” But you could eat here for even less if you put your mind to it – a couple of mutton rolls and a dosa, for instance, and you’ll leave full and with change from a tenner. Sealing the deal is a relaxed BYOB policy and friendly, efficient service that caters to parky requests with admirable aplomb and can somehow always seem to find you a table – though I usually book to be safe.
The long and the short? Get ye to Tooting now – not for the affordable real estate or burgeoning gentry scene, but to sample Apollo Banana Leaf and what’s likely the best (and cheapest) meal you’ll eat in a long time.