Frankly, when first asked to review Gilgamesh, I had strong reservations. Aware of the size of this huge venue in Camden Town Stables Market, I feared the worst: mass catering of indifferent quality with inefficient and impersonal service. Since opening in 2007 its survival, I surmised, must, be down to everything but the food – the bars, the VIP lounge, the Oriental tea room, the sumptuous furnishings, the lavish décor, and the loud funky music which gives it a throbbing, night club feel. In my ignorance I also assumed the food was Middle Eastern, given the Babylonian god which gives Gilgamesh its name.
How wrong I was on all fronts. Gilgamesh certainly accommodates large numbers – 240 covers in the main restaurant, with up to 680 if the other rooms are fully occupied. But the food and service are surprising good for such a large establishment. Indeed, the extensive pan Asian menu – Japanese, Chinese, Thai and Malaysian – has an abundance of popular, well executed dishes. It is these which entice the largely young, well heeled clientele to return in their droves. The other glamorous attractions largely serve to complement the output of the main restaurant.
Not that the style can be ignored. Within this glass walled structure no expense has been spared in creating sensuous, almost decadent surroundings. The escalator with its celestial lighting forms a dramatic entrance. The restaurant’s forty foot vaulted ceiling has a retractable roof for hot weather. The stylish Lapis stone bar is spacious with comfortable booth seating. Two statues of Gilgamesh and bronze ancient Babylonian friezes form an impressive historical backdrop. Marble pillars inlaid with mother of pearl; decorated ceiling panels; and heavily embroidered banquettes around hand carved dark wooden tables all reflect serious craftsmanship as well as unbridled opulence. The VIP Babylon lounge, where the music is more subdued, provides even more luxury, the seating booths being divided by long flowing gossamer like curtains.
At the heart of all this is the kitchen headed by Ian Pengelley, who received critical acclaim at E&O in Notting Hill, The Hempel Hotel, and his eponymous restaurant in Sloane Street. His childhood years spent in Hong Kong and later gastronomic tours of Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia during a career break, confirmed his love of, and experience with, pan Asian cuisine. Leading a large, multinational brigade in the open, stone carved kitchen, he has developed a carefully balanced menu to represent some the best dishes from China, Japan and south east Asia The current choices feature three soups, six salads, seven small, nine dim sum, four tempura, ten Gilamesh main and six side dishes. Those dining in the Babylon lounge can also choose from a seafood menu and a roving Peking duck trolley.
What impresses most is accuracy and freshness of the cooking which preserves essential tastes, flavours and textures. Given the diversity of cuisines and large number of covers on a busy evening, to maintain a consistently high quality is no mean achievement.
Fine Dining Guide visited Gilgamesh on a busy Friday evening and ate in the Babylon lounge.
Whilst nibbling over a bowl of edemame beans, we chose from the recently introduced and spectacularly presented Seafood Bar for our first set of dishes and were not disappointed. The utterly fresh shellfish arrived in an attractive, artistic display. Cold lobster had been precisely timed to retain its sweetness and delicate texture – a far cry from the cotton wool often served in establishments which should know better. Razor clams steamed with black beans were memorable for their delectable succulence, and king prawns were given added interested by a not overpowering mango salsa.
The second innovation was the Peking duck trolley. At the tableside the assistant carefully carved slices off the bird and made up the pancakes. Whilst the duck meat was well cooked, no crisp skin – crucial in this dish – was offered, whilst the whole process took too long to complete. This kind of service, although avoiding mess for the diner, is inappropriate and too time consuming for large tables, especially as there only appeared to be one trolley circulating the room. Perhaps pre ordering this dish for the whole table, with its deconstruction in the kitchen, might be a better alternative?
The rest of meal was left to the discretion of the chef who decided next on a selection of small dishes. Outstanding amongst these was crispy squid, deep fried in a beautifully light batter, spiked with spring onion and garlic chips and served with a sweet and sour adjud sauce. Nestled in a paper cone, this taste and texture sensation has become a signature dish.
Silk like slices of salmon sashimi were served over dry ice which provided a spectacle to accompany the pure clean taste of the fish. Chicken Gyoza, (like pot sticker dumplings), and prawn spring rolls with white sesame seeds and tomato salsa were both well flavoured and generously filled. More unusual but no less delicious were the prawn and banana spring rolls, whose savoury and sweet filling was encased in crisp rice paper
Main courses proved equally accomplished. Black Cod, marinated in plum miso sauce and cooked on a hoba leaf, was first rate. The delicate, soft flakes of fish with caramelised skin simply melted in the mouth, whilst the rich, deeply flavoured sweet and salty sauce was finely tuned to avoid overpowering the main ingredient. This dish was superior to similar versions dishes served in more celebrated, expensive restaurants.
Beef Penang also delighted. The meat was juicy and well flavoured, whilst the essential features of this dry curry were well executed. The spiciness of the sauce was tempered by the correct amount of coconut milk and its fragrance enhanced by a moderate addition of kaffir lime leaves.
Spiced lamb, cooked pink and served in large cubes, came with enoki mushrooms and a fiery wasabi puree, providing a good contrast to the other two main dishes.
Side dishes of coconut rice and noodles with sir fried vegetables complemented the main dishes perfectly.
Although the dessert menu features chocolate fondant, chocolate and green tea brulee and banana and toffee crumble, a lighter, more refreshing alternative was found in a selection of fruit sorbets, which had intense flavour and velvety texture.
Instead of choosing to drink from the extensive range of teas, sake or wines, we decided to opt for cocktails. We chose well with Dilmun (made with Absolut Citron, watermelon, mint, sugar and cranberry), Shuruppak (Eristoff vodka, apricot, watermelon, berries and pineapple) and Shamash (champagne with Bombay Gin, lychee liquor and fruit)
The embarrassment of choice of food and drink requires the front of house to be well informed to guide new or even regular diners. In this respect the Gilgamesh succeeds, its courteous and solicitous waiting staff being eager to advise and assist without being intrusive. Overseeing them is the charming
Reception Manager Frank Folly helps the restaurant run like clockwork, but not without a personal touch.
All this comes at a price. Those who complain the prices are too steep should consider the huge investment that has gone into making a visit to Gilgamesh a total experience, with the same drama and spectacle expected at fine dining restaurants but on a larger scale. More importantly, they should also bear in mind the top quality ingredients, the consistently high standard of cooking and the welcoming, efficient service. Clearly, as the last five years have seen, the prices are seen as competitive and worth paying by its loyal following, making Gilgamesh not only a neighbourhood venue, but one attracting many from further afield.