Camden, with its history of avant-garde fashion designers, cutting edge music and arts scene and clubs and music venues, has been established as a destination of choice for restaurant goers of all culinary persuasions for some time now. The area is, of course, also renowned for its markets, attracting around 100,000 people every weekend who descend to browse the stalls, soak up the atmosphere and meet friends in the area’s numerous bars and restaurants.
There are actually six different markets that make up Camden Market , each with it's own distinct and unique style. Stables Market is the largest and most colourful of the markets offering everything from cyberpunk to vintage clothing, esoteric record stores and unusual furniture. Once a hospital used to care for horses injured pulling barges through Camden’s canal ways, the market has now been transformed into a seemingly endless maze of cobbled alleyways, converted warehouses and covered outdoor eating areas.
Courage or madness
Stables Market also provides the most unlikeliest of settings for Gilgamesh, Ian Pengelley’s epic and, some would say incomparable, pan-Asian restaurant. The first thing that hits you about Gilgamesh as you enter via the dramatic, sweeping staircase (or the escalator if you prefer) is the sheer size, scope and opulence of the place. Just who was it who had the vision, the courage and the madness to undertake a project of this magnitude. 15,000 square feet of floor space, every chair, every table hand-carved with precision and depicting the story of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Babylon (Iraq), and marble pillars inlaid with lapis and mother of pearl - all under the watchful gaze of two magnificent Gilgamesh statues, each weighing 3 tons each.
It all feels very King and I. Just walking into the place makes you want to pull on a pair of gold, lamé trousers and belt out Getting To Know You. I wouldn’t recommend it though. It’s not the easiest place to find and you’re bound to attract a few stares as you stroll across the car park of the neighbouring Morrisons. Yes, that’s right. There’s a supermarket next door. It’s fair to say the scruffy Chalk Farm location is a little incongruous with the extravagance and decadence that awaits within. You may also have a problem finding the entrance. Look for the smallest, most non-descript door you can find and, chances are, that’s it.
Gilgamesh is the London restaurant scene’s equivalent of the Tardis and the centerpiece is the cavernous 260-seat main restaurant. Flanked by a couple of bars and a traditional tea room, the restaurant has an open kitchen and al fresco ambience courtesy of a 40ft high ceiling with retractable roof and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Head chef, Ian Pengelley, spent a number of years traveling through Asia before returning to the UK and spells in the kitchens at E&O and The Hempel prior to the launch of the eponymous, and ill-fated, Pengelley's of Sloane Street.
Part God, part man, hyper-active and over-sexed
Gilgamesh, as far as I can gather, was a mythological hero-king of Sumerian origin. Part god, part man, hyper-active and over-sexed – a pretty apt description for the restaurant too some might argue! By all accounts, Gilgamesh ruled a few thousand years back, performing a number of heroic acts and one or two downright stupid ones, earning him a little black book of sworn enemies and spooking enough people to prompt them to build a very big wall.
It’s fair to say that Pengelley’s career has also had its ups and occasional downs. By his own admission, the chef was once in danger of becoming an enfant terrible of the British restaurant scene. But the Gilgamesh project, and what has followed, have been nothing short of phenomenal for the chef. The menu is a mixture of contemporary Pan-Asian cuisine, clearly influenced and harnessed by the food of South East Asia, China and Japan.
Food is delivered from an open stone-carved kitchen where diners can watch Pengelley and his team at work, all of which merely adds to the drama and spectacle of the Gilgamesh experience. The restaurant attracts a young, hip crowd and on most evenings you’ll find the place packed to the rafters. At weekends it’s a favourite haunt for ‘girls night outs’, though it’s a fairly well-heeled bunch so don’t be put off.
Food that matches the spectacle
It’s fair to assume that Gilgamesh won’t be everyone’s cup of lasi. Something this ambitious is never going to please everyone and you can’t help but feel that the surroundings and sweeping grandeur of the place must, at times, work against Gilgamesh in the eyes of the snootier end of the foodie brigade. With a place like this there’s always a danger that the spectacle could leave the food as little more than an afterthought. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. The food is excellent, competitively priced and more than a match for the jaw-dropping drama and razzmatazz that unfolds around you. Main courses include a mouth watering plum miso Chilean sea bass in hoba leaf and Singapore noodles and a perfectly executed duck and watermelon salad with cashew nuts and sweet fish sauce. Desserts are just as exotic with options such as green tea crème brulee with jasmine tea sorbet and banana cake with coconut ice cream.
Gilgamesh Restaurant Bar & Lounge
The Stables Market
Chalk Farm Road
Tel: +44 207 428 4922 (ext 2)