They say the best things in life are worth some effort. If you want some excellent food, popping to the food court at the shopping centre ain’t going to make your taste buds’ dreams come true. So when I say that you all better bloody travel to Watford, you better bloody travel to Watford. In fact, I’m probably going to be shouting about this for the rest of the year. Zone 3 just became so much trendier. Watford is the place to go. Watford is the new East London. (Just with fewer moustaches and fixies.)
All of this enthusing is due to one place: Rodells.
Rodells is more than a restaurant; it’s an institution. It’s a food haven, a theatre, a family home, an evening hang-out and a democracy.
Rodells is the kind of place where you can spend five hours enjoying a meal. Which is exactly what we did.
Admittedly, I was a little sceptical when I received an email inviting me to Watford, but as I read on, my interest was piqued. Most restaurants have a speciality, even if it’s broad and regional in scope. ‘Modern European’ or ‘Pan-Asian’ might sound familiar. My most eclectic experience was probably when I visited a restaurant in Brasov that specialised in Mexican, but also served Hungarian and Romanian (and incidentally was fantastic).
Rodells takes eclecticism to a new level. The theme: world tapas. The reason: one man called Mario Tavares.
Cooking is like taking a photograph, Mario tells us. There is that one second where everything aligns and you have a beautiful shot, and a second later, the moment’s gone.
We’re sitting in a cosy upstairs room with Monty Python projected on the back wall. Rodells is a rather characterful property on the corner of some crossroads. Downstairs is a bar and some wooden counter seating, and larger restaurant tables are dotted around the two upstairs rooms.
Spending his early years in Macau, Mario moved to London just before his teens. However, the capital couldn’t contain him: he travelled the world as musician and film producer, playing for Motorhead, Paul Young and Keith Allen when he was a stand-up. During his adventures, he did what any self-respecting foodie would do and ate his way through a variety of cuisines. Yet Mario took his love of food one step further: he tracked down recipes.
‘I do a Thai green curry that’s not a Thai green curry,’ he tells us, perched at our table. ‘I learned the recipe in Kerala.’ It’s the kind of story that makes you blink twice. Whilst on the beach, he had been approached by a guy who sold three items: coconut oil, green curry and sunglasses. Brave or reckless – take your pick – Mario tried the curry and was blown away to the point where he pestered the man for the recipe.
Mario is clearly as creative as his background and the surrounds suggest. Food for him is ‘performance’; it’s an art form. Before he creates anything, he visualises it clearly in his mind. The theatrics extend to visitors’ dining experiences. Originally, each table had a blackboard built into them, each with a different menu. People had to strategically choose their menu depending on what they wanted to eat. For a past Valentine’s Day event, Mario hired an actress to sit drinking wine alone at a table. Whenever anyone went to the toilet, she would follow them and have an angry conversation on her phone at her good-for-nothing boyfriend who’d stood her up. This idea is so cheeky and hilarious that I grin every time I think of it.
As for the menu, we weren’t quite prepared for the scope of it: Korean, English, Portuguese, Louisianan, Caribbean, Cuban, Mexican, Thai, Malaysian, Indian, Spanish, Lebanese, Cantonese… the list goes on.
Arriving at Rodells, we had been greeted by a tall, good-looking young man, who thankfully insisted on talking us through the list of world cuisines.
‘I’m very into food,’ he said.
‘I’ve come to the right place,’ I thought.
Choosing what to order was agony. Today’s menu contained no less than 28 tapas dishes and three larger dishes. As an obsessive foodie, I got out my biro and began marking ‘definites’ and ‘potentials’, whilst grilling our waiter, Louis, on his preferences. The menu changes daily; Mario’s repertoire consists of 130 dishes that he has collected over the years. He has two assistant chefs, Louis informed us, but they can only cook four dishes to the right standard. We all try them and vote whether they’re good enough, he explained. What a lovely gastronomic democracy.
In the end, we ordered one of the ‘mains’ that Louis raved about – flat iron steak (£14.50). This was served beautifully rare with a delicate pepper cream sauce and some of the best frites that we’ve had in a while – frites that actually tastes of potatoes rather than crispy air. The steak was clearly fantastic quality but had been a little over-enthusiastically peppered, which detracted from the flavour of the beef itself. Fortunately, the cream sauce did much to alleviate any mouth-burning and was also delicious in its own right.
Next up, we had ‘mac n cheese sushi style’ (£8). Before you wrinkle your nose with revulsion, let me state now that no raw fish was mixed with cheese or pasta! The macaroni cheese is cooked, then rolled in breadcrumbs into a cylindrical shape and sliced like sushi. Each delicate ‘sushi’ piece is then topped with a blob of sweet mustard sauce. Not being the biggest macaroni cheese fan in the world and highly wary of ordering pasta out in this country, we only chose this based on rave reviews from previous bloggers and being assured it was a ‘favourite’.
One mouthful and its popularity suddenly made sense. It was not the rubbery, chewy lump I had expected but was soft with perfect consistency. The cheese, in our opinion, was a little too strong for the dish, but we fully enjoyed the concept: it’s rare that a single dish becomes an experience in itself.
Next up, we tucked into another customer favourite – ‘nonya chicken curry’ (£6), described as the ‘sexiest curry in the world’. Nonya – or nyonya – is a Malaysian curry that’s prepared by women for women. Women feeding women? How could that not be sexy?! Seriously, and with all mildly crass jokes aside, this curry had a very sexy flavour. It was mild but rich, with faint hints of lemongrass. The chicken was a little dry, but the sauce was so amazing that I would happily eat this every day. I would drink it for breakfast.
Along came a jambalaya with prawns and chorizo (£6). The rice was cooked to perfection and pepped well with fresh oregano. Sadly, the chorizo was bland and so there was little smoky, garlicky, paprika flavour to permeate the rice. This was the only disappointment for me.
For the savoury dishes, we finished off with a Portuguese stifado (£6), which Mario sometimes also calls Greek stifado as the dish is also found there. This is a beef stew that’s wonderfully flavoured with cassia bark – like a warmer, less sweet and earthier variation of cinnamon. It’s a dish that is truly comforting and is popular across the ages.
The dessert menu was profoundly traumatic. There was far too many delicious things begging to be sampled. In the end, we ordered three desserts – purely for quality control purposes. Obviously. Ahem.
The brownies (£4.50) were pleasant yet unremarkable, but the lemon and ginger cheesecake (£4.50) was marriage material. The base was crisp and thin and the flavours were so expertly balanced that the lemon and ginger pulled off a perfect duet in my mouth, scoring a 10.
Concluding the munchathon, we delved into possibly one the tastiest carrot cakes in the world (£4.50). It was again harmonious with warm spice cut by beautiful sweet icing. This is the kind of cake that would audition other cakes to get into cake heaven.
If food is performance, then Mario has mastered his ingredients well – they sing and dance to the taste buds. Occasionally, they might miss the odd beat but the show remains a stunning success.
Rodells 4.5/5 – Brilliant tapas-style dishes from around the world in a homey setting. Bring your friends and dig in!