Thursday, 29 October 2015
The Sethi family's first restaurant in London was Trishna, in Marylebone. It's a great restaurant, Indian fine dining that isn't just about serving the same old curry house classics with while tablecloths and a wine list, but reinventing the cuisine from the ground up with superb ingredients, luxurious spicing and a staggering attention to detail. It's still one of my favourite places to eat out, and in fact I've got a big table booked for my birthday next month.
Next, along with Sandia Chang and James Knappett they opened Bubbledogs, a hot dogs and grower champagne concept that seems like a ludicrous idea before you're sat there eating great hot dogs and drinking grower champagne and then it all makes sense. It's still hugely popular. And soon after the Kitchen Table opened out back, 19 seats arranged around an open kitchen serving a seasonal tasting menu which won a Michelin star last year.
Then came Gymkhana in Mayfair, which was greeted like the second coming by London's critics and bloggers (myself included). And quite rightly too, because it's utterly brilliant. That, too, won a Michelin star. Then came Lyle's, where head chef James Lowe serves his St. John-inspired menu of modern British food, full of personality and punch and in one of London's lovelier dining rooms. And you'll know about Bao, their next project, which introduced London to the wonders of Taiwanese buns and still has them queuing down Lexington Street all day every day. Because it is also brilliant.
The latest project from the Sethis is Hoppers, and it's rubbish. Only joking, it's brilliant, just like all the others, and not just brilliant but unique and stylish and innovative and all the other hallmarks of a venture from the family with the Midas touch. The theme this time is Sri Lankan, a cuisine Londoners may have come across in certain spots in Tooting (Jaffna House is good) but is still fairly unknown to most people. Hoppers does it so well that it makes you wonder why nobody has tried to do this kind of thing to Sri Lankan food before, but then that's the genius of the Sethis, to reinvent a cuisine for modern audiences, keeping the traditional core flavours and techniques but creating something genuinely new and exciting.
Every corner of the menu is a surprise and a delight. "Cashew, cassava & ash plantain fry" is nuts and crisped vegetables dusted with a disastrously addictive powerful chilli powder, with a separate chilli sauce for dipping. The heat has you gasping but the flavour has you coming back for more.
Bonemarrow "Varuval" came with a special tool for scraping out the tender marrow from the cute little bones, in a sauce so complex and richly enjoyable it would have been a reason to visit by itself. To soak it up, a fresh roti, flaky and buttery like a savoury croissant, which of course we fought over before ordering another one (at a pathetic £1.25 each, I suggest you do the same). And a little bowl of chicken heart "chukka" had more dense, powerful spicing to compliment the gloriously tender chunks of offal.
There's nothing about "hot butter devilled shrimps" that doesn't scream "eat me", and this was another stunning dish, huge bouncy prawns wrapped in a silky sauce spiked with chilli, curry leaves and pickled green peppercorn.
And still the best was yet to come. The house signature dish is of course the hopper, a bowl-shaped dosa-type pancake thing which for an extra 50p comes with a soft-yolked egg baked into it. With this we chose the guinea fowl "kari" (Tamil for "curry"), beautifully moist and tender drumsticks in another knockout sauce that I'd walk through fire to eat again.
Better even than that though was the black pork kari, chunks of pork so tender they almost dissolve in the mouth, in a thick, sticky sauce that brought to mind the Tayyabs' "dry meat". It's hard to imagine there's a better way of spending £5.50 in London right now; this was a world class curry, almost impossibly good.
It's impossible, too, to overstate just how much of an achievement Hoppers is for everyone involved. As an introduction to Sri Lankan cuisine, it could very easily kickstart a city-wide obsession to rival the burger or BBQ craze. As the latest jewel in the crown of the Sethi empire it proves that these extraordinary people, far from running out of ideas six restaurants in are actually becoming bolder and more innovative, and have another well-deserved hit on their hands.
But more important than all that, Hoppers is just a fantastic place to sit and have your dinner. A beautiful room staffed by people whose genuine enthusiasm for their product shows with every interaction, and a menu so comprehensively enticing it makes you want to order and eat everything on it again and again and again. Nothing about my meal there could be faulted, and so all I can do is award it full marks, and urge you to go and try it yourself as soon as you possibly can. The only remaining question is, what even more wonderful thing could the Sethis possibly come up with next?