Friday, 17 March 2017

Lahpet, London Fields

If you were ever coming to this blog looking for informed insight or intelligent food discussion, well you were always on a hiding to nothing. But I like to think that my exposure to the vast numbers of British, French, Spanish and Indian restaurants in London has meant at least I stand a better chance of saying something useful about those cuisines, even if occasionally just by accident, than most others. I'm getting better at Sichuan, I'm OK at Mexican, I can just about get away with stringing a few words together on Vietnamese or Thai, but Burmese?

But I can't feel too self-conscious about the fact I knew next to nothing about Burmese food before stepping foot into Lahpet because, let's face it, there aren't too many Burmese food experts knocking around anywhere outside Burma. Thanks to a military dictatorship and decades of global political isolation, this huge SE Asian country is only just now becoming known to the world, and the delights (or otherwise) of Burmese cuisine has yet to filter through to Western consciousness. The practical upshot of which is that I can be even more blithely ignorant than usual without feeling even the least bit guilty about it.

Lahpet, then, is a Burmese restaurant in London Fields, just over the road from where Som Saa did its own SE Asian thing all those years ago. It is unfortunately cursed with huge communal tables - enough to strike the fear of God into this particular diner - but fortunately on a quiet Wednesday night we had plenty of space to ourselves and didn't have to share any personal space. The menu is short, and not too baffling - a few words here and there that didn't mean much but generally not too indimidating to a Burmese food newcomer (which will be more or less everyone) and fairly keenly priced.

We ordered a couple of "fritters", two mains and - because they sounded interesting - all the sides. They offered to bring the "sun dried anchovies" side first, as they thought they would make a good snack. They sort of did - dry, crisp, with a bit of a chilli kick and plenty of umami flavour - but the pieces of anchovy were very tiny and quite difficult to scoop up, and felt more of a dressing or topping than a snack in their own right.

Fritters were fine but fairly unmemorable. Neither the triangles of fried tofu or the kidney bean "Mandalay" tasted of a great deal, and the provided tamarind sauce was underpowered and too thin to cling to the fritters when dipped in. Nice textures, but not much else.

Fortunately, the tea leaf salad was well worth the effort. Full of crunch and colour, shot through with Spanish-style dry-fried broad beans and sesame seeds, it would be vibrant and rewarding even without the tea leaf itself, which was pickled or fermented in some way as to produce an incredibly satisfying complex flavour. If this is Burmese cuisine, then consider me a fan.

Mains as of themselves were good - very good, in fact - but we could have probably done with a bit more guidance on ordering. I liked the look of the "hake masala" on paper, and enjoyed it very much in reality, the first being firm and meaty (if a tad on the dry side), and the masala sauce thick and rich. It all felt vaguely Indian, vaguely Malaysian, which I suppose is understandable given Burmese geographic borders.

Unfortunately, in their wisdom Lahpet advised us to order the coconut chicken noodles as our second main, which turned out to be dressed in exactly the same thick masala sauce as the hake. And despite the chicken itself being cooked perfectly well and a nice contrast between the normal wet noodles in the sauce and some crunchy dried noodles on the side of the bowl, eating both mains at the same time just ended up being a bit... samey. Maybe all of the Lahpet main courses come in the same sauce - maybe it's a Burmese thing. But if not, it's a strange thing to deliberately suggest.

And even stranger was the arrival of a second "side", another small sample of dried seafood (shrimp this time though the flavour wasn't markedly different), presented in another glass ashtray, defying use or explanation. If there was something I should have been doing with my two bowls of seafood crackling other than scooping them into my mouth with a slightly baffled expression on my face then, well, nobody made it obvious.

We didn't stay for "deserts" (sic) - the homemade ice creams sounded intriguing but they'll have to wait for another time. Because - and this may come as a bit of a surprise given my moaning above - I think I probably will be back to Lahpet. Despite the awkward way it was served and explained, there was something genuinely new going on here, perhaps not enough to herald a Burmese revolution in London but certainly enough to indicate that this is a cuisine that will impress more and more as it finds its feet - and an audience. As for the thorny question of authenticity, who knows - perhaps I'll leave it to actual experts like Burmese cookbook author MiMi Aye to have a look at the menu above and see how closely it represents anything from the home country. Meantime, I'll scurry back to my comfort zone and leave them to it. Have the salad. It's nice.



Anonymous said...

it's a shame that the braised pork wasn't on when you went, that's what i had & it was delicious. saying that though, i loved all of it (used the shrimp relish as a topping on everything) & if you do go again, have the banana dessert: my friend lost her mind over it

MiMi Aye (@meemalee) said...

Sounds like they're having the odd teething problem, but I'm sure it'll settle down, and it's such a credit to them that they've gone from a stall in Maltby Street to a proper restaurant!

To address some of your points - so the dry seafood relishes (a-ngun-kyaw) should be served as a side with or a topping for rice.

A-ngun-kyaw (sometimes also called dry balachaung) doesn't go on or in anything else and is certainly not meant to be eaten as a stand-alone, so the thought of you struggling to scoop it up made me laugh a bit (sorry!).

I'd compare it to Japanese garnish furikake.

As for the mains, though masala dishes aren't what I would have chosen myself to represent Burmese cuisine (we don't use masala much), and the ohn-no khao swè aka coconut noodles shouldn't really taste "curried" at all, I think the chef is Indo-Burmese, so I guess this is his twist?

Shan tofu is notoriously hard to get right, so I'd give them a break. When it's good, it's as addictive as crack :)

I'm hoping to come try the restaurant myself soon, but it's a little bit out of the way for me.

I'm glad you loved the lahpet salad! I could live on that stuff :)

You should go check out the Shan State on Shaftesbury Avenue as well - menu is an Asian mish-mash, but the Burmese and Shan dishes which they *do* have are brilliant.

Lahpet said...

Thank you for coming to review us Chris!

We wanted to respond briefly to parts of your valued feedback.

Our current premises are only a temporary home - most likely to be so for the next year or so; we are therefore somewhat limited by the fixtures and fittings already in situ but do try to keep as much space as possible between parties of guests – even during our busiest periods.

The Hake Masala was new on the menu this week. We are glad you enjoyed it and your point about it being similar to the coconut noodles is noted! The sauces however are only similar in that they are both coconut based. We won’t be suggesting the two dishes to accompany each other as mains moving forward but just for the avoidance of doubt - none of our dishes come with the same sauce.

Thanks again and we do hope you'll return and give us another chance.

Best wishes


Its Me Again said...

I am now looking at another countries food, London is the coolest city, is it not. The anchovies and what not remind me of smiling fish, which is a brand of similar, I buy from S.E. Asia etc. supermarkets. I actually made some butter chicken tonight, Gordons Home Cooking, very nice! Another interesting review, keep em coming:)

Its me yet again said...

P.S. great follow up/feed back comments also