Friday, 27 May 2022

Sarap, Mayfair

After so many *cough* (nearly 20) *cough* years living here, and nearly as many *cough* (15) *cough* writing about restaurants, it is surely something close to a miracle that London can still spring on me a genuinely new and exciting way of thinking about a particular cuisine. Filipino is one of the Cinderella foods of London - largely unsung and overlooked in the conversation about where to spend your dinner money, at least outside of a group of enthusiasts and expats, there are nevertheless a number of places doing great things. For a handy rundown of the best spots (as well as a neat summary of what Filipino Cuisine even means), I point you towards the Eater list, always a reliable place for discovering new places and/or plugging in woeful gaps in food knowledge (delete as appropriate).

I hope I'm not making too bold an assumption here but Sarap appears to be doing for the intricacies and varieties of Filipino food as Kiln does for Northern Thailand, or Lahpet for Burmese. It's a well-worn path, and one London absolutely excels at, to take authentic ingredients and traditional techniques and apply them to a modern, accessible and - dare I say it - trendy central London aesthetic. The genius of places like this - at least for the largely unitiated like myself - is that is that it doesn't matter if you know nothing about bagoong or isanal or calamansi, because the menu is shaped into a familiar arrangement of snacks, starters and mains and so you know vaguely how to order even if exactly what's going to arrive is a delightful surprise.

I was never not going to order the langoustine, and it's a pleasure to see so many of these thrusting young international bistro type places featuring their own take on the North Atlantic shellfish (see also: Kiln). At Sarap they serve theirs with aged beef fat (I mean why the hell not) and 'bagoong XO', bagoong being a fermented shrimp paste that features quite heavily in Filipino cuisine. The dressing was lovely of course, slick and satisfying with its gentle smokey beefiness and umami-rich oil, but it's worth also pointing out the langoustine itself had been timed perfectly to sweet and firm, without a hint of that mushiness or wooliness that can so easily creep in if you're not careful.

House pickles were great, especially the soft-boiled (and ever-so-gently pickled) quail's egg, an unexpectedly lovely addition which I will be looking out for on pickle selections from now onwards.

It was with the arrival of the Ensaladang Talong, though, that we realised that everything we were going to be served at Sarap would not only be exciting and unique, but thoroughly rewarding to eat. On a layer of smoked aubergine, sort of like a baba ganoush but thinner and sharper, sat a single plump slice of dark-red heritage tomato. This was topped with crumbled, salted duck egg, which not only added seasoning to the tomato and aubergine, but an extra note of creamy dairy. I don't know if the salted duck egg is a traditional Filipino thing, or something invented entirely from scratch at Heddon Street, but I do know I've not had anything like the combination before and I loved it.

I do know that pork is a mainstay of the Filipino feast and it would be a very strange thing indeed if Sarap hadn't featured it on the menu somewhere. But instead of anything as usual as roast suckling, the signature pig dish at Sarap is painstakingly boned and rolled trotter stuffed with rice and roasted to an irresistable crisp skin, the kind of thing that must involve a hundred different techniques to go exactly right at once. Sliced into neat rounds and dropped into a lovely sharp dipping sauce, this remarkable dish hit all the different pleasure points of texture and flavour contrasts, the filling of silky rice sitting next to crunchy pork rind like a kind of extra-meaty arancino, and it blew our little minds. An absolute must-order amongst must-orders.

Poussin Inasal (Inasal being a particular marinade involving lemongrass, ginger, garlic, you name it) arrived perfectly tender with a nice dark chargrilled skin, and a lick of calamansi for extra citrus. One of the more straightforward things on the Sarap menu, it still impressed with its beautifully tender flesh - and how often can you say that about restaurant chicken - and beguiling mix of herbs and spices in the marinade.

Not content with everything else, Sarap are also brilliant at cooking fish. This is turbot, neatly filleted and full of flavour, in a superb sour tomato broth studded with clams and sea vegetables.

Java Rice was ordered simply on the promise of 'mangalitsa fat', and boy it did not disappoint. On top of a mound of plump rice spiked with pickled peppers was a medallion of pork fat mixed with wild garlic. We were instructed to smush (their words) the fat into the rice so everything is coated in the herby gloss, the result being a kind of fat-washed paella (sorry just couldn't think of a better description). And yes, it was fantastic.

Not wanting the evening to end, we ordered both desserts. Burnt cassava cheesecake was our favourite, presented with macapuno (a kind of coconut as far as I can gather) whipped cream and some kind of dark green oil, maybe nasturtium. Suman, steamed glutinous rice, was interesting alright but there's something about the texture of the sticky, jellified rice that was a bit hard to get on with. But I'm sure that's just a personal thing and plenty of other people would love it.

Any even mildly curious diner could find more than enough to enjoy in Sarap, with its tastefully constructed plates of attractive ingredients, and it should easily find an audience in this part of town. But for anyone looking for something genuinely new and innovative, or for anyone who thinks London has lost its ability, post-pandemic, to take some risks and bring an often-overlooked cuisine on a new and exciting journey, Sarap is a true marvel, a unique and intelligent take on modern Filipino food that's never anything less than thrilling. I hope it has many, many bagoong-laced days ahead of it.


I was invited to Sarap and didn't see a bill, but would have been about £60/head I think

1 comment:

Funklord said...

I love your blog but it's starting to get very easy to tell which restaurants you were "invited" to?