★★★★☆ / Sri Lankan

Hoppers review – the Sri Lankan verdict on Soho’s new Sri Lankan restaurant

To queue or not to queue

If you hear a deep, guttural howl of despair echoing across London, then fear not. It’s probably just me triaging my email inbox. If they gave out monetary prizes for inbox restaurant buzzword bingo, then I’d be swanning about the Maldives in a hover chariot made of moonrock. ‘Seasonal British produce’, ‘New York-style bar’, ‘gin’, ‘Michelin-inspired’, ‘pan-Asian’, ‘burgers’ and ‘chef trained by [insert name of celebrity chef here]’ are depressingly common and almost spitefully meaningless PR memes. Either it’s indicative of the low opinion that some restaurateurs and investors hold of London’s restaurant-going public or a sign that they have all the life experience and ambition of an inebriated gap year student from the Home Counties.

Thankfully, there are restaurants with more flare and ambition. Hoppers is a Sri Lankan restaurant right in the middle of Soho. Although common in some ‘far flung’ parts of London like Tooting, Sri Lankan restaurants are essentially unknown in the more central and easy to get to parts of the capital.

Hoppers is quite different from its more southerly counterparts. The wood-panelled interior is warm and inviting, as is the service. South London’s Sri Lankan restaurants tend to be far more ramshackle, both in decor and waiterly skill. However, Hoppers doesn’t take reservations and has, at most, 50 covers or so. Unless you get here early or late and have everyone in your party present, you’ll have to queue – sometimes with wait times long enough to dash down to Tooting for dinner and back again in time for dessert.

If you can time it right though, Hoppers is worth the wait. In the words of the Happy Buddha, my Sri Lankan dining companion, Hoppers is a ‘great, enjoyable experience’. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

First things first

If you order the Lamb Kothu Roti expecting the familiar fluffy disc of flat bread then you’ll initially be disappointed. It’s an eminently warming, flavoursome dish though with meaty morsels of earthy spiced lamb dotted with small feathery slices of roti and bits of scrambled egg. It could do with more lamb and roti rather than the excess of cheap cabbage and carrot filler, but it’s still a potent antidote to a cold winter’s night.

lamb kothu roti at hoppers

Gone to pieces.

The smaller dishes shouldn’t be ignored. Croquette-like mutton rolls were crispy on the outside and pleasingly earthy and meaty on the inside. The umami and lightly spiced tomato sauce on the side made it even better.

mutton rolls at hoppers

Roll with it.

mutton rolls with tomato sauce at hoppers london

Mutton chopped.

The hot butter devilled shrimps were small both in size and number, but the chunky, tingly, sweat-inducting hot sauce that they came bathed in was a very good consolation prize.

hot buttered devilled prawns at hoppers

Butter my devil.

A good counterpoint to the heat of the devilled shrimps turned out to be the brinjal moju. This dish of pickled aubergines was surprisingly fruity and sharp – pleasing enough to make me overlook the subdued nature of the eggplant pieces themselves.

pickled aubergine at hoppers

Objects in the mirror will appear far greasier than they actually are.

Desserts at many of Tooting’s Sri Lankan restaurants tend to be an afterthought, but not here. The roasted rice kulfi was not only cool and free from crunchy ice crystals, but surprisingly chewy too and literally topped with crisp rice kernels. Although the quivering jelly accompanying it was merely so-so, the firm and sweet rambutan pieces were top-notch as were the fragrant and musky sweet vermicelli noodles topped with sago. It’s a great, multi-layered, multi-faceted dessert.

roasted rice kulfi, pandan jelly, sago, vermicelli, rambutan at hoppers

Summer in winter.

Going back for seconds

If you’re a bit chicken, then your first instinct will be to avoid the chicken heart chukka. That would be a shame though – the kidney-like texture of the heart pieces was a pleasure to scoff down, even if they were interspersed with more pedestrian bits of thigh meat. They were made even better by the tingly sauce which packed a surprising amount of sweaty wallop.

chicken heart chukka at hoppers

Eat your heart out.

There aren’t any lassis available at Hoppers, but there is a curry leaf buttermilk drink which proved to be more than good enough for cooling down inflamed taste buds. Thin and lightly sour, it also had a little hint of spice to it.

curry leaf buttermilk at hoppers

The milk of human kindness.

The duck roti saw the flatbread filled with an anonymous minced meat, but this dish was still enjoyable thanks to the thin, mildly nutty and modestly spicy dipping sauce on the side.

duck roti at hoppers

Duck luck.

I’ve never been particularly taken with biryianis, but that was before I had Hoppers’ version of this classic dish. Although very tame in terms of spicy heat, the long-grained rice was moist and fragrant. The musky, succulent, gently stewed meat was occasionally joined to bits of connective tissue and accompanied by sultanas and bits of cashew. The entire layered mixture had the distinct but not overpowering taste of cardamom. A mild and buttery side curry dominated by a lone egg covered in a thin, chewy batter added more richness, while refreshing yoghurt and sharp pickled aubergine provided a palate cleansing respite.

buffalo buriani at hoppers london

Bury me in this buriani.

buffalo biryiani at hoppers

Dive in.

egg curry with biryiani at hoppers

Curry as a side dish.

Milk Hopper, Kithul Treacle and Jaggery with Durian ice cream may sound like a string of words you’ve never heard before, but it’s actually a cracking dessert. A thin, slightly sour rice flour bowl filled with treacle and musky sweet jaggery would be a treat all on its own. Add in distinctly flavoured and smooth durian ice cream though and you have a classy, balanced dessert for the ages.

milk hopper with treacle, jaggery and durian ice cream at hoppers

Bowl cut.

A sceptical Sri Lankan and issues of cultural appropriation

The Happy Buddha is not only my dining companion of Sri Lankan descent but also the only one with an appetite almost as ravenous as my own. All this made him eager to try Hoppers, even though he grumbled about the incongruity of a Sri Lankan restaurant financed and operated by the Sethis (the apparently north Indian family behind several other London restaurants including Bao) and the cultural appropriation this implies. My view is that as long as there’s no mislabelling or credit-taking and if the quality of the food is high and at least reasonably authentic, then bringing it to a wider audience is inherently a good thing – no matter who the money is.

The Happy Buddha started off rather grouchily, dismissing the mutton rolls out of hand – even though they were the same as they were before and, in my book, better than other versions of the same dish that he had introduced me to. He warmed to the hot buttered devilled prawns, although he noted that as a devilled dish the prawns should have been ‘dry’ rather than bathed in a sauce.

I could see glimmers of greater enjoyment light up The Happy Buddha’s cherubic features as he devoured the string hoppers, clods of rice flour noodles a little thicker than vermicelli. Topped with a fine-grained nutty sambal and a milky sambal that was unexpectedly coconutty to his palate, it soon disappeared in a blaze of spooning and chewing.

string hoppers at hoppers

String theory.

Hoppers is named not only after the string hoppers, but the bowl-shaped pancake-ish savoury crisp made out of fermented rice batter. Also available are the more familiar crepe-like dosas. Both were crisp yet yieldingly pliable and perfect for scooping up the curries, with the hoppers having an added sour tang.

hopper at hoppers

Hop to it.

dosa at hoppers

A dose of dosa.

Although dotted with large chunks of tender pumpkin, the red pumpkin curry was the least favoured of our kari trio as its thin, lightly sweet sauce was really neither nor there. The guinea fowl pumpkin was better with tender meat on the bone bathed in a moderately sweet and starchy sauce. The standout however was the black pork curry which greatly impressed the Happy Buddha – dense, unctuous chunks of pork in a lightly peppery and salty dry rub.

red pumpkin kari at hoppers

Pumpkin, not for bumpkins.

guinea fowl kari at hoppers

Chicken would probably have done just as well here.

black pork kari at hoppers

Sorry for some of the iffy photos, folks.

While the Happy Buddha wasn’t quite as enamoured with the lamb kothu roti as he was with the black pork curry, that didn’t stop him from hoarding large spoonfuls of the stuff. Thankfully, the balance between lamb and roti pieces on the one hand and the cheap vegetable filler on the other was tilted more in favour of the former this time around.

lamb kothu roti at hoppers soho

Kothu, Cthulhu’s friskier cousin.

Although other reviewers have waxed lyrical about the bone marrow varuval, I was far less enthused. Even after vigorous scooping, the amount and quality of bone marrow recoverable was meagre. Just give me a bucket load of the mildly spiced curry sauce and the soft, fluffy and thin roti accompaniment instead.

bone marrow varuval at hoppers

Bone of contention.

The egg hopper was literally a hopper with a runny fried egg plopped in the middle. Although breakfasty, topped with a dash of an unidentifiable spice and impossible to eat with any dignity, it was still enjoyable enough.

egg hopper at hoppers

All day breakfast.

Love cake sounds like a euphemism, but it’s actually a very light cake that tastes as if it’s been steamed rather than baked. It was rather plain and inoffensive, especially when taken with the ‘yoghurt’ kulfi – an odd ‘flavour’ given that yoghurt is more of a texture than a taste.

love cake with yoghurt kulfi at hoppers

Love cake, love life.

Happy Buddha was especially impressed with the milk hopper with treacle, jaggery and durian ice cream which was just as good as it was before. He also approved highly of the Watallapam – essentially a very light and somewhat squidgy bread and butter-esque pudding tinged with cardamom and topped with yielding nuts.

watallapam at hoppers

That’s not a very big dessert, but a very small spoon.

The Verdict

It would be temptingly easy to grade Hoppers on a curve – it is, after all, the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Soho (or indeed any centrally located part of London that I know of). There’s no need however. It’s not only more than good enough to stand on its own two feet, it’s good enough to rival its cheaper but tattier Tooting-based competition. Although not completely authentic (according to The Happy Buddha), it’s close enough that it doesn’t matter.

It also deserves praise for attempting to popularise an otherwise grossly under-appreciated cuisine, throwing down the gauntlet to the unambitious competition coasting by on menus of burgers, fried chicken and avocado on toast.  If you can grab a table without waiting an eternity, then it’s certainly worth doing so – there’s nowhere else quite like it in the capital.

What to order: Lamb kothu roti; Biryani; Hoppers, dosas and string hoppers; Pork curry; Brinjal moju; Almost all the desserts

What to skipBone marrow varuval

 

Name: Hoppers

Address: 49 Frith Street, Soho, London W1D 4SG

Phone: none listed

Web: http://www.hopperslondon.com/

Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon – 14.30 and 17.30-22.30; closed Sunday. 

Reservations: not taken

Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service: £30-35 approx. 

Rating★★★★☆

Hoppers Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Square Meal

Advertisements

5 thoughts on “Hoppers review – the Sri Lankan verdict on Soho’s new Sri Lankan restaurant

  1. Sri Lankan restaurants in tooting are God awful
    They are the equivalent of the tragic Bangladeshi restaurants in London claiming to serve Indian food

  2. Fantastic review! I’ve been keen to try out this restaurants this was recommended by many others, but a little hesitate cause of the long queue. It looks like I have to go there early and put the name down. Did you share all your food with a few others? Cheers!

  3. Pingback: Xu review – Bao spin-off brings new twists to Taiwanese food | The Picky Glutton

  4. Pingback: Hoppers review – Sri Lankan restaurant sequel finally takes reservations in Marylebone | The Picky Glutton

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.