Oxford Street’s eating options get a kick in the pants
The little patch of shops and restaurants adjacent to Selfridges known as St. Christopher’s Place used to be one of London’s dining out black spots. Full of tourist traps fronted by touts wielding laminated menus either the length of the Bible or full of badly lit food photos, St. Christopher’s Place had all the appeal of a wet sock. That has been slowly changing, first with the opening of the original Patty and Bun followed by a branch of Bone Daddies. It’s been joined by a new Hoppers, the follow-up to the Soho original. While this Sri Lankan restaurant has a somewhat bigger menu than its forebear, its main point of differentiation is that it takes reservations unlike the queue-and-be-happy-about-it original.
There are a couple of caveats to snagging a reservation at the new Hoppers. Reservations require a minimum of two diners for lunch and a minimum of four for dinner – an unusual requirement that I still suspect is a ruse to flush out anonymous restaurant reviewers. If, like most Londoners on a night out, one of your party bails out at the last minute, then prepare to wait while the front of house finds another table to accommodate your drastically renumbered party. Sarcasm aside, the wait wasn’t too odious on my visit with a reduced head count – the 15 minutes flew by as I cooled my heels at the pint-sized downstairs bar – and it’s an understandable policy given that this Hoppers, while larger than small Soho original, is still only twice as big.
First things first
Hoppers deserves credit for its interesting range of non-alcoholic drinks, even though they don’t always hit the spot. Hot Sweet Metre Tea was buttery and musky sweet with a gently spicy warmth to it. The Mango Slushie certainly had the distinct taste of mango and was refreshingly cold to boot, but the alleged additions of lime and pistachio were neither here nor there. The Euro Hedgie was unimpressed by the tepid, unconvincing citrus flavour of the Sour Orange IPA.
The Euro Hedgie, my dining companion for this first meal and new to Sri Lankan cuisine, was immediately taken with the vegetable kothu roti – as was I. Feathery soft bits of chopped roti came mixed together with slithers of bitter cabbage, and a crisp, sharp and zingy melange of coriander, red onions and spring onions. I could quite happily eat nothing but this.
Soft, pliable roti stuffed with smooth and meaty minced goat had a passing resemblance to a Turkish lahmacun. The peppery heat of the minced goat was enhanced further by the peppery heat of the curry sauce on the side for dipping (or spreading, if you prefer). Eminently satisfying.
Although a bit too bony in places, there was still enough tender meat on the chopped beef ribs to avoid feeling short-changed. The musky, earthy and peppery dry rub was sumptuous, although the sharp radishes and soft baby potatoes seemed a little out of place despite being perfectly good in their own right.
String hoppers, the bohemian devil-may-care cousin of noodles, were soft and moreish whether topped with a surprisingly refreshing coconut-based dipping curry or a coconut-based sambol which bore a faint resemblance to cheese.
Prawn kari paired plump and springy crustaceans with a creamy, lightly sweet and richly moreish sauce. The aubergine kari wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but there was still just enough fleshiness to the sheaves of eggplant. The sour and lightly umami sauce had a zingy lift as it hit the back of my throat.
I’ve come to the unsurprising conclusion that hoppers are an ingenious culinary invention. Crisp near the top, bready and tangy near the bottom. Perfect for scooping up curry and utterly, addictively moreish throughout. There are precious few other carb companions I’d rather have with my curries.
Baby back pork ribs were tender enough and coated in an aniseed-y marinade that managed to be only slightly moreish at best. The ineffectual slaw of turmeric, cashews and fennel heaped on top of the ribs didn’t fool anyone.
The dhal ghee biriani was a significant disappointment, given the pleasing birianis from the original Soho Hoppers. While the medium-grained rice was soft with a slight butteriness, this was an otherwise deeply forgettable effort with little to set it apart from bog-standard curry house efforts.
Going back for seconds
Joining me for this second meal was Happy Buddha, an invaluable aide in this instance given his background as a Londoner of Sri Lankan descent. This was therefore an inopportune moment for the kitchen to stuff up the lamb kothu roti which wasn’t anywhere as good as the vegetable-only version from my first meal. The well-judged balance of spring onions, red onions and coriander had been largely jettisoned in favour of doner-like lamb. This could’ve been fine, but the scabby flecks of flesh made it hard to appreciate the qualities of the chopped roti. Neither of us were impressed.
The mutton rolls – essentially croquettes – were better. The crisp and oil-free crumb exterior encased shreds of reasonably earthy and densely sinewy meat. Although the latter could’ve been bolder, these were highly respectable mutton rolls nonetheless.
‘Shrimp chips’ turned out to be chopped slices of noodle made from gram flour and deep-fried. The shrimp flavour was intermittent at best with the pleasing taste of gram more prevalent, making this snack a sort of modestly upgraded version of prawn crackers.
The best part about the crab curry was the curry sauce. Although mild, the thick, peppery and moreish sauce was nonetheless soothing and fortifying – perfect insulation for the long nights of autumn and winter. The crab meat, on the other hand, was merely satisfactory. As only spindly-looking legs were used, with no claws or head in sight, I’m guessing these might have been spider crabs rather than the more commonly used brown crabs. Although the curry sauce made for messy eating, the crab legs were just about worth cracking on with. Although a bit limp in places, there was enough funky and earthy leg meat to make it all worthwhile.
The fish biriani was far better than the vegetable version from my first meal. Dotted with cashews and sultanas, the soft medium-grained rice had a bolder and more consistently moreish undertone. Although small in number, the just-cooked white fish medallions were delicate and pearlescent. The protein element was bulked out by the addition of a supple-skinned battered hard-boiled egg.
The hoppers were just as good as they were before.
Happy Buddha was unfamiliar with the style of lamb chops presented to us, possibly suggesting that this dish is one of the very few on Hopper’s menu taken from elsewhere on the subcontinent. That didn’t matter too much in the grand scheme of things though – the superlative buttery tenderness of the meat was equalled only by the dry rub. Addictively umami and peppery with a subtly sweet undertone, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
The Green Papaya Crush tasted largely of salted lime soda, with little of the promised green papaya, cucumber, coriander or green chilli to be seen or tasted. That would’ve been fine – salted lime soda is a criminally under-appreciated soft drink – but for the £5 price. An overpriced and underwhelming libation.
The Wattalapam Milk was only a little better. Malt, coconut, jaggery, cinnamon and salted cashew all sound very appealing in a drink. But the resulting effect was disturbingly similar to a cup of iced Milo.
The cold brew cooler wasn’t as accomplished as the iced teas at JKS group stablemate Xu. It did have enough of a tannic presence to be refreshing and pleasing, but it needs to be more focussed on the tea rather than on the extraneous and ultimately unmemorable additional ingredients.
The only dessert on the menu at the time of writing is the Love Cake ice cream sandwich. Despite the titillating name, the end effect was of a merely satisfactory ice cream sandwiched between two merely satisfactory oaty biscuits. To say that I deeply pine for the now-departed dessert menu at the original Soho Hoppers is like saying pub floors are a bit sticky.
String Hopper Seafood Kothu may sound like just a jumble of words, but the reality was even odder. This dish of chopped string hoppers was essentially a somewhat more accomplished version of that Chinese takeaway classic, ‘Singapore’ fried noodles. The soft, short pieces of string hopper, curry powder-like flavouring, respectably decent prawns and assortment of veg were the least interesting parts of this dish. Far more enticing was the teeny soft shell crab perched on top. The earthy funk of the flesh almost took second place to the carapace and its delectable texture that somehow managed to be both chewy and crispy at the same time. The rest of this dish wasn’t bad, it just paled into comparison next to the rest of this meal and indeed many of the other dishes at Hoppers.
The vegetable kothu roti was just as good as it was before.
The bone marrow varuval was one of the most lauded dishes at the original Hoppers. While certainly warming and worth having at least once, I wasn’t swept off my feet as was the case with some other reviewers. In theory, the combination of squidgy, gelatinous bone marrow and a rich curry sauce should be a match made in Nirvana. In reality, the bone marrow tended to get lost amidst all the sauce. But what a sauce – buttery, gently spiced and thick enough to scoop with a fork. It clung to the milky, relatively thick two-ply roti (served on the side) in the same manner that a needy drunk hugs his bottle.
It was a similar story, unsurprisingly, with the hot butter devilled chipirones. The school of baby squid/cuttlefish faded away, merely providing the protein backing singers for the sauce. Tangy, sour and almost briney – the sauce really was the star of this dish.
The unexpected star of this meal had to be the sea bream. The flakes of pearlescent fish, cooked just-so, meshed beautifully with the sharp and zingy pieces of julienned green mango and the tangy onion bits. It all amounted to a richly addictive, yet refreshingly lipsmacking whole.
Every last drop of the mango and onion sambol was scooped up with the podi dosa. Thin yet pliable, easily tearable and addictively tangy – it’s easily one of the best dosas I’ve had the pleasure of scoffing.
Although thin, the masala buttermilk nonetheless packed a lactic tanginess laced with a gentle spicy kick. It was easily the best of the cold non-alcoholic drinks that I tried.
Sweet kappi, a hot drink of coffee and condensed milk, was unsurprisingly very similar to Vietnamese-style coffee which often comes braced with condensed milk. There wasn’t a lot to it, but the coffee here did have a somewhat muskier, woodier edge to it compared to the Vietnamese coffees I’ve had in London.
The second Hoppers can be, in places, surprisingly uneven. For every vegetable kothu roti or fish buriani, there’s a black pork ribs or dhal ghee buriani. Still, these speed bumps are infrequent enough for me to overlook them. Especially when there are jaw-dropping beauties on offer such as the sea bream, the lamb chops and the spot-on hoppers and podi dosas.
What’s even more remarkable is that a Sri Lankan restaurant is located in Marylebone, cheek by jowl with Oxford Street and the eye-poppingly expensive kitchen showrooms of Wigmore Street. The very idea that this rich, white and formerly very culinarily conservative part of town would be home to a Sri Lankan restaurant, and a good one to boot, would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. It may not be perfect, but in a city racked with even greater imperfections, this Hoppers’ very existence – coupled with the superlative nature of its keystone dishes – means it’s a very welcome salve for this frazzled soul.
What to order: Vegetable kothu roti; Goat roti; Sea bream; Lamb chops; Hoppers; Podi dosa
What to skip: Black pork ribs; Dhal ghee buriani; Lamb kothu roti
Branch tried: 77 Wigmore Street, Marylebone, London W1U 1QE
Phone: 0203 319 8110
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.45 and 17.30-22:30.
Reservations: taken for groups of two or more at lunch. Taken for groups of four or more at dinner. Essential.
Average cost for one person including service and soft drinks when split between two: £50 approx. (you’ll pay around £15 less if you don’t push the boat out as we did).