This six-month residency needs to become permanent
We all have friends that say the stupidest, most regrettable things. Jaw-dropping comments that almost make you regret befriending them in the first place. In the case of one of my dining companions, his self-professed dislike for pork and ‘samey Asian food’ is a black mark against an otherwise eloquent and reasoned individual. The latter is especially ridiculous given the blanket use of the term ‘Asian’, encompassing a geography that stretches from the Bosphorus in the west all the way to the Philippine Sea in the east, from Korea in the north to Sri Lanka in the south. That’s a vast, dizzying array of richly diverse cuisines to dismiss out of hand. Even if you arbitrarily restricted the range of that already arbitrary term to mean just South East Asia, you’d still be missing out on an endlessly rewarding world of food that could nourish you for several lifetimes.
None of that was enough to convince my wilfully blind dining companion to try Sarap, a Filipino restaurant on a six-month residency in Brixton’s Market Row. His loss was a gain for myself and other dining companions, such as Kangaroo Face. While there are a small number of other Filipino restaurants in London, Sarap is unusual in having a particularly short and focussed menu – almost certainly driven in part by its small kitchen.
The results were eye-opening.
Main courses at Sarap
If you eat just one thing at Sarap, then make it in the lechon liempo. This heap of roasted pork belly was one of the most delicious, rewarding things I’ve ever eaten. Lean, dense and moist cubes of pig were interspersed with fattier, more succulently unctuous cuts. As if that wasn’t enough accomplished variation in porcine goodness, the crackling was indecently exquisite – each and every one of the ribbed amber curlices was crisp, crunchy, fatty and endlessly moreish. Although the sauce made from pork liver was thin, it was potently earthy which added yet another layer of sophisticated flavour. Despite the multifaceted richness of this dish, its simmering, quivering potency never became overwhelming – helped in part by the tart, sour and crisp pickled veg which proved highly effective as a palate cleanser. Sarap’s lechon isn’t just one of the best pork dishes in London, it’s one of the most delightful, accomplished dishes of any kind that you can eat in this city.
Jackfruit and potato adobo sounds like a second-rate pork substitute for vegetarians. But while it didn’t ascend the same heady heights as the lechon, it was by no means a waste or a dud. The tender, fleshy pulp was almost like aubergine but it would’ve been far less enjoyable without the sauce. Gently sweet then tart, before segueing into a musky moreishness, its nuanced layering of flavours was remarkable.
Fillets of light yet meaty fish came in a sweet, tart and mildly creamy sauce. This main was enjoyable enough on its own terms, but it paled into comparison next to the jackfruit and the lechon. Plus, the fillets themselves were on the small side – arguably too small for a main.
Starters at Sarap
The appetisers at Sarap caters most richly for carnivores. The batter of the deep-fried chicken wings was occasionally thick and crunchy, but was mostly soft, thin and lightly moreish. The scarlet glaze was lightly sweet and tangy, somewhat akin to Anglicised sweet-and-sour sauce but far less cloying. A surprisingly restrained fried chicken dish and all the better for it.
Given the staggering quality of the lechon, it was no surprise that the pork skewers were dense and meaty affairs with a firm bite and tender follow-through. The lightly sweet and tangy marinade was somewhat reminiscent of the fried chicken glaze, but it was the dipping/pouring vinegar to the side that really caught my attention. Simultaneously sharp and mellow, it was a beguiling delight and really needs a more complimentary canvas to show off its qualities. Its charms were somewhat lost amidst the textural delights of the skewered pork.
Kinilaw is the Filipino equivalent of ceviche. Sarap’s version had lightly chewy chunks of meaty fish bathed in a lip smackingly tangy marinade tinged with hints of vinegar, citrus and possibly ginger. The garnishes of lightly spicy chilli and sharp, sweet pineapple were fine, but a tad superfluous. All the purveyors of third-rate ceviches in this town – of which there are far too many – need to eat this kinilaw and realise the error of their ways.
Precisely rendered chunks of celeriac, with just the right balance between a firm bite and a yieldingly tender follow through, came in a gently creamy and umami sauce. The latter never outstayed its welcome by straying into clammy, cloying territory. Celeriac is a much abused vegetable in our allegedly vegetarian/vegan friendly era – this dish shows how it should be prepared and served.
The wobbliest of Sarap’s small plates was still far more enjoyable than the very best of the starters at so many other London restaurants. The ticklish spicy warmth of two whole chilli peppers came encased in deep-fried spring roll pastry. Although the heavy pastry was something of a bludgeon on the palate, the oil-free crunch of that pastry was remarkable. It’s a shame it wasn’t absorbent enough to soak up the zesty tang of the the dipping sauce on the side though.
Desserts at Sarap
The only dessert at Sarap, at the time of writing, is a cassava tart. The pastry was frustratingly inconsistent – papery and almost like cardboard in places, then softer with a greater moreishness in others. The filling was consistently pleasing however – soft, sweet and starchy, almost like a cross between coconut and semolina with a touch of banana. The crowning glory was a crème brûlée-like crackling, its gentle snap and crackle contrasting neatly with the softness of the filling.
Despite the spate of restaurant closures shredding London’s restaurant market, as well as the seemingly inherent conservatism of the British palate as exemplified by my nameless dining companion mentioned at the beginning of this review, I remain optimistic that there’s room for restaurants like Sarap. Bringing an under-appreciated cuisine to life with such verve, vigour and vivacity is tough at the best of times. Doing so in a restaurant market as challenging as London’s and with a six-month countdown on the clock must be even tougher. The results are nevertheless thrilling and Sarap’s full house on all my visits is a testament to its well-deserved popularity.
While there’s no shortage of delights to be had at Sarap, the star is undoubtedly that lust-inducing roast pork. To my nameless dining companion who continues to doubt the value of both pork and ‘Asian’ food, all I can say are words borrowed from Edgar Mitchell: I want to grab him by the scruff of his neck, drag him down to Sarap in Brixton and plonk him down in front of a plate of that lechon. “Look at that, you son of a bitch!”
Address: 14D Market Row, Cold Harbour Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8LD
Phone: 020 7459 4274
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Friday 18.00-23.00. Saturday noon-16.00 and 18.00-23.00. Sunday noon-16.00. Closed Monday.
Average cost for one person, including soft drinks, when shared between two: £35-40 approx.