Pigging out with the Filipino restaurant that moved from Brixton to Mayfair
Names are funny things. In French and Italian, you don’t just have ‘restaurants’. There’s a whole system of names for eateries, from bistro and brassiere to osteria and trattoria. The higher up the hierachy one goes (and it’s inevitably a hierarchy), the more formal, elaborate and pricier the food one should expect.
Although English isn’t completely devoid of such a system – see caffs and diners – the word ‘restaurant’ is still expected to describe a broad variety of eating places, a task for which it is not especially well-equipped. Marketing and industry spaffspeak, from fine dining to fast casual, picks up the slack somewhat – at least for those in the know.
Sarap Bistro, the latest incarnation of a Filipino residency that first appeared in Brixton, is perhaps oddly named. The term ‘bistro’ might lead you to expect staples like adobo, pancit and lumpia rather than pricier dishes the likes of lechon – a whole suckling pig, the very definition of a convivial feasting dish.
Perhaps in reaction to this ostensible discrepancy, Sarap Bistro has replaced its a la carte menu with a set menu while retaining its lechon feasting option. For historical/rubbernecking purposes, this review will also cover the old a la carte menu which had the likes of steak from ex-dairy cows and whole bream stuffed with a wet longganisa-style sausage.
So, put aside your preconceptions born from the flattening semantics of the language of Love Island and you’ll be amply rewarded.
Whole suckling pig at Sarap Bistro
The star attraction at Sarap Bistro has to be the lecon – whole suckling pig stuffed with lemongrass and truffled rice, roasted and carved by your tableside. This isn’t a spur-of-the moment dinner, as it has to be booked by phone at least two days in advance. You’ll also need to round up some mates – weighing in at around 4.5kg, boneless, there was enough pig for four heaped platefuls (although one of those is for the head). It took the combined efforts of myself, Tarmac Guts, Road Runner, Crispy Rendang, Wind-up Merchant and the Duchess of Wales to tackle it – and even then there were a few morsels and a dead-eyed head that we just didn’t have room for.
Pigging out on the lechon was hardly a chore though. Crisp then delicately chewy crackling was, just by itself, a lacquer-like layer of exquistie craftsmanship. The white flesh underneat was consistently, evenly succulent and milky, while the soft, small-grained rice had an understated yet unmistakable umami that complimented rather than detracted from the pork’s ample charms.
The set menu at Sarap Bistro
Crisp, crunchy wafers of chicken skin had a surprisingly delicate yet meaty undertone that was richly evocative of chook. Sweet, tangy dipping sauce wasn’t strictly necessary, but hardly detracted from the chicken crackling’s cracking charms.
The scallop with XO sauce had been refined in leaps and bounds from the prototype a la carte version (detailed below in the following section). Meatier, plumper and more evocative of the sea, it was deftly complimented by the salty umami and touch of spicy heat in the XO sauce.
Although the hash brown made from cassava didn’t taste especially distinctive, its crisp crunchiness did make for a somewhat unusual conveyor for the briney caviar.
The carrot kare kare was reminiscent of Quality Chop House’s iconic confit potato in appearance with its neatly stacked layers of crisp, thin carrot sheaves. Its pleasing aesthetics was backed up by taste with a tahini-like sauce lending a delicate nutty umami to every mouthful.
Inky consomme held a deep, addictive savouriness laced with the distinctive taste of smoked ham hock. Showing off even further, the kitchen added a heap of ‘noodles’ made from squid that was not only firm and bouncy, it somehow soaked up some of the consomme for a truly remarkable combination of intense flavour and mouth-pleasing texture.
The only bits of the pig that you don’t get when ordering the whole lechon are the trotters, as they’re cleaved off, set aside for deep frying and served as an optional extra on the set menu for an extra £8. It’s worth having as a consolation prize if you can’t rustle up enough people to share the lechon.
Except it’s hardly second best – underneath the thin, crispy crust was an unctuously fatty undertow as well as seams of squidgy, gelatinous tendon and sticky clumps of soft, small-grained rice.
Sweetcorn bitanog is usually a dessert, but here Sarap had reworked it as a savoury course. It didn’t really work though, as it was far too much like canned creamed corn, except with hints of burnt coconut.
While the mackerel escabeche was reasonably meaty and tangy, this fish dish was overwhelmed by the domineering umami of the tomato sauce which made for a lopsided experience.
Roasted potatoes, charred to a crackling crisp on the outside while puffy on the inside, also had the benefit of deep-fried shallots which imparted an umami crunch.
A plate of duck featured in the bird in two forms. The first was a reasonably crispy lumpia filled with what I’m reasonably certain was a mix of modestly earthy duck offal. The second was a strip of dense, lightly smoky breast that was largely pleasing despite the somewhat tough skin. I would also have preferred more extant fat. Still, it was enlivened by the intense citrusy sour tang of the calamansi sauce and by the thin, delicately crisp chard.
Although kale braised in ginger, garlic and chilli sounds potentially overpowering, it was actually remarkably well-balanced while being distinctively flavoursome. Lightly spicy and surprisingly unctuous, it was almost liked creamed spinach but far, far more scrumptious.
A bowl of soft, small-grained rice was graced with a dollop of spiced butter. While its potency varied, at its best it packed a distinctively citrusy heat into the fluffy little grains.
While the cassava tart isn’t the best of Sarap’s attempts at a cassava-based dessert, it’s not without its charms. The reasonably sweet and starchy filling was complimented well by the refreshing coconut sorbet which itself tasted reasonably true to the fruit. The whole affair was let down by the wan pastry though.
Starters a la carte at Sarap Bistro
Sarap Bistro is very much a restaurant for carnivores and pescatarians. While there aren’t many vegetable dishes, with most of those nestled amidst the starters, those that are present are remarkably well-crafted.
Pureed aubergine had a smokiness and smoothness that would make any baba ghanoush flush with jealousy. Topping it with sweet, tart tomatoes and rich, fluffy scrambled duck eggs might seem like overkill, but the pleasingly coherent and layered complexity of this eggplant dish seemed inevitable, fated, like the azure hue of the sky or the heady aroma of petrichor after a summer storm.
Sarap’s trout kinilaw easily outshines most of the ceviches and other such comparable dishes in London. Meaty cubes of fish came swimming in a fruity sweet yet milky sauce. Its lipsmacking complexity was the unfulfilled promise of so many ceviches finally given form.
A selection of fleshy and tart pickled vegtables made for the perfect counterpart to some of the heavier mains, with only the attempt at devilled quail eggs letting the side down.
The scallop was by far the weakest of the starters, and not just because you only get just one mollusc. Although the scallop itself was relatively plump, the surprisingly meek XO sauce didn’t live up to its aged beef fat billing.
The steak tartare wasn’t radically different from other examples of this dish, while also holding up very well against them. Thick, yet tender and gently chewy, with a moreish undertone.
Mains a la carte at Sarap Bistro
A whole bream had been cooked just-so, its glossy, moist sheaves of meat flaking and shivvying apart with ease. Nestled at the centre of the seamlessly deboned fish was a crimson-hued sausage. Comparable to nduja in its paste-like texture, but with only a meek spiciness to its name, it was arguably a little too mild to leave much of an impression. It did add a subtle richness to the already sumptous bream, which contrasted well with the sharp, refreshingly crisp salad.
An 800g helping of aged ex-dairy cow sirloin was a remarkble slab of beef. Underneath its well-browned exterior were thick, dense and glossy medallions, so purple that the colour would fit right in on a cardinal’s robes. Many were lined with sumptous helpings of fat. Its mouth-coating umami was deep enough that the weakness of the calamansi-tinged soy sauce on the side was hardly an issue.
Desserts a la carte at Sarap Bistro
A wedge of cassava cheesecake had a level of caramelisation worthy of a flan or creme caramel, but with a denseness that helped make it especially filling. Its cossetting charms were enhaced by the floral sweetness of a light cream on the side, apparently derived from young coconut rather than the pandan that I initially thought.
A steamed parcel of sticky rice was smooth and tightly packed, with nary a single grain going astray. Although not as satisfying as the cassava cheesecake, each grain was tinged with a mild sweetness as well as hints of caramel and coconut. It was all decent enough, but it won’t be entering my personal pantheon of rice-based desserts (mango sticky rice, mochi and an old school rice pudding, if you must know), any time soon.
Sarap isn’t really a bistro, at least not in the traditional by-the-books, cheap-and-cheerful sense. The kitchen isn’t afraid to put its own playful, imaginative spin on Filipino classics which, when it works, can be deliciously delightful. The thing is that one too many dishes don’t always hit the spot and some of the humdingers from the old a la carte menu (and indeed the old Brixton menu) haven’t made the transition (yet?) to the set menu.
Even so, Sarap is still well worth experiencing and that’s before we get to the suckling pig. This barnstorming love song to the carnivorous arts is both elegantly crafted with care and restraint, as well as a rambunctiously sensual delight that goes snout-to-snout with the Segovian-style suckling pig available from Sabor just around the corner.
So, while Sarap has definitely evolved from its earlier Brixton incarnation, there’s still plenty of room for further refinement. While doing so, I hope they don’t lose their boldness and inventive verve. After all, ‘sarap’ means ‘delicious’. Whether it’s in Brixton, Mayfair or elsewhere, that name should mean something. And for once, and on more than one occasion, it does. It really does.
Name: Sarap Bistro
Address: 10 Heddon Street, Mayfair, London W1B 4BX
Phone: 020 3488 9769
Opening Hours: Tuesday 18.00-22.30. Wednesday-Thursday noon-15.00 and 18.00-22.30. Friday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 18.00-23.00. Closed Sunday and Monday. Last orders 14.15 and 21.15.
Average cost for one person, including soft drinks, when shared between two: £75 approx.
Whole suckling pig: £70 a person when shared between six.