★★★★☆ / Burmese

Lahpet West End review – a taste of Burma in Covent Garden

A tantalising array of skewers, salads and seafood that’d you be a fool to miss out on

Special thanks to MiMi Aye, author of Burmese cookbook Mandalay, for proofreading this review.

‘Burmese food isn’t as good as Thai food’ has to be one of the strangest and dappiest things another British person has ever said to me – at least in the realm of food. Perhaps it’s because British food is so frequently the butt of international jokes that a Brit would somehow feel both entitled and comfortable in ranking the culinary traditions of entire cultures, as if they were choosing between different TVs in Currys or pondering whether to go full- or half-board on a fortnight in Magaluf.

Rather than pitting cuisines against one another, I find it far more interesting to ask why they’re different from one another and what they have in common. To state the obvious, Burmese food shouldn’t be seen in isolation but as the product of continuous cultural exchange with its immediate neighbours (and indeed the wider world). The prevalence of Indian breads and Yunnanese-style tofu is testament to this. The vibrant salads are just as sophisticated as the more familiar som tam. The noodle soups blend so many seemingly disparate elements into harmonious yet contrast-filled multifaced bowlfuls. While the balachaung and lahpet (more on these in a bit) indicate an enviably deft approach to fermenting and pickling. The fritters show an equally skilled approach to deep frying.

Now, this is the point where this introduction comes undone slightly. I don’t really have any profound insights into why Burmese cuisine is the way it is as I’m neither an ethnographer or a culinary historian (although I sometimes cosplay as both). It is for minds brighter and more experienced than mine to opine on how the verdant biomes of the country, and the privations it has suffered under decades of dictatorship, have affected its gastronomy.

And Lahpet West End, the Covent Garden outpost of the original Shoreditch restaurant, probably doesn’t want to carry the can as the representational avatar for an entire gastronomic tradition that spans the country’s 130 or so ethnic groups, if only because of their relatively short menu.

Even so, I challenge you to try the salads, fritters and fish dishes at Lahpet and think that they are in any way inferior to anything from anywhere else.

Salads at Lahpet West End

The eponymous laphet salad was a great improvement over the version of the same dish at the original Shoreditch restaurant. Here the pickled tea leaves were far less hard going on my teeth. Tumbled together with tomato, chilli, dried shrimp, peanuts and garlic, it all made for a moreish, lightly tangy and gently crunchy combination that left me panting for more.

illustrative photo of the tea leaf salad at Lahpet West End
Lahpet thohk.

The ginger salad had a similar level of nuttiness and crunch, acting – surprise! – as a conveyor for the light taste of ginger. It was never overpowering though – comparable to say the level of potency in Japanese gari rather than a barrel of homemade ginger marmalade from your overenthusiastic gran.

illustrative photo of the ginger salad at Lahpet West End
Gin thohk.

The weakest of Lahpet’s salads had to be its green tomato effort. On one occasion, it managed to be nothing more than squidgy and gently sweet. On another, the slices of fruit were firmer and somewhat more tart. Neither were especially memorable.

illustrative photo of the green tomato salad at Lahpet West End
Khayan chin thi thohk.
illustrative photo of the green tomato salad at Lahpet Covent Garden
Tired green tomatoes.

Fritters, skewers, pickles and side dishes at Lahpet West End

While the fritters made from split peas or sweetcorn and shallot were decent enough, they were ultimately rather meek efforts – especially when compared to their stablemate made from Shan tofu. As this tofu is made from split peas rather than soya beans, it strongly resembles chickpea-based panelle when deep fried. This was hardly a bad thing though – yieldingly puffy then soft and fluffy, you wouldn’t know that these little beauties had been deep-fried.

illustrative photo of the fritters at Lahpet West End
A-kyaw.

Skewers of grilled chicken thigh chunks were sumptuous enough to put some of the so-called yakitori in this town to shame. Firm and bouncy, then with a tender and juicy follow-through and a hint of smoke, each mouthful was a delight.

illustrative photo of the chicken skewers at Lahpet West End
Cluck me.

Skewered prawns were not only plump and succulent, they also had funky and slurp-worthy head gunk as well as a hint of char. They were easily just as superlative as the chicken. While the vegetarian option of oyster mushrooms and sprouting broccoli couldn’t hope to compete with either the chicken or the prawn for my affections, they were perfectly decent in their own right – cooked just so, with a firm bite.

illustrative photo of the grilled king prawn skewers at Lahpet West End
Prawn for king.
illustrative photo of the grilled prawn skewers at Lahpet West End
Just as good across multiple visits.

Crisp and flaky paratha didn’t just rely on their own inherent internal puffiness for scoffability. The stuffing of yellow peas, cooked just to the edge of tenderness, made for fine eating.

illustrative photo of the split pea paratha at Lahpet West End
Why aren’t more sandwiches this good

Given the relative richness of some of the dishes at Lahpet, ordering the pickles is a good idea. My favourites had to be the tart and briney daikon and the sour, tangy and briney cucumber. Both excelled as palate cleansers and as tizzying tongue tantalisers in their own right.

Balachaung should not be overlooked or skipped at any point in your meal at Lahpet West End. A fermented shrimp paste given the frying pan treatment, its umami muskiness and almost bisque-like lilt was delectable, not just as a condiment, but in its own right. Having said that, it’s also useful for giving a bit of lift and va-va-voom to the less accomplished of Lahpet’s dishes.

illustrative photo of the balachuang at Lahpet West End
Ngapi.

Dishes such as the grilled aubergine. Although mostly tender, the grilled aubergine was a bit too stringy once too often. It was also surprisingly bland, leaving heavily on the garnish of crunchy and nutty crushed peanuts for taste. MiMi attributes this blandness to a lack of fish sauce and shrimp paste, both of which are present in old school versions of this dish.

illustrative photo of the grilled aubergine at Lahpet West End
Khayan thi mee kin.

In a clever bit of bandwagon hopping, the ‘Andaman ceviche’ takes meaty raw fish and dunks it in a citrusy, sharp and tangy Burmese salad dressing. Although there was almost as much filler – in the form of sweet and juicy cucumber – as there was sea bass, this ceviche still managed to outdo every dreary hotel restaurant ceviche you’ve ever ordered and instantly regretted.

illustrative photo of the Andaman ceviche at Lahpet West End
Ngar a-sein thohk.

Mains at Lahpet West End

Fatty and reasonably tender pork belly came with tender, yielding bamboo shoots in a tangy, lightly spiced sauce. While pleasing enough, I was surprised that the pork wasn’t more toothsome and the sauce more multifaceted, given the primacy of pork among the red meats in the Burmese pantheon. This dish is apparently the kitchen’s take on wet-thar myit chin, a Burmese pork stew. While I don’t want to discourage experimentation, this one needs further finessing.

illustrative photo of the pork belly and sour bamboo curry at Lahpet West End
Cue sad oinking sounds.

At least the pork curry’s sauce wasn’t as shrug-inducing as the one gracing the hake masala. The fish itself was still reasonably meaty and flaky, but it was too little and too late.

illustrative photo of the hake masala at Lahpet West End
Ngar hin.

The Shan rice with bream is a far better choice for pescatarians and fish fans in general. Sticky and lightly moreish small-grained rice came dotted with lightly meaty bits of bream. It almost felt like the lost half of the separate fried bream main though – a dish which used the sheaves of the same well-sourced fish, but fried and glazed with a sticky balm full of umami and sourness. The two went so well together, that it felt effortlessly natural. Like Bert and Ernie or Kirk and Spock.

illustrative photo of the Shan rice with bream at Lahpet West End
Shan ngar htamin né.
illustrative photo of the fried bream at Lahpet West End
The bream came off the bone with the head and bones for show.

Plump, springy and meatily hench prawns came in a sauce similar to the one that graced the pork curry, but with a more pronounced sourness and tanginess making this crustacean curry the superior choice.

illustrative photo of the king prawn curry at Lahpet West End
Bazun hin.

The lentil chow chow was a rather forgettable mix of legumes and sweet potato. This poor sop of a dish for vegetarians was in dire need of balachaung – which would ironically rule it out for non-pescatarians.

illustrative photo of the lentil chow chow at Lahpet West End
Pae hin gurka thee.

According to MiMi Aye, author of the Burmese cookbook Mandalay, Lahpet’s ‘“Rakhine Mohinga”  is not actually mohinga (which they do serve at the Shoreditch branch) but a comparable dish from the country’s Rakhine community known as Rakhine Mont-di.

In any case, it was a barnstorming noodle soup (and MiMi agrees). The citrusy sharpness and tangy warmth of the soup quickly crescendoed into a brow-glistening spicy heat. Lime and coriander were served on the side, but they’re arguably unnecessary given that the soup also brimmed with the brightness of lemongrass and the musky moreishness of balachaung.

Firm, thin rice noodles received some extra ballast from the green beans, a heartily dense and chewy fritter and a richly runny onsen-style egg. The only disappointments were the meagre helpings of bream and squid, especially given their boldness – the former had an oily richness, while the latter was charred and smoky. More of both would’ve amplified the sumptuousness of this dish.

illustrative photo of the Rakhine mohinga at Lahpet West End
The Covent Garden Lahpet has two sets of outdoor seating. On the ground floor are a clutch of tables under a large and robust concrete awning. On the first floor balcony are a set of tables, fewer in number but able to accommodate larger parties, covered by a canvas awning (if I remember correctly).

Depending on your perspective, the bowl of chicken coconut noodles is either a wilting wallflower forever living in the shadow of the “Rakhine Mohinga”. Or it’s a coddling comfort food dish – Burmese penicillin, to borrow a well-known phrase. The reality was somewhere in between with thin and reasonably firm egg noodles in a light yet fragrant and mildly coconut flavoured soup. The crunchy split pea cracker, runny egg and sharp, crunchy red onions were more satisfying than the meek chicken.

illustrative photo of the chicken coconut noodles at Lahpet West End
Ohn-no kauk swé.

The least successful of Lahpet’s noodle soups was, unsurprisingly, the tofu nway. Given the blank slate variety of tofu used, it needed something more distinctive for contrast than the split pea reduction. Although smooth, light and not at all cloying, it was unrelentingly beige – both in appearance and in its wan, apologetic creaminess. It was left to the crunchy nuts, sharply citrusy and almost mustard-ish greens and the crunchy, chewy and moreish cracker to pick up the slack. But in so doing, the firm and thin noodles were lost in the mix. A rather unbalanced effort.

illustrative photo of the tofu nway at Lahpet West End
Nofu.

Desserts at Lahpet West End

It’s always interesting to see how restaurants serving Asian cuisines which don’t have a tradition of Western-style desserts end up tackling their pudding menus. Lahpet serves up at least one dessert with bona fide Burmese credentials – slices of cassava cake, all sinewy, soft and moist with a coconut-like flavour. The sharp sweetness of candied pineapple complimented the cake nicely. While the accompanying sorbet had one too many crunchy ice crystals, its bracing coldness and distinctive jackfruit-derived sweetness did help cut through the relative richness of cake and candied fruit.

illustrative photo of the cassava cake at Lahpet West End
Pilaw pinan.

Mango- and guava-flavoured sorbets tasted reasonably true to the fruits, although the latter inevitably lacked the aromatic fragrance of guava which is what makes that fruit so bewitching. The sorbet also had one too many errant ice crystals, the crunchiness of which strikes me as a bug rather than a feature.

illustrative photo of the mango and guava sorbet at Lahpet West End
This review’s procrastination was brought to you, in part, by puppies.

Ginger and lime ice cream was not only reasonably smooth and light, it also had both the heat of ginger and the zest of lime – to a modest degree, anyway. The appeal of both was blunted by the granola scattered about, with its teeth-grinding hardness and saccharine sweetness.

illustrative photo of the ginger lime ice cream at Lahpet West End
If you’re really hankering for an ice cream after your meal, you’re probably better off heading for Gelupo in nearby Soho instead.

Banana parfait consisted of a vaguely banana-flavoured ice cream, a shrug-inducing crumble-type affair and a biscuit wafer somewhat reminiscent of a graham cracker.

illustrative photo of the banana parfait at Lahpet West End
Ngapyaw mont.

The Verdict

While not everything at Lahpet West End were resounding winners, that speaks to their own limitations rather than the cuisine’s in my mind. Even so, with its cracking skewers, salads and seafood, Lahpet West End has plenty to offer to anyone with a mind open enough to accept them.

What to order: Tofu fritters; Prawn and chicken skewers; Lahpet; Fried bream; Shan rice; King prawn curry; Ceviche; ‘Rakhine Mohinga’

What to skip: Tofu nway; Possibly the ice creams

Name: Lahpet

Branch tried: 21 Slingsby Place, London, WC2E 9AB

Phone: 0204 580 1276

Webhttps://lahpet.co.uk

Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-22.00. Sunday noon-21.00. 

Reservations? Essential.

Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £45-50 approx. 

Rating: ★★★★☆

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