Asian Snack Bar Hoppers Is London's Best New Restaurant
Two new Asian restaurants have just opened in London.
One is the multimillion-pound Sexy Fish, with its celebrity guests, Damien Hirst artworks, its £110 ($170) seafood tower, its jaw-droppingly expensive wines and its camp, over-the-top Shanghai-meets-Vegas interior.
The other is the best new London restaurant of 2015.
Hoppers is a cramped little Soho café serving Sri Lankan street food, with a menu where dishes start at £3. The prices ascend only to £17.50, for a spit-roasted chicken that is the best bird I have tasted this year. The wine choice is of one white or one red, available in half bottles at £14 each.
This might sound an unlikely destination if you don't know the people behind it. JKS Restaurants are the siblings who created Gymkhana, the U.K.'s best restaurant of 2014, and exciting establishments such as Bubbledogs and Bao. (Bao, a café serving Taiwanese buns, is another contender for my best of 2015.)
At the heart of the menu at Hoppers are two simple options: the hopper is a bowl-shaped pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk; the dosa is a crepe prepared with fermented batter of ground rice and lentil. These are well made, with the light crispness of the dosa particularly noticeable.
You might buy them on the roadside in Tamil Nadu or Sri Lanka. It's the accompanying curries that pack a punch, without being reliant on a chili hit. Yes, they may have you sweating (the spicing certainly isn't timid) but it's the balance and depth of flavor that resonates. It's fine dining, on a budget.
Dishes available with the hoppers and dosas include the remarkable black pork kari, made to a family recipe from Colombo. This is pork belly cooked with Sri Lankan roasted curry powder, pandan leaf and lemon grass. It's finished with kalu pol — blackened coconut and rice powder — which gives it the colour.
The price? £5.50. The lamb, fish and guinea fowl karis cost the same, while red pumpkin is £4. The hoppers and dosas are £3 apiece and if you fancy yogurt on the side, that's 1 pound, the same cost as a chutney selection.
Other menu options include Ceylonese spit chicken. The baby bird is marinated in fennel, cumin, coriander seed, ginger, garlic and chili then cooked on a Rotisol rotisserie. The flesh is soft and the skin is crisp. If you are the kind of person who doesn't order chicken in restaurants, think again.
All this praise, and I haven't even got to one of my favorite dishes – lamb kothu roti. Chef and co-owner Karam Sethi says it is made from chopped roti with carrot, hispi cabbage, shallots and spring onion, with lamb neck curry, a red chili paste and a salna sauce made with roasted spices, lamb bones and coconut. It's like the best kebab you ever tasted.
Hoppers might not be for you, of course. You're almost certainly going to have to queue on the street for a table. (I keep meeting people who say they won't queue for a restaurant, which is good news because the line is long enough already.) Once inside, you are likely to be squeezed in with your neighbors. This makes for a social buzz but not for a quiet date or a business lunch.
I love the attention to detail at Hoppers: in the food, the decor, the music and the artworks. OK, they are not Damien Hirst (of whom I am a fan) but they are colorful and vibrant.
It may appear daft to compare restaurants that are so different as Hoppers and Sexy Fish.
But every meal out involves a choice. I choose Hoppers.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines