Hoppers: Sri Lankan in Soho (London)

Hoppers (London)
Well, most people say Hoppers is Sri Lankan but their own website says their food is “inspired by Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu”; and in reality it appears that the food is a hybrid of Sinhalese, Tamil and Malayali cuisines. Operated by the same people who own Trishna (and the more expensive still Gymkhana), Hoppers is a tiny restaurant with a tiny menu and it’s quite hard to get into: no reservations and the lines can apparently be quite long. You give your name and mobile number to the hostess and she calls you when your table is ready. However, I got there at 1.30 on a weekday and only had to wait about 10 minutes before being seated at the bar with other singletons and duos. And by the time I left, about an hour later, there were plenty of seats—the bar had cleared out and many tables were vacant as well. So the thing to do is to eat late; but you really should go whenever you can because the food is quite good and a pretty good value. 

The decor clearly shows its shared lineage with Trishna: while the colour palette is brighter (yellow to Trishna’s cooler blues and greys), the walls are covered by a similar mix of kitschy prints and photos. In every other way Hoppers is far more casual: the tables are close to each other and it’s close to shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar; service is informal and no one tries to sell you on a wine pairing: Michelin bait this is not. It does, however, evoke quite nicely the hectic feel of similar canteens/restaurants in India and I quite enjoyed the experience. They offer a number of cocktails made with Indian/Sri Lankan flavours (there are bottles of Amrut and arrack behind the bar) and a couple of Sri Lankan beers. As London was hot and humid and I was walking everywhere when I wasn’t on the Tube, I stuck with water and perused the menu.

The menu, as I said, is pretty small but that’s a good thing. It seems to lead to good focus on what they do make, all of which was far better than anything similar you can get in the US; heat levels on most dishes did seem to be toned down a bit more than I was expecting. I asked a server about this at the end and he said they can make things hotter by request but keep the default milder—though I should clarify that it’s not mild per se (hotter than “medium” at most Indian restaurants in the US). If you’re dining in a group of four you should be able to try most things (more than four and a table might be harder to snag). But you can do pretty well on your own too: I ordered three things and while it’s true that I’m greedy it was not an overwhelming amount of food.

What did I get?

  • Bonemarrow Varuval, Roti: I guess Fergus Henderson casts a very large shadow in this city; this portion of the menu also listed a duck heart chukka. Anyway, the important thing is this is very good. The curry was really very good and while I’m not sure bone marrow was necessarily the best choice of “meat” to put in it (you want something that resists the tooth a bit more), I was happy enough sopping it all up with the roti, which was indistinguishable from a Malabar porotta. Just a bit more heat and this would have been perfect.
  • Black Pork Kari: A dry pork curry; the flavours were great but the pork was overcooked. Still, given how thrilled I’d be to find anything like this in the US I’m not going to complain too much.
  • Hopper: this is the Sri Lankan name for what in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is called an appam. It’s a pancakey thing made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk, and if you like dosas the odds of your not liking one are nil. This one was better than most I’ve had outside India (the only better I recall was at the Michelin starred Quilon almost seven years ago on my last trip to London). They served it on a thali with the pork and chutneys (see below).
  • Trio of sambols/chutneys (coriander/onion/coconut): While these are listed separately on the menu they seemed to show up with the appam and pork. I know I didn’t order them separately and I forgot to check if they charged me for them. The coconut chutney was quite good.

Click on an image below for larger pictures and scroll down for final thoughts.

While the execution was not as tight as at my lunch at Trishna, and the service was patchy, this meal cost less than half of what I paid for that one—I think my bill came to about £18. As such when adjusted for value I’m almost inclined to say that it’s a push. And, on the whole, I liked it more than Dishoom in Covent Garden, where I ate later that week (review coming in a few weeks) and where the lines are even longer—and the talk around which is even louder. Frankly, when I’m back in the spring (as I hope to be) I’m more likely to return to Hoppers than to Trishna, even though Trishna is quite obviously the better restaurant. The Trishna money I’d rather spend exploring more of the London high-end Indian scene.

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