Friday, 17 March 2017
Lahpet, London Fields
If you were ever coming to this blog looking for informed insight or intelligent food discussion, well you were always on a hiding to nothing. But I like to think that my exposure to the vast numbers of British, French, Spanish and Indian restaurants in London has meant at least I stand a better chance of saying something useful about those cuisines, even if occasionally just by accident, than most others. I'm getting better at Sichuan, I'm OK at Mexican, I can just about get away with stringing a few words together on Vietnamese or Thai, but Burmese?
But I can't feel too self-conscious about the fact I knew next to nothing about Burmese food before stepping foot into Lahpet because, let's face it, there aren't too many Burmese food experts knocking around anywhere outside Burma. Thanks to a military dictatorship and decades of global political isolation, this huge SE Asian country is only just now becoming known to the world, and the delights (or otherwise) of Burmese cuisine has yet to filter through to Western consciousness. The practical upshot of which is that I can be even more blithely ignorant than usual without feeling even the least bit guilty about it.
Lahpet, then, is a Burmese restaurant in London Fields, just over the road from where Som Saa did its own SE Asian thing all those years ago. It is unfortunately cursed with huge communal tables - enough to strike the fear of God into this particular diner - but fortunately on a quiet Wednesday night we had plenty of space to ourselves and didn't have to share any personal space. The menu is short, and not too baffling - a few words here and there that didn't mean much but generally not too indimidating to a Burmese food newcomer (which will be more or less everyone) and fairly keenly priced.
We ordered a couple of "fritters", two mains and - because they sounded interesting - all the sides. They offered to bring the "sun dried anchovies" side first, as they thought they would make a good snack. They sort of did - dry, crisp, with a bit of a chilli kick and plenty of umami flavour - but the pieces of anchovy were very tiny and quite difficult to scoop up, and felt more of a dressing or topping than a snack in their own right.
Fritters were fine but fairly unmemorable. Neither the triangles of fried tofu or the kidney bean "Mandalay" tasted of a great deal, and the provided tamarind sauce was underpowered and too thin to cling to the fritters when dipped in. Nice textures, but not much else.
Fortunately, the tea leaf salad was well worth the effort. Full of crunch and colour, shot through with Spanish-style dry-fried broad beans and sesame seeds, it would be vibrant and rewarding even without the tea leaf itself, which was pickled or fermented in some way as to produce an incredibly satisfying complex flavour. If this is Burmese cuisine, then consider me a fan.
Mains as of themselves were good - very good, in fact - but we could have probably done with a bit more guidance on ordering. I liked the look of the "hake masala" on paper, and enjoyed it very much in reality, the first being firm and meaty (if a tad on the dry side), and the masala sauce thick and rich. It all felt vaguely Indian, vaguely Malaysian, which I suppose is understandable given Burmese geographic borders.
Unfortunately, in their wisdom Lahpet advised us to order the coconut chicken noodles as our second main, which turned out to be dressed in exactly the same thick masala sauce as the hake. And despite the chicken itself being cooked perfectly well and a nice contrast between the normal wet noodles in the sauce and some crunchy dried noodles on the side of the bowl, eating both mains at the same time just ended up being a bit... samey. Maybe all of the Lahpet main courses come in the same sauce - maybe it's a Burmese thing. But if not, it's a strange thing to deliberately suggest.
And even stranger was the arrival of a second "side", another small sample of dried seafood (shrimp this time though the flavour wasn't markedly different), presented in another glass ashtray, defying use or explanation. If there was something I should have been doing with my two bowls of seafood crackling other than scooping them into my mouth with a slightly baffled expression on my face then, well, nobody made it obvious.
We didn't stay for "deserts" (sic) - the homemade ice creams sounded intriguing but they'll have to wait for another time. Because - and this may come as a bit of a surprise given my moaning above - I think I probably will be back to Lahpet. Despite the awkward way it was served and explained, there was something genuinely new going on here, perhaps not enough to herald a Burmese revolution in London but certainly enough to indicate that this is a cuisine that will impress more and more as it finds its feet - and an audience. As for the thorny question of authenticity, who knows - perhaps I'll leave it to actual experts like Burmese cookbook author MiMi Aye to have a look at the menu above and see how closely it represents anything from the home country. Meantime, I'll scurry back to my comfort zone and leave them to it. Have the salad. It's nice.