I arrived at Barrafina in the early afternoon on a day where the sky could not seem to choose between an onslaught of hale or the inconvenience of rain. There were a few people waiting outside, biding their time until the doors opened, but not too many as to dissuade me from staying. I looked through the restaurant windows, saw the eight or so staff members behind a shiny bar, neatly uniformed, setting down cutlery and making preparations for the lunch rush.
The place looked classy, the kind where you’d tend to visit with a dress shirt. If you go accompanied you might even be lauded for having taken your partner(s) somewhere rather ‘unconventional’ (convention being what it was ten or more years ago), a tapas bar with panache and a personal touch. But then I realised, after some inelegant peeping, that there was not a table in sight, just a long bar with stools and the promise of hunching over plates with your feet not touching the ground.
Therefore, with a resigned tut, I turned on the heel and walked back the way I came. I was not going to eat at another bar, on another backless chair, not today anyway. Nope.
I had strolled through Chinatown on my way there, looking up at people on ladders tying up their lanterns, at others plastering posters on their walls, and more milling about taking photographs of shop and restaurant owners setting up for the Chinese New Year celebrations. I remembered that some restaurants were still open as I passed, so I decided to go around again and hope that one of them caught my fancy. There are a few venues in Chinatown on my list, and I knew I was assured a table in all of them. It sounds rather pathetic, my desire to sit at a dining table, but I was adamant and I would not be denied. Or so I thought.
After twenty minutes of standing ponderously outside Baozi, flicking through the menu of Café TPT and considering the prospect of crispy aromatic duck at Orient, I realised that I wasn’t particularly in the mood for Chinese. Besieged by indecision I exited the ever-blushing oriental district and decided to return to Barrafina. I had planned to go there in the first place, so I might as well suck it up and go for the sake of my hunger. I consoled myself by thinking about Kiln, how I’d felt similarly about eating at theirs, and about how wonderfully it had all turned out.
I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere, but I managed to find myself on Frith street. The rain in London sometimes makes my GPS go all wackadoodle, so that must have the reason. But was it really Frith? I mean I’ve been here several times before, the renowned domicile of both Ceviche and Hoppers, perennially identifiable from afar by the lines of ravenous, impatient, and excited people looking for a chance at some celebrated Sri Lankan nosh, or indeed the Latin persuasion of its Peruvian neighbour.
But on this day, there was not a soul to be seen. I was almost expecting a mist to roll in, a siren shriek from an indistinguishable location, signalling that I’d walked into Silent Hill, or some god forsaken netherworld. Tentatively, as they do in thrillers, I walked further in with raised heartbeat as sky-tears smashed onto me with foreboding, and I could almost hear the eerie whispers of the victims of Keats’s La Belle or a storm scarred sailor’s lament.
Then suddenly, directly opposite Hoppers, I noticed signs of life: voices and the grate of chairs pulled back heard through their fluttering doorway. They were open, and I reiterate, there was no line. If I was going to be dragged into the abyss by demons and monsters, then I was going to do so with a spicy kari and an egg hopper in my belly.
If you’ve heard of Hoppers, or have visited them before, you know that when I say this is one of the best restaurants in London I am not being hyperbolic. From social media influencers to renowned restaurant critics, this Sri Lankan restaurant has received nothing but praise for everything but their long queues and the absence of reservations. Frankly speaking, if I was a restaurant owner, I probably would not be so quick to ‘solve the line issue’ since there are few better forms of advertising than a full restaurant and people willing to wait for tables. Even the eponymous Jay Rayner found it in him to stand in line with droll hipsters and fellow epicureans.
Now you may find this amusing, but despite there being just one other occupied table as I stepped in, I was still told I could sit only at their own stainless-steel bar, or at the wooden one by the window. I picked the latter without even blinking. In a place like Hoppers you take what you get. I could not justify occupying a table that could seat two or more people anyway. And in any case, a seat by the window, with my back to the wood finished, warmly lit restaurant, allowed me to tune out the noise of the crowd that inevitably came, and to relish every morsel without distraction.
There are difficult decisions to make at Hoppers, made more so by the names of dishes on the menu that you have probably never heard of. How short are the ‘Short Eats’? If I order a kari, hopper and a few sambols would that knock me out? Would I still have space for one of the roasts? And a kothu roti besides? All valid questions that will be answered adroitly by animated waiters.
The way I rise to this problem of choice at Hoppers is simply to order everything I fancy and resign myself to the fact of post-meal rotundity after I am done. Unlike other restaurants, where I am significantly more reserved and hesitant about quantity, this place, a comfortable execution of humble, unassuming concept, commends playfully gluttonous exploration.
On this visit, I started with a dish of hot butter devilled shrimp, fiery though not excruciating, a carnival of bird’s eye and larger light green serrano chillies mixed in with chilli powder and tomato sauce reddened shrimp that are winningly fresh and contribute their subtle sweetness. Midway through my shrimp descended my picaresque egg hopper, black pork kari and pol sambol. The kari is thick with generous portions of tender cubed pork, leaner than I prefer but lending pertinent savour to the melody of bittersweet tamarind and the chilli heat. This last is mitigated in no small measure by the scraped coconut pol sambol which balances flavours out quite pleasurably with its mildness. The hoppers at Hoppers, the Sri Lankan crepes or pancakes as people have taken to calling them, are addictive half-way points of fluff and crunch whose textural influence takes the dish further than you thought it could. Add a runny egg in its bowl-like centre and you almost have to nod your appreciation vigorously into the ether.
However, I almost did give an ovation to one dish that rises above the rest, a culinary phenomenon I can say outright is one of my favourite curry dishes I have ever had the fortune of tasting: the bone marrow varuval.
Three halves of open bones bathed in a rheumy amber sauce placed seductively in an impressively large plate, is set in front of you with an accompanying roti, still steaming off the tawa. The bone marrow, nestled and glistening within its homely concave, is much like an oyster in its half-shell ready to be rolled down your throat. It is meatier of course, soft as sweetbreads but with a taste close to the bubbling caramelised cubes of fat attached to a slab of slow roasted brisket. You use a marrow knife much like a letter opener, with the reminiscent anticipation, to scoop underneath the marrow which is then solemnly tipped into the sauce where it is either picked up affectionately by your spoon, or in the embrace of hot, buttery roti in hand.
In your mouth is the abject pleasure of smooth malleability, from the way it tumbles and rolls on your tongue, breaks apart and emulsifies on making the slightest contact with molar. Its fatty savour almost catches you off guard, a solitary tear may escape your eye, and you are suddenly made to realise what it would be like to dine with the almighty. The sauce is creamy, the way only exquisitely treated coconut milk can be, articulating a dulcet sweetness that dances with the effusion of chettinad spices and curry leaves. Nothing is lost on this plate, everything plays a part in this riveting performance.
The dishes at Hoppers always hit me like tidal waves that overcome seasoned surfers. Each one a triumph, catering to a variety of Sri Lankan flavours, the beauty of whose composition lies in their scrupulous authenticity whilst still making provision for the sensitive local palate. I’ve had Sri Lankan food before, several times in fact and from different chefs, each instance rendering me unable to see straight, with nose dribbling and speech a desperate gurgle of ecstasy. But at Hoppers you do not require a battle-hardened tongue to be able to acknowledge the heat as an element of ch aracter rather than its totality.
So go to Hoppers, set a day aside and wait in line if you have to, or like me, go early on a horrendous London day and hope no one else thought of doing the same. Order the varuval, and if you do not fancy it order anything else. I am confident you will enjoy your time there and exit with an unanticipated kinship with Sri Lankan cuisine.
Location: 49 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4SG
Prices: Short Eats £5.00-£8.50; Kothu £9.00-£12.50 ; Rice+Roasts £19.00-£21.00; Hoppers+Dosas £4.00-£8.00; Karis £7.00-£15.00; Sides £1.50-£3.50