Hoppers has long been on My List (of restaurants to go to), but I guess I’ve been reluctant to tick this one off, not only because of its infamously long queues, but also as you can find paper thin crispy dosas (it’s Indian pancake cousin) in South London suburbs like Tooting and the like for under a fiver. Plus, my mum’s homemade uttapams, dosas and idlis are winners. But as my sister and I were craving some home comforts on a rainy Saturday evening (and mum was away!) we decided to try out Hoppers. Amazingly, we secured three spots in their St Christopher’s Place outpost (which only takes evening reservations for parties of four or more) immediately (the secret: turn up at 6.45pm).
From the team behind Bao, the Sethi family have previously ventured into Indian foods with Trishna and Gymkhana. Turning their hand towards Sri Lanka and its legendary hoppers, a fermented rice and coconut milk pancake shaped like a bowl, I’m surprised these baskets – which must be one of the best culinary inventions – aren’t more widely celebrated. Part of this restaurant’s success is that they’re the first London restaurant group proper to specialise in this remarkably good food. But the quality of their food (and drinks) shouldn’t be overlooked. Whilst, as I mentioned, you can enjoy a crazy cheap paper dosa at Dosa’n’Chutney in Thornton Heath, its setting is no way near as picture perfect, nor are its chutneys as inventive, full of flavour and varied – so much so, that you must order each one!
Speaking of the setting, we sat in the basement, a moodily lit 1920s style space which has more of a buzz to it than the ground floor: although there’s no natural light, the kitchen is in the basement and its panoramic cutout offers a glimpse of the work behind the magic. The décor is also super effective: adorned with posters of old Ceylon (including one of tea which I have framed above my fireplace!) and modern Sri Lanka, and set against a backdrop of South Asian music, the basement recreates Sri Lanka in the same way Dishoom celebrates India. Old arrack bottles are even repurposed to serve tap water. Everything screams Ceylon.
The menu, which also includes a glossary which makes the mouth water, is divided between bites, short eats, hoppers and dosas, karis – the Tamil term for curry – and bigger dishes which we didn’t make it to. There are some dominant flavours, especially coconut, but there is also a lightness of touch such that even if you order a bit of everything, it doesn’t feel heavy.
To start, we shared a little snack of Hot Banana Chips (£3.50), which reminded of the banana chips my grandmother used to serve me fresh from the fryer in Nairobi, and the String Hoppers (£5) served with Kiri Hodi (a coconut sauce) and Pol Sambol (shredded spiced coconut). Don’t judge the hoppers by their noodle-like appearance: these vermicelli strings, with the mildly spiced coconut gravy spooned over, are a soft textural joy. Topped with fresh shredded coconut, each soft bite dances around in the mouth.
For mains, we had to try a Hopper (£4.50), Egg Hopper (£5) and a Podi Dosa (£5) which is a dosa with a chilli spicing. Dosa, the hopper’s golden-brown cousin, is a crêpe made from fermented lentils and rice, and comes folded over on itself. It’s heaven in pancake form. Whilst I expected the dosa to taste identical to the hopper, the latter had a much thicker texture and was more cakey – more like an American-style pancake. With its thinner texture, the dosa was more pliable, easily tearable and addictively tangy.
To go with, no dosa or similar would be complete without ALL the chutneys and sambols on offer: Pol Sambol (£1.50), Seeni Sambol (£1.50), Tomato Chutney (£1.50), Coconut Chutney (£1.50), Coriander Chutney (£1.50), Brinjal (aubergine) Moji (£2.50) and Beet & Kale Sambol (£4). Don’t ask me to explain exactly what each was but favourites were the fresh coconut chutney, the caramelised onion relish and of course the beets. All were brilliantly lit up with their eye-poppingly fresh coriander chutney.
Both the hoppers and the dosa were beautiful objects. The contrasting textures of the bowl-shaped pancakes with their crater-like, spongy base stretching into a lacy, brittle edge, makes tearing pieces off to eat them feel like an act of vandalism. But it must be done. Crisp near the top and more chewy inside, the batter of each forms the perfect spoon to scoop up and mix’n’match the sambals.
For afters, my sister couldn’t resist the “Love Cake Ice Cream Sandwich” (£5.50). Wrapped in Hoppers paper, the rustle of her tearing it open conjured up all the fun of the fair. Judging for the smiles on her face, it was very, very good. My brother-in-law, meanwhile, couldn’t resist a sweet lassi and went for the Wattalapam Milk (£4.50) which I’m going to have to recreate. A blend of malt, coconut, jaggery treacle, cinnamon and salted cashew, my taster sip was creamy, naturally sweet, and like salted caramel in liquid form. The drinks menu at Hoppers definitely deserves credit.
Hoppers is marvellous: the food, the enthusiastic and super friendly staff who seem to be on a genuine mission to educate, and its truly authentic vibe. It’s definitely pushed Sri Lanka straight to the top of my holiday list.
Hoppers, 77 Wigmore Street, London W1U 1QE
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