Originally published in CityAM on 4 November 2015
Sometimes I want to sit down in a restaurant, eat and be gone. Sometimes I want to move in, stay for a while, invite friends, meet the restaurant’s parents, marry the place and have a baby.
If I were to marry a restaurant, though, a more sensible betrothal would be to one of Hoppers’ siblings Trishna or Gymkhana – also owned by real-life siblings Karam, Jyotin and Sunaina Sethi – which are both mature, classy establishments with Michelin stars.
Hoppers is young and a little more casual. Focusing on Sri Lankan and South Indian cooking, it sits back on Frith Street in the building formerly occupied by Koya. Staff wear maroon polo shirts, the sound system plays indian electro-pop, and cane backed office chairs complete the chuck-me-a-tinny clubhouse vibe that’s so different from Trishna you have to question its lineage.
The waiter introduced me to the menu, and a furtive glance at the soft drinks list had me come over all light headed. A black pepper cream soda was crisp and refreshing, delicately balanced with spice and vanilla. They zhuzh it up in a soda stream out back. The sweetness is dialled right down: it is grown up but nostalgic. The curry leaf buttermilk is just as good. At this point – just seven minutes in – my pulse was already raised and my pupils dilated. I turned over the menu to look at the food.
“Give me everything. All of it at once.” I gasped breathlessly at the waiter. I checked myself and took a moment. Jumping out at me from amongst the mutton rolls and duck roti was chicken heart chukka, a fragrant dry-fry of tender meat, onions and sweet cherry tomatoes. Perfect poppers to compliment those drinks.
For a long time the finest dish containing bone marrow was to be found at St John. A slice of its toasted sourdough, spread with blobs of marrow – such rich reward for all that digging – topped with parsley and shallots, and sprinkled with salt was the thing of legend. Much imitated, never bettered. Until now.
Bonemarrow varuval roti. Roll it around your mouth; just saying it prepares you for the fun to come. Three half bones, stacked, and smothered in a masala sauce. Unless you are with unusually polite company I recommend ditching the marrow spoon and diving in face first. Scoop up what you can from the hollow with your tongue and nibble any remaining meat from the ends. Dip your flakey, buttery dosa deep into the sauce, shut your eyes, lick your fingers, sigh. It is glorious, messy work. There’s a wet wipe for after.
If you don’t want to peak too early, order this dish at the end, and that’s not to belittle the rest of the menu.
The eponymous hoppers are the main event. Similar to the more common dosa (also served here), hoppers are a fermented rice and coconut pancake, shaped like a deep sided bowl. At the bottom of my egg hopper sits a fried egg, its yolk a deep, oozy orange. The accompanying sambals – coconutty fish, coriander and caramelised onion – are best scooped up with the bowl’s crispy edges.
You can spoon your curry in at the end, or just eat it the same way, picking it up with the hopper dough. Either way it’s delicious. The dark, caramelised meat of the black pork kari is rich and sweet and fiery.
The dessert menu is just as alluring. I had to avoid the love cake for fear of a broken heart and instead cooled down with roasted rice kulfi. Served in a sundae bowl with green pandan jelly, the juicy flesh of rambutan fruit and slippery balls of pink tapioca might not be everyone’s cup of chai.
Please, come here with friends. Try everything. You might not meet a restaurant this good again. For the record, I kept the menu. I’m going to take it home, hang it beside my bed and kiss it before I go to sleep at night.
I am struggling for negatives, can you tell? You can’t book. Does that matter? There are likely to be queues. Long ones. The length of a test match, not a one-day game. But with flavours as sublime as a Sangakkara cover drive, I can guarantee the food-baby you’ll have together will be worth waiting in line for.