Hoppers is the latest venture from the Sethi family, London’s most successful restaurant siblings. Their restaurant empire includes the wonderful Gymkhana and Trishna, and they have provided backing for Lyle’s, Bao and Bubbledogs. Karam Sethi is the culinary brain of the family, opening Trishna at the age of 24 and going on to win a Michelin star there four years later. He is a largely self-taught chef, having been heavily influenced by his mother’s cooking and childhood summers spent in India (he also spend a year in the kitchen at The Sheraton in New Delhi). The Sethis’ have a conventional middle-class background: their father is a chartered accountant from Delhi who came to Britain in the Seventies, his wife joined him a few years later and the family settled in Finchley, North London. Jyotin, the eldest, left a high-flying career in investment banking to become a managing director of the business – he has arranged funding from a range of private investors to supplement the family’s funds. The youngest sibling, Sunaina also had a brief spell in banking before training in wine whilst working at Trishna, she is now operations director of the group and focuses on devising drinks menus as well as overseeing front of house matters. She served me on my second visit to Hoppers and was an effervescent presence in the busy restaurant.
Hoppers opened on 28th October on the site that used to house the wonderful Koya – it has a street food slant, inspired by the road shacks of Tamil Nadu in the southeast of India and Sri Lanka. A hopper is a pancake made with fermented rice batter and coconut milk; the menu focuses on hoppers and dosas, along with some small dishes and a couple of curries (“karis”). I went along on its opening weekend and was really surprised at the lack of queue (this won’t last long – apparently AA Gill and Giles Coren had already visited in the first few days after opening, I expect a positive review from one of them would tip things over the edge…). The cocktail list is heavily inspired by Sri Lankan drinks which is a brave move and it didn’t quite pay off for me. My pineapple and black pepper punch was made with Arrack, a Sri Lankan spirit derived from the fermented sap of coconut flowers, and was then finished with cream soda and pineapple sorbet. This all sounds pretty nice and would probably work well on a Sri Lankan beach, but the arrack’s harsh, burny flavour dominated and the other ingredients melted away to leave a pretty unpleasant taste in the mouth. With a little tweaking, I think this cocktail list could be a real treat and I suspect they will act quickly to improve their recipes. On my second visit I steered clear of the cocktails and had a decent Sri Lankan Lion stout which was laced with black liquorice and hints of coffee (I think they should add a couple of curry-friendly London craft beers to their drinks list though).
Our first dish, chicken heart chukka (£4.5), was truly sublime – the hearts were meaty but melted in the mouth and the chilli/garam masala spicing was strong but hit the right spot. Another highlight was bone marrow varuval with roti (£4.5) – three smallish half bones smothered in thick masala sauce. The marrow wasn’t plentiful but it was rich and decadent, the masala sauce married with the fatty marrow and was great for smothering the buttery roti in. The duck roti (£5) was also a hit – the shredded duck had been smothered in dry spices and encased in a crunchy wholewheat bread.
And then to the Hopper – a street food dish that was first popularised in London by Emily Dobbs at Druid Steet Market, it is a bowl-shaped pancake made from fermented rice and coconut batter cooked in a special wok called an appachatti. It is common to serve it with a cooked egg in the centre of the hopper and then to pile curry over the top. On my first visit we had the egg hopper with lamb curry – the hopper was light and crispy, with a hint of sweetness initially, followed by a little punch of sourness (I assume coming from the fermentation) – unusual but really tasty and the perfect accompaniment to a spicy curry.
On my second visit we opted for the dosa, along with lamb and black pork curries. The dosa was just about the best I have ever eaten – crisp, light and golden but still served piping hot. And at £5.5 each, the curries are amazing value – the lamb curry was my favourite, the meat was juicy and the sauce thick and dense, with fairly punchy spicing. The meat in the black pork curry was a bit drier than the lamb, but the sauce was more complex, with layers of lemongrass and roasted curry powder.
The Ceylonese spit chicken (£17.5) wasn’t executed perfectly – the meat had been marinated in fennel, cumin, coriander seed, ginger, garlic and chilli, then cooked on a rotisserie, but the breast flesh was a bit dry and the skin wasn’t crispy. The leg meat was the star of the show, it had absorbed the spices and remained juicy so it could be pulled off the bone with a hunk of roti. Inevitably, they don’t take bookings so expect to queue, but the no bookings policy is an essential part of the business model here – the pricing is so keen that they can’t afford to have tables empty for any time at all and Frith street is a prime, central location. Suffice to say, Hoppers is well worth the wait.
Food arrives when it is ready and we started being served minutes after ordering; the seating is pretty tight and you’ll be close to your neighbouring diners, which adds to the fast, buzzy atmosphere.
Verdict: Sure to be London’s next big thing 9/10