I used to go to Soho all the time. When my wife worked on Lexington Street and we were young and carefree with nothing better to do with our money I would meet her outside her office at 6 on the dot and we would while away the evening hopping from bar to bar until we found a menu too enticing to resist. We were on the pulse. Terroirs, Polpo, Hix, Spuntino, Koya; we tried them all within weeks of opening, happy to wait an hour for the privilege. Many a quick drink ended with three courses and a brandy at midnight, taxi back in the days before Uber, but somehow we always woke up fresh in the morning. Revitalization is embedded in Soho’s DNA, and I like to think some of that rubbed off.
These days we barely get the chance to eat out together, and when we do there’s a time limit on the sitter. We booze, but we suffer for it. We eat locally, because we’re too tired to go any further. In any case, my stomping ground of Clapham has evolved from slim pickings for the discerning diner into a surprisingly lively restaurant scene. I’ve made my peace with it.
But I do miss Soho. I miss the thrill, the unpredictability, never knowing where you would end up. I miss the hum of the place, Soho Square on a summer evening and stumbling across somewhere by mistake on its first day open, then reading rave reviews in the nationals over the weekend and seeing people queue round the block the next week. I miss blowing £50 on chocolate at Paul A. Young. Most of all, I miss everything.
Last week I returned for the first time in months, and I’m pleased to say that nothing’s changed. By which I mean everything’s changed. I had coffee with my agent at The Ivy, and the moment I left the building I knew without question that the only course of action available to me right then was to march myself up to Shaftesbury Avenue, take a right and eat somewhere exciting. I barely recognized the place. Zima’s Russian street food (what street food includes Oscietra caviar?), Smack (presumably not an offshoot of Leamington Spa’s grottiest nightclub), the whole place is full of restaurants that London didn’t even know it wanted six months ago, and I could have eaten at any one of them.
That day, however, it had to be Hoppers. It was all you would hear anyone talk about last year. Hoppers Hoppers Hoppers. From the people who brought you Gymkhana. Sri Lankan “short eats”. Impossible to get a table, unless you’re desperate enough to turn up alone on a Tuesday lunchtime.
Which just happened to be the time that I found myself wondering up Frith Street and pondering my options, when I noticed that the venue which used to house Koya had space at the bar. I didn’t even stop to consider, just marched straight in and was seated immediately, feeling immensely pleased with myself. I won’t retread old ground by dissecting the menu, only to say that I could have happily ordered and probably eaten everything, but that would have been embarrassing. I had Hot Butter Devilled Shrimp, Podi Dosa with three chutneys (Coriander, Coconut and Tomato) and Black Pork Kari. The shrimp were plump and generous for £6.50, with a fresh green chilli kick that didn’t overpower their sweetness. The pork was rich yet delicate, sprinkled with grated coconut, but for me the star was the dosa. The first dosa I had was my very first meal on setting foot in India, filled with potato, spinach and paneer. It was a revelation. The second was at a cookery class in Kerala two weeks later, coming off severe Delhi Belly with a gaping abscess in my knee, at a point where even the notion of flavour, much less spice and ghee, was enough to have me wretching. I’ve been scarred ever since. I’m happy to report the love affair is back on. This was extraordinary; a crisp, light and buttery pancake with just a pinch of spice, like a brandy snap without the tooth rot, accompanied by three cooling chutneys that instantly banish all notions of sugary, gloopy mango from the mind.
The whole meal comprised of only three simple plates, but what shone through was the complexity of each dish, the immense skill that had gone into balancing spice and richness to ensure that neither one overpowered the other. As for the service? They clearly care. A waiter suggested a dish to complement my other choices, then made a point of asking me how I enjoyed it. A small touch, but it makes a difference. I left feeling reinvigorated like the old days, impatient to see what will have changed when I come back in however many months’ time.
As long as Hoppers is still there. Somehow I suspect it will be.
49 Frith Street,
MON – THUR:
12 – 2.30PM
5.30 – 10.30PM