Should you be hungry and walking along the recently pedestrianised James Street in Marylebone, you will be spoilt for choice, what with restaurants and bars gracing each side of the road, as well as all around the charming St. Christopher’s Place.
Everywhere was full, even in these uncertain times, so even if you’re the spontaneous type, it’s best to have a booking. We’re not spontaneous (well I’m certainly not) and so a couple of weeks ago while at Dishoom, I had reserved a Saturday lunch table for Hoppers, on the corner of James Street and Wigmore Street.
When we made this booking, we were eager to see how Hoppers stacked up against Dishoom, the city’s golden boy/girl of culinary delights from the Indian subcontinent. At the time I didn’t take into account The European having the mother of all hangovers from a late night crayfish and schnapps evening the night before, so cue this sunny Saturday morning, and me basically dragging a wearysome Swede into central London to the Sri Lankan / Southern Indian restaurant that everyone seems to be in love with right right now.
The combination of sunny weekends, soaring temperatures, Covid-19 and the accompanying government-mandated ‘alfresco revolution’ has meant that I have seldom seen the inside of restaurants since lockdown ended in July. Hoppers was no exception; I didn’t set foot in there once. Nevertheless, their expanded terrace on bustling James Street is a joy to be a part of, radiating the noon-time heat yet benefiting from the welcoming shade of generous awnings.
It was packed, and a queue was forming to get in. Having being already seated, we felt like quite the celebrity couple, nestled at a large table in an exclusive, in-demand haunt. The European was perfectly playing the part of someone like a troubled ex-child actress who has been up all night partying, nursing her coconut water whilst wearing heavy sunglasses. I could easily play the part of her agent, telling her that she’s lost yet another part or that she’s back on Page Six, for all the wrong reasons. Anyway. Before The European collapsed on the table, the menus arrived. Having been here before, she swiftly ordered for the both of us.
Hoppers is named after um… hoppers, a colloquial term for appam, a thin, bowl-shaped pancake dish originating from Sri Lanka and/or the southern states of India. Hoppers are made from rice batter and often filled with tasty things or simply incorporating an egg into its base. My colleague at work who is well-travelled around Sri Lanka tells me that they are known as hoppers as their shape, combined with the springiness of the cooked batter, means that they have a tendency to ‘hop’ around if tossed onto a table. We ordered an egg hopper, which was crisp and delicious. I dropped it on the table from a small height. I suppose that it did hop a little, but I was distracted by The European asking me what the fuck I was doing.
The whole menu is very Dishoomy; small plates of deliciousness from the Indian sub-continent, in this case, Sri Lanka, not Mumbai. The staff, deservedly happy from being back at work once more, were only too enthusiastic to assist us with the menu, even if it was only to advise The European when to stop adding dishes to the order. The food offering is concise but navigates a wide variety of Sri Lankan staples, which, as it turns out, are markedly different from Indian food.
Alongside the egg hopper, we ordered a chilli cheese dosa, made from lentils and rice. It was firebomb hot – not something I usually tolerate – but the searing heat is tasty and doesn’t outstay its welcome (although I did temper it by drinking the restaurant out of their supply of ‘Toddy Ale’, a delicious pale ale brewed for the restaurant by Salt Brewery).
We also took ginger chicken wings and hot butter chilli paneer. Both were small but satisfying. Paneer never disappoints, but Hoppers’ take on this delicious cheese was pungent, spicy and well-executed, the cheese becoming beautifully soft but still holding its form. The chicken wings, bathed in a tangy ginger paste, melted in the mouth.
Less successful was the swimmer crab kari (curry). The sauce that coated the crab was gorgeous; an earthy, deep and rich curry that was all too easy to mop up with the dosa and hopper. The sad thing was that the crab was unshelled, and I am lazy (we were warned by the waitress). It also turns up that swimmer crabs aren’t exactly the Dwayne Johnson of crustaceans. Basically, it felt that eating this dish was a lot of effort for not much reward.
Nevertheless, our lunch was hugely enjoyable; great food served by great people, in the blazing summer sun. Sadly, this combination was taking its toll on The European, and we took our leave, before she conked out under the table. On the Tube on the way home, as she slept, I reflected on Hoppers. Is it another Dishoom? You cannot compare really; the food is so different, but equally tasty. Hoppers is stand-alone good, showcasing an under-showcased cuisine in an affordable and friendly way. If it’s good enough to induce a food coma like it did to my beloved, then that’s always a good sign of any meal. Alternatively, that might just be because of crayfish and schnapps… Swedish food is kind of under-represented in London too.
Food, two beers, a soft drink plus service came to £sixty five.