My other half and I headed into London’s West End for a meal the other day. While gallivanting past our usual haunts, including The Stockpot, Balans, Amalfi and Browns, we crawled out of our comfort zone and decided to try something new. At the end of Old Compton Street, we turned right onto Wardour Street where Soho becomes Mayfair and a range of appealing and alluring restaurants can be found.
Although Byron immediately attracted my attention for the good vibe and its lively crowd–especially for a Tuesday night– the menu was simply off-putting. The place offers hardly any choice and the cook seems to have an unrestrained obsession with burgers, resulting in a menu consisting of chicken burgers, veggie burgers and beef burgers. So, undoubtedly, if you are looking for a decent quality burger this is certainly the place to be but if it’s a slightly more sophisticated kitchen you desire, try another popular joint a few doors down the road; the Banana Tree. Part of a chain of six restaurants throughout London, it offers an authentic selection of dishes from the Indochina region.
The grand yet personal dining room is a designer-free zone with its shiny, wood-grain tables and huge image of rush hour in Vietnam set against black brick walls on one side, while the other half of the restaurant has a more serene, light ambiance to it. The place breathes trendiness and modernity and it certainly has a ‘city’ feel to it. We were seated at a table in the centre of the restaurant where we could soak up the lively, vibrant atmosphere created by a loud, outgoing clientele, but it never became too much. The restaurant fills up quickly but the noise is not unrelenting; it is not necessary to shout to order and one can easily hold a private conversation without being overheard.
While studying the trendy brown and black menu card, a slightly exotic touch, we were overwhelmed by the excellent, original choices available. The menu invites its customers on a culinary tour through South East Asia, showcasing all the best that Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have to offer. How about ‘a four hour meltingly tender stew with star anise, closed, cinnamon and galangal, prepared with a Vietnamese slant, using coconut water to sweeten the sauce?’, or the Gaening Keo Wan, which was described as ‘aromatic Thai curry cooked with green spice paste, sweet basil, lime leaves, peppers, bamboo shoots and coconut milk’; these sumptuous biographies certainly got our mouths watering. I decided to play it safe and ordered chicken lemongrass with turmeric and coriander, while my partner opted for roasted duck breast with Pei Pa Hoisin Sauce, which is recommended by William Chow, founder and chef of Banana Tree. In next to no time the polite waitress brought us a bottle of their decent house red, from French producer Jacques Véritier.
Soon – perhaps slightly too soon – the food was brought over but it really got our taste buds going. The unpretentious portions were faultlessly presented and staff checked with us to make sure we were satisfied. My chicken was sweet with a delicious, spicy aftertaste that made me long for the next bite. The savoury and aromatic sauce of lemongrass, coriander and turmeric was complimented with peanuts, peppers and oriental veggies. The menu had mentioned an ‘added dash of fish sauce’ but this could not be identified. The spices and lemongrass dominated and with chicken as the backbone of the dish, adding fish sauce seemed a bit out of place. It wasn’t missed. Meanwhile, my partner took proper care of his roast duck breast, which was presented excellently. Even if duck is not your usual thing, you may wish to reconsider here; it was tastefully topped with mildly spiced hoisin and a sesame sauce, served with cashews and coriander and was simply divine!
The quality of our dishes seemed to shine through the entire dining experience at this trendy 40-seater. It hosts a vibrant crowd of any age and culture and breathes a relaxed, open-minded atmosphere. It is reasonably priced and I will definitely come back to try the Dirty Thai Guy, one of the many interestingly- named cocktails on their menu. From the well-balanced, flavoursome dishes to the friendly and easy going staff, Banana Tree truly is the home of the Indochinese cuisine in London’s West End.
103 Wardour Street – Mayfair