Until recently, I’d equated “hoppers” with the inflatable bounce balls from my childhood, the ones with the painted-on faces and handles for ears. In culinary terms, however, hoppers are thin bowl-shaped pancakes made from fermented rice and coconut milk and served with curry and chutneys. Named after the Sri Lankan staple, the Sethi siblings’ third venture on the former site of Japanese favourite Koya on Frith Street is another runaway success, as proven by the long queues. To avoid this, Chef Savla, a friend (RP) and I arrived around 5pm on a Saturday and only had to wait 5-10 minutes.
Ambiance and décor
Gone is the Japanese minimalism and in its place are wood-covered walls with Ceylon prints, a rattan roof and patterned tiling. It feels like a cafe, thanks in part to the yellow-tinged lighting; perfect to counter the miserable weather that day. The tables are packed in tightly, though, so it’s not a romantic destination, especially if you’re sharing with another party like we were. Ours was also close to the door, meaning we got blasted with a cold breeze whenever it opened, which happened often. The seating is mainly chairs and wooden benches, although I drew the short straw and got the stool on the end.
After an enthusiastic welcome, the energy levels waned somewhat. We weren’t offered any explanations or recommendations, and had to call a waiter to order. Unlike on my visit to Bao (link below), the Taiwanese restaurant backed by the Sethis, there was minimal engagement in-between dishes/courses, which I’d expect for an informal eatery. This was all the more surprising as it wasn’t particularly busy at that time.
The menu is divided into four categories – short eats, sides, hoppers, dosas and karis (curries) and rice, roast and kothu (chopped roti) – and you can mix and match as you please. As we were starving, we opted for several short eats and one hopper each, with a curry leaf buttermilk for me and lager for the boys.
Bonemarrow Varuvel, our first starter, was the unanimous winner: rich, gelatinous lamb bone marrow drenched in a delicately spiced tomato sauce, which was quickly mopped up with the flaky and buttery roti. You’ll need at least two rotis and they’ll disappear fast.
Then came the Hot Butter Devilled Shrimps, and the devil’s definitely in the detail. Warning: if you have zero tolerance for chilli, don’t order this. Before the heat kicked in and set my mouth ablaze, I enjoyed the juicy prawns coated in a dry tomato base and crunchy peppers. I surrendered after a few mouthfuls, grateful for the cooling buttermilk, while Chef Savla and RP bravely battled on and emerged victorious.
The mutton rolls and sweet sauce arrived at the right time and were spot on: the crispy, slightly thick batter was wrapped around minced meat with back notes of cinnamon and nutmeg. Finally, the hot dipping sauce with the goat roti hit us with the chilli stick again; nice dish, albeit a touch oily.
Onto the hoppers, with fish, black pork and lamb karis for myself, Chef Savla and RP respectively. The hoppers come plain or with an egg; the runny yolk-curry combination is divine, but all three eggs were cooked differently, so some consistency is needed. There are two sets of accompaniments, and we had both: pol and seeni sambols with coriander chutney then a trio of tomato, coconut and coriander chutneys. You can eat these any which way you want: tearing off pieces of pancake to scoop up the curry or transferring everything into the hopper and giving it a good stir, either with your hands or cutlery.
The spicing in the pork kari was reminiscent of Gymkhana’s wild boar vindaloo: punchy and powerful, with a unique and intense flavour profile. By contrast, the fish was mellow and mild, which worked for me after the earlier adventure. In pole position was the lamb, the velvety tomato sauce being very similar to my mum’s version.
Apart from a couple of mouth-numbing dishes, Hoppers went down a treat. While tomato sauce was a common base, no two were the same, a testament to the Sethis’ skills. If you have no patience for queuing, you can put your name on the waiting list in exchange for a beeper during peak times, go for a wander/drink then come back when it rings. As for the service, the front-of-house staff were all friendly, but there’s room for improvement. The hoppers and karis are great value for money for the quality (£8-10.75), and we ate well for a reasonable price. Bottom line: if you haven’t done so already, I recommend heading to Hoppers for a taste of Sri Lanka in Soho.
Budget: £ 25 pp, including service.