BBack in 2020, when workers and tourists abandoned London’s West End, Covent Garden remained almost horribly silent. The days of long queues for Matilda the Musical, pre-theatrical menus and Yoda street performers were gone forever, I was sure.
Obviously I was an idiot, because the high-octane tourist ruckus has now been restored and a brand new Lahpet has entered the fray on one of Long Acre’s newly embellished side streets. This cool, relaxed and modern restaurant, which serves Burmese comfort food, was founded by Dan Anton and Burmese chef Zaw Mahesh, and started life as a stall on Maltby Street near London Bridge, before moving first in an ark in Hackney then in a popular restaurant in Shoreditch; this new double-decker affair on Slingsby Place is their most ambitious project to date. (Incidentally, if you have a passing knowledge of London, it’s about a three-minute walk to Pineapple Dance Studios, and probably less if you’ve been exuberantly doing it in leggings.)
The delicious and, for Brits, often intriguing and less explored flavors of Myanmar are a welcome addition to The Yards, Covent Garden’s new shopping district. Here, a flashy, multi-story, glass-fronted but ultimately unattractive Caffè Concerto sits near the bland but reliable all-day brunch spot Bill’s; there’s also a Dishoom (always reliable, but completely oversubscribed) and an elegant Italian wine bar, Dalla Terra. But this revamped corner of Covent Garden feels brazenly indifferent to its place in the capital, as the Yards really could be anywhere: a shopping mall in Dubai, say, the Newcastle Metro Center or one of those retail strips faceless retail with a Roly’s Fudge outlet and a boutique that sells cozy sweaters.
It’s a brave but very welcome decision to open a joint that serves lahpet good (tea leaf salad) and a contemporary version mohinga, a traditional fish soup with rice noodles, here deliciously spicy (we’ll let you know if you order it). Perhaps it should be said that Lahpet is one of the few purveyors of Burmese cuisine in London, now that the Mandalay Golden Myanmar in Kilburn appears to be closed for good (Kiln, the popular Thai grill in Brewer Street, sometimes offers tofu Shan and a Burmese Pork Belly Curry fix on the menu, but perhaps a bit experimental for purists). The remarkable work of Burmese food writers and supper club legends, the Rangoon Sisters, has done much to introduce us to the specifics of this country’s food – the crunch, the delicate acidity, the breakfast soups, the complex salads and, perhaps my favorite thing about this cuisine, the glorious and lovely brown-ness and mauve-ness.
This lahpet thohk salad is a great example of that delicious funkiness, with marinated tea leaves interwoven with double-refried beans, shredded cabbage stalks, plump and sweet slivers of salted tomatoes and dried shrimp; sesame seeds, crunchy peanuts and a generous amount of garlic oil and raw garlic also make an appearance. To a Western look, at least, it might not look like any salad seen before, plus it’s the color of Fozzie Bear and army surplus combat pants. It comes with a warning that due to the level of caffeine it contains, it may well keep you up at night. Every time I order lahpet thohk, I’m not sure I like it, but I’m always compelled to pick up the last intricate and tantalizing bite.
We also had the three grilled brochettes, which are frankly amazing; in fact, a dinner of just those skewers and a few cocktails would be a night well spent. The chicken leg is exceptional and the black tiger prawns, heads and shells, are incredibly fragrant and charred; the Shan tofu fritters, with a finely dosed tamarind dip, are also worth the try.
The place was teeming with families, kids, chatty friends and giggling bands, and the music was heroically 1980s, with a strong line in the smartest pop and electro. As Bronksi Beat’s Smalltown Boy merged with Talking Heads’ And She Was, it was almost as if they saw me coming.
I emptied a bowl of Rakhine mohinga, which could possibly be described as a kind of chowder full of grilled calamari, green beans, half a boiled egg and a good nose of chili. If you’re passing by and just want a hug from a bowl, go for the coconut noodles with chicken, as it’s a comforting and pleasantly satisfying coconut broth filled with egg noodles, shallots , maybe too many spring onions and armed with a very good ornate and crispy wonton.
The puddings, on the other hand, fall short – the banana parfait was a kind of deconstructed cheesecake that was less than the sum of its parts – but that’s how it is in so many places. places in the West End these days. But that’s not enough to stop Lahpet Covent Garden from officially being one of my safe places to hide from jugglers and those people who aggressively cut haircuts. Yes, he sells caffeinated salad, but some things are worth staying awake for.