The last time I ate at Laphet was five years ago. I know because, of course, I’d posted a picture about it and I’ve just scrolled back through my Instagram to find it. Slightly tragic, but also highly useful especially considering how skewed the context of time has become thanks to the pandemic.
In 2017, Laphet was based in a very small industrial unit in London Fields, which before had begun life – as most great restaurants in the capital do – as a pop-up in Maltby Street Market. Opposite the unit was Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, the restaurant from Zoe Adjonyoh, which had started life at Pop Brixton. The restaurant was another cracking hangout that no longer exists. I still think about the jollof chicken and scotch bonnet ice cream, actually.
To eat at Laphet the first time, we’d driven from south west London to London Fields. Then, when restaurants were open again in between lockdowns in 2021, we even drove over to the newer and bigger Shoreditch site Laphet moved to in order to get a dine-at-home box. That’s commitment. But it was worth it.
Today, I’m sitting in the upstairs of the new Laphet West End restaurant in Covent Garden. At the time of visiting, it had been open three weeks and was nothing short of buzzing. The opening was delayed by more than a year because of you-know-what. But you wouldn’t know the restaurants had seen any hiccups. It’s all plain sailing and feels as if it’s been here for some time. And that’s thanks to where it is, sitting on Slingsby Place, which is gleamingly new and sparkling, and is just a two minute-walk from Covent Garden station.
Tealeaf salad is sour and salty with an intense umami from dried shrimp, but it’s the fermented tea leaves that give the dish its real punchy depth. In short, it’s a wild ride you cannot deny your mouth
The new location brings Lahpet to a whole new world of city workers, busy people on the post-work hunt for a quick bite to eat. Burmese food probably wouldn’t have crossed their minds before. Compared to its humble beginnings, this second site is a rather upscaled operation. In 2017, it was just the head chef Zaw in the kitchen and Dan front of house. Now there’s more staff than I can count buzzing around the floors, and by 7.30pm every table around me is full.
The interiors are insta chic: draping faux greenery from the ceiling, dangling rose Tom Dixon-esque pendants hanging overhead, plenty of concrete terrazzo style flooring and a large open bar. It almost feels as if they went hard on the decor in case the food wasn’t good enough. The walls could be as dull as ditch water and no one would notice as the food is absolutely something to write home about.
The menu has expanded. The favourites are still there, but it’s much bigger. And there’s champagne on the menu too – that certainly wasn’t there before. It’s based on sharing plates, from smaller appetisers to larger dishes and steaming bowls of noodley, spicy goodness. When it comes to small plates, I’m forever living in fear of over-ordering. Thankfully, the staff duly stop you before you sign up for more than you can manage.
First up, from the small plates it was black tiger prawns (£8). Lightly charred, they take on a sultry sweet smokiness. We dip it in the little yellow salsa that has a perfect heat and sharp with limey tanginess and they’re gone in seconds. No truer sign of a dish’s worth.
No visit to Laphet is complete without trying its signature dish, which is also the country’s most famed, tealeaf salad (£9). The first time you eat it, it’s a real mashup for the senses, little fireworks going off in your mouth. From taste to texture, it’s likely unlike anything you’ve had before. It’s sour and salty with an intense umami from dried shrimp, but it’s the fermented tea leaves that give the dish its real punchy depth, while crunch comes in the form of thinly sliced cabbage, as well as the toasted peanuts. In short, it’s a wild ride you cannot deny your mouth.
To cool things down a little, the andaman ceviche (£10) is a large chunk of skin-on seabass on top of the salad. It’s fresh with lime, cucumber, shallot, coriander and coconut, and given the Burmese treatment with a hint of shrimp. A much welcomed modern take on this traditional Peruvian dish.
More fermentation comes in the steaming bowl of pork belly which sits in a sour bamboo curry (£17.50) with dried fermented soybeans, warming and cosy. Another mainstay of the Burmese cuisine is mohinga (£16.50), otherwise known as fish noodle soup. A lemongrass, lime and fermented fish paste broth mixes with thin rice noodles to create a bowl of yellowy goodness, piqued with green beans, grilled squid, and topping it off with half a boiled egg. Again, another build-up of excitement, with a pretty decent chilli kick that you’ll be warned about when you order. But don’t worry, you won’t end up mopping your brow, unless you’re not used to heat.
Burmese food, like much of Asian food, has hints of surrounding cuisines that are far more familiar to the west – Thai, Chinese, Indian – but really, there’s nothing else like it. The fermentation, the sourness, the crunch, the texture. And now, in the West End of the capital, in a prime location, it’s got a wider audience than ever before. It’s certainly grown up from its humble beginnings, and found its feet: firmly on the map.
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Laphet West End, 21 Slingsby Pl, London WC2E 9AB | 020 4580 1276 | lahpet.co.uk