Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Banana Tree: an Indolicious stop in Mayfair

Recently me and my other half headed into London’s West End for a meal on the town. While gallivanting past our usual haunts, such as 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 turns into Mayfair and a range of appealing and alluring restaurants can be found. 

Although Byron immediately attracted my attention because of 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 for beef, 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 a slightly more sophisticated kitchen it is you are after, it would not hurt to try another popular joint a few doors down the road, namely the much more appealing eatery of the Banana Tree, part of a chain of six restaurants throughout London, it offers an authentic selection of dishes and specialties from the Indochina region.

The grand but personal room is a designer-free zone with its shiny, wood-grain tables and black brick walls on one side (with a huge image of what is most likely rush hour in Vietnam) while the other half of the restaurant has a more serene and light ambiance to it. The place breathes trendiness and modernity, and it certainly has a proper ‘city’ feel to it. We were seated at a table in the centre of the restaurant where we could soak in the lively, vibrant atmosphere created by a loud, outgoing audience, without being too much in your face. The restaurant fills up quickly but the noise is not unrelenting: it is not necessary to shout in order to make yourself heard, while one can easily hold a private conversation without being overheard.

While studying the trendy brown and black menu card, which had a bit of an exotic touch to it, we were overwhelmed by the excellent, original choices. The menu invites its customers on a culinary tour through the region of South East Asia, offering all the best that Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have to offer. What 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 goes down as an ‘aromatic Thai curry cooked with green spice paste, sweet basil, lime leaves, peppers, bamboo shoots and coconot milk’; finger licking descriptions that certainly got us mouthwatering. I decided to play it safe and ordered the ‘chicken lemongrass, turmeric and coriander’, while my other half opted for the roasted duck breast with Pei Pa Hoisin Sauce, as recommended by William Chow, the founder and chef of Banana Tree. In next to no time the polite waitress brought us a bottle of their decent house red, a French Jacques Veritier.

Soon – perhaps slightly too rapid – the food was brought in and really got our taste buds going. The unpretentious portions were faultlessly presented and staff checked on us to made sure we were satisfied. My chicken was sweet with a delicious spicy aftertaste that made you long for the next gnaw. The savory and aromatic sauce, consisting of lemongrass, coriander and turmeric, was complimented with peanuts, peppers and oriental veggies. The ‘added dash of fish sauce’, as stated on the menu, could not be identified, surely the spices and lemongrass dominated and with chicken as the backbone of the dish adding fish sauce seemed a bit out of place. Meanwhile, my partner took proper care of his roasted duck breast, which was presented excellently. Even if duck is not your thing, you might reconsider given the fact it was tastefully topped with mildly spiced hoisin and a sesame sauce, served with cashews and coriander. Simply divine! 

The quality of our dishes seemed to shine through the entire dining experience at this trendy 40-seater. It has 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, flavorsome dishes to the friendly and easy going staff, Banana Tree truly is the home of the Indochinese cuisine in London’s West End.

Banana Tree
103 Wardour Street - Mayfair

Michiel Willems © May 2012 Pictures: The Local Data Company / FluidLondon.co.uk / Londonchow.com.