Back in 2020, when the workers and tourists abandoned London’s West End, Covent Garden was left almost ghoulishly silent. The days of long queues for Matilda the Musical, pre-theatre set menus and Yoda street performers were over for ever, I was certain.
Patently, I was an idiot, because full high-octane tourist bedlam has now been restored, and an all-new Lahpet has entered the fray down one of the newly prettified sidestreets off Long Acre. This cool, casual, modern restaurant, which serves Burmese comfort food, was founded by Dan Anton and Burmese chef Zaw Mahesh, and began life as a stall on Maltby Street near London Bridge, before moving first into an arch in Hackney and then to a popular restaurant in Shoreditch; this new, double-floored affair on Slingsby Place is their most ambitious project to date. (Incidentally, if you have a passing knowledge of London, it’s about three minutes’ walk from Pineapple Dance Studios, and probably less if you did it exuberantly in leg warmers.)
The delicious and, for Brits, often intriguing and lesser-explored flavours of Myanmar are a welcome addition to the Yards, Covent Garden’s spanking new shopping precinct. Here, a flashy, multi-floored, glass-fronted but ultimately unappealing Caffè Concerto sits close to the bland yet reliable all-day brunch spot Bill’s; there’s also a Dishoom (ever dependable, but completely oversubscribed) and a sleek Italian wine bar, Dalla Terra. But this repurposed nook of Covent Garden feels brazenly unbothered by its place in the capital, because the Yards could really be anywhere: a mall in Dubai, say, the Newcastle Metro Centre or one of those faceless retail strips featuring a Roly’s Fudge outlet and a shop that sells pleasant jumpers.
It’s a brave, but utterly welcome move to open a joint that serves lahpet thohk (tea-leaf salad) and a contemporary take on mohinga, a traditional rice-noodle fish soup, which here is delightfully spicy (they will warn you about that if you order it). It perhaps needs saying that Lahpet is one of London’s very few purveyors of Burmese cuisine, now that the Mandalay Golden Myanmar in Kilburn seems to be permanently closed (Kiln, the much-loved Thai grill on Brewer Street, occasionally has Shan tofu and a restorative Burmese pork belly curry on the menu, but is perhaps a little experimental for purists). The sterling work of Burmese food writers and supper-club legends the Rangoon Sisters has gone a long way towards introducing us to the specifics of this country’s food – the crunchiness, the delicate sourness, the breakfast soups, the complex salads and, maybe my favourite thing about this cuisine, the glorious, rapturous brown-ness and mauve-ness.
That lahpet thohk salad is a sterling example of this delightful funkiness, with pickled tea leaves interwoven with double-fried beans,wisps of chopped cabbage, plump, sweet bursts of tomato and salty dried shrimp; sesame seeds, crunchy peanuts and a liberal amount of garlic oil and raw garlic also put in an appearance. To a western gaze, at least, this might be unlike any salad seen before, plus it’s the colour of Fozzie Bear and army-surplus combat pants. It comes with a warning that, due to the level of caffeine in it, it may well keep you up at night. Each time I order lahpet thohk, I’m unsure I love it, but I am always compelled to scoop up every last complex, enticing bite.
We also had all three of the grilled skewers, which are frankly incredible; in fact, a dinner of just these skewers and a couple of cocktails would be an evening well spent. The chicken thigh is outstanding and the black tiger prawns, heads and shells on, are impressively fragrant and charred; the Shan tofu fritters, with a finely judged tamarind dip, are also well worth having.
The place was heaving with families, children, gossiping friends and giggling groups, and the music was heroically 1980s, with a strong line in the finest clever pop and electro. As Smalltown Boy by Bronksi Beat merged into Talking Heads’ And She Was, it was almost as if they’d seen me coming.
I cleared a bowl of Rakhine mohinga, which could possibly be described as a sort-of chowder full of grilled squid, green beans, half a boiled egg and a good nose-blast of chilli. If you’re passing and just want a cuddle in a bowl, however, go for the coconut noodles with chicken, because it’s a heartwarming, sweetly satisfying coconut broth packed with egg noodles, shallots, perhaps too much spring onion and armed with a very good, ornate, crispy wonton.
Puddings, on the other hand, are not up to much – banana parfait was a sort of deconstructed cheesecake that was less than the sum of its parts – but then, that’s the way of things with so many places in the West End these days. But it’s not enough to stop Lahpet Covent Garden now being officially one of my safe places to hide from the jugglers and those people who aggressively punt cut-price haircuts. Yes, it sells caffeine-heavy salad, but some things are worth staying awake for.