Since Lahpet re-opened in April, founders Dan Anton and Zaw Mahesh have had their hands full during evening service. One of the few permanent places offering Burmese cuisine in not just London but the UK, the restaurant’s relocation to a larger, more prominent spot on Shoreditch High Street has seen the pair handling double the covers and quadruple the people.
“I think there’s definitely an appetite for a new Southeast Asian cuisine and we’re seeing that because we’re very, very busy,” says Anton. “I think there’s potential for us to expand and enough demand for a second site to fill up.”
Originally a street food stall, Lahpet later became a full-time brick-and-mortar destination in Hackney, before its most recent move to Shoreditch. The brand also has a presence in the Kitchens part of Old Spitalfields Market.
The founders have tried to strike a balance between the strictly traditional, as represented by no-frills London stalwart Mandalay Golden Myanmar, and a more contemporised, Instagram-friendly format – a route taken by newcomer Cafe Mandalay in Huddersfield.
In the kitchen, Mahesh employs modern cooking methods but utilises only ingredients that can be found in Myanmar. Some items have to be painstakingly imported, as they’re unavailable through suppliers or Asian supermarkets – items such as pae pot, a dried, fermented soybean product that comes in discs.
Rice and chickpea flours are in common usage – Burmese cuisine tends to be good for people with a gluten intolerance because it doesn’t employ wheat flour – while the Shan tofu is made with split peas rather than soybeans.
People mulling over whether to invest in Myanmar’s food might have been given pause by the indefinite closure of Shan State, one of the capital’s only other Burmese eateries, but Anton is positive on the outlook.
“I think there’s definitely a gap in the market for this cuisine to grow further, it’s just that there’s a lack of capability in rolling out something like this,” he says, adding that there needs to be a balance between authentic flavours – that’s Mahesh’s territory – and an understanding of the local restaurant scene, which is where Anton comes in.
So what do customers tend to order – and, more importantly, what do they order again and again?
A matter of taste
Despite the change in locale and the expansion of the clientele that has entailed, the top seller remains the dish that gives Lahpet its name: the tea leaf salad.
“I don’t think there’s any similar salad anywhere like it in the world,” says Anton. “Even Thai salads, they don’t have that texture that the tea leaf salad has.”
He explains that part of the appeal is that it hits all the flavour notes on the palate, from the pickled tea’s umami notes to the spicy fish sauce kick and lime acidity, with double-fried beans, dried shrimp, and fresh tomato and cabbage adding plenty of taste and texture too.
It's an odd item to be the star performer, especially since Anton says most people need to have four or five bites before they decide they actually enjoy it.
“People don’t naturally gravitate towards salads, a lot of people don’t, so they need to have it pushed on them,” he remarks. “When they do, 95% of people love it.”
There are also dishes that sound more familiar and comforting to a customer’s ear. The coconut noodles with chicken, for example, are a classic dish in Myanmar (where it’s called ohn no khao swe). The flavours are relatively self-explanatory and promise a sensory experience akin to ones found in, say, Malaysian laksa – not identical, but similar enough that it’s not completely alien.
Then there are the dishes that leave many visitors perplexed, like the tofu nway: a bowl of liquid tofu with rice noodles, mustard greens, pea shoots and peanuts.
“We never expected it to fly,” admits Anton, “we keep it on because its vegan. But people, when they order this tofu bowl with noodles, they think they’re going to get lumps of tofu and they get a silky tofu soup – and it’s very, very weird for people to have this liquidised, warm tofu soup in front of them.”
Share and share alike
While the dishes were always designed to be shared, one of the changes to the menu since Lahpet moved to Shoreditch has been the addition of a small plates section, which allows people to have a smattering of starters before digging into bigger courses
Among the most popular newcomers has been the fritters, which come in three flavours: split pea, Shan tofu and Mandalay (kidney bean and ginger).
“When the tables of two come in, I try and put them off ordering the whole platter between two,” says Anton. “I say, just take one and go for something else, like a salad, because otherwise you’re just going to fill up on fried snacks. But people like fritters!”
Also garnering new fans are the dumplings, served with balachuang (a spicy shrimp condiment).
“What we do is kind of putting a contemporary, Western spin without it becoming fusion,” says Anton of the menu. “We’re fairly cautious, because Burmese cuisine in Myanmar can be quite crude and unrefined and really not what most people would enjoy here,” says Anton. As an example, he points to sepyan, a kind of curry dish you’d find on the streets of Yangon that normally has an inch of oil on top – something most Brits would find unappealing.
Desserts are limited, since Burmese cuisine doesn’t tend to focus on the sweet things, A handful of home-made sorbets in exotic flavours like guava, lychee and mango sit alongside a jazzed up version of sanwin makin, a semolina cake that at Lahpet comes with orange marmalade, lime and ginger ice cream, jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) and chocolate quenelles.
Lahpet Shoreditch has been open less than a year but the success so far has inspired confidence in the concept’s investors. Anton and Mahesh are already putting out feelers for new sites, with plans to commence the hunt in earnest early next year.
“I think ideally May or June we’ll have something signed off,” says Anton. “I think wherever we go we want more of a lunch market. We don’t open for lunch on Monday, but lunch Tuesday to Friday is quite slow here... We’re thinking West End, ideally near Soho, not solely, but that would be the next most logical move we think.”
After that, he’s quite keen on doing something in King’s Cross or perhaps in a developing area like White City. However, he is dubious about taking the concept to other parts of the UK, saying the long-term goal is other major European cities.
“I quite like the idea of opening one in Berlin or somewhere like that. Germans, French, Italians, they really love these sorts of flavours and I think it would work well. We’d probably need some local expertise on the ground to go into a foreign market, but I don’t see why that should be a barrier.”
Beyond foodservice, Lahpet are mulling ideas to retail their ingredients and sauces, including marinated tealeaves for their famous salad – though only through the restaurant. While there might be an opportunity for experimental supermarkets to play with dishes like mohinga, a fish stew with vermicelli noodles, Anton doesn’t believe consumers are ready to pick up Burmese ready meals. Not just yet, anyway.