I don't do chains. That has been my cry throughout life. I am from a city where Starbucks doesn't survive. Whether it be coffee, sandwiches, restaurants or clothes, we Melbournians like our independent stores for all their quirky, unpredictable glory.
But then I moved to London and stumbled upon Busaba. And I liked it. It became our standard lazy option for decent, local Thai food. In my desperation to find an acceptable coffee in the early days, I even tried Costa and Cafe Nero. Thank God we discovered Flat White, and promptly moved in down the road.
BananaTree is a little chain operation that I wasn't all that keen to try because, well, it's a little chain operation. But then I did. And it was really good. The food was lovely and the place had personality. So then, exhausted after weeks of travelling and long hours, TPG and I decided to go again on Friday night - to lazily send off the week with a table full of food and a bottle of wine. And an hour later, by coincidence, I received a voucher to come in and visit for essentially a free meal (review us if you like us, give us the feedback if you don't). Done.
I like it.
Specialties from the Indochina region (think the lemongrass and fresh herbs of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar mixed in the the dry spices of mainland Malaysia) are served in a casual and funky setting. The room has an industrial fit out (quirky low hung light fittings, wooden tables, concrete walls, exposed pipelines, splashes of red), with an open kitchen (now becoming something of a norm in new London restaurant openings) and a mix of small and communal tables. Although Banana Tree has only been open in Soho for a month, by 8pm it's buzzing with a crowd, but minus the long queue of Busaba up the road.
Feast on the tart but addictively sweet goodness that is the papaya salad (£5.90), actually right up there with the best I can remember having, along with some lusciously gooey baked aubergine with caramelised vinegar sauce (£4.20) - a bit like the Japanese nasu dengaku, and the big hitting rendang (£9.80) - satisfyingly big, tender chunks of beef, slow cooked in coconut milk and spices like lemongrass and chilli. The sautéed lamb with fragrant kari patta leaves, cashews, coriander, tomatoes and spring onions (£8.50) is rammed with so much flavour that I don't mind that the lamb is too dry. Large, thin slices of chargrilled blackened chilli pork are marinated in dark soy, palm sugar, chilli, garlic and spices (£8.90) and come with a nice nasi goreng - more deliciousness. With 2 glasses of wine our tab comes up to around £50 for 2 people.
After eating at Nahm earlier in the week, eating this sort of food anywhere else so soon was at risk of being a massive downer. But, actually, I really like Banana Tree. I think Busaba has gone downhill recently, and in my view Banana Tree definitely comes up trumps for the quality of its food. Just watch the prices as they can stack up. Looking at the cost of each dish, I don't think they're overpriced compared with other places in the area (although the rending and some other dishes are probably pushing the upper end of the scale), but I probably tend to go to chains thinking they should be the cheap option, when actually the costs can sneak up on you.
Oh, and the service staff have been really sweet and keen on both my visits (as much on the anonymous one as my invitation to review). It may be a mini chain, but don't be afraid - it still has soul and you can taste it. Definitely one to try.
Banana Tree - Indo China Kitchen, 103 Wardour Street, W1F 0UQ (Tel 0202 7437 1351)
There are other Banana Tree outlets at Angel, Bayswater, Clapham Junction and West Hamstead.