This Soho restaurant, part of the JKS family empire, was inspired by the traditional rice and coconut milk pancakes of Sri Lanka. Chris Gamm reports
It was at the wedding of Karan Gokani and Sunaina Sethi – one third of restaurant dynasty JKS – that the idea for Hoppers was born.
"I was chatting to Karam [Sethi, Sunaina's brother] about doing casual, fun Sri Lankan food," says lawyer-turned-restaurateur Gokani.
"In 2015, Sri Lankan food wasn't as readily available and as cheap as it is now. We wanted it to be dirty, fun and casual. It's something JKS hadn't done before either, as Gymkhana and Trishna are pitched at Michelin-star level."
Gokani grew up in Mumbai and read law at Cambridge before joining law firm Linklaters. And while he says his heart was always in hospitality, he had to learn the industry on the hoof, completing stages in Indian restaurants while working as a lawyer, learning operations at a small restaurant group in Mumbai and spending time working around the JKS sites.
It took a trip to Colombo and around Sri Lanka for Gokani to refine the Hoppers concept, which opened its first of two London sites on Frith Street in Soho in October 2015, with the St Christopher's Place, Marylebone, site following in September 2017.
"We spent two weeks travelling, building my technical knowledge, visiting houses and trying appam – the Tamal word for the fermented rice and coconut milk pancakes that Sri Lankans call hoppers. We had a vague idea of the menu before we went, but about 50% of it changed."
Hoppers may be the star dish of the simple, one-page menu, which is split into short eats, curries, kothu and breads – and the dish which the group takes its name – but diners are warned against overlooking the other delicacies on offer.
"Our dosas are some of best you'll eat, including in India, while the bone marrow curry is our most popular dish and is served with a roti," says Gokani.
However, the restaurant's dinner plate-sized hoppers have been known to catch out a few Sri Lankan guests. "In Sri Lanka, people eat six small hoppers on their own, but our kitchen would crash if we did this. We want to serve them hotter, so we increased the size and used bigger pans," says Gokani.
The menu is 70% static, featuring classic dishes that are popular among regulars, including a black pork dish and a Chinese-influenced devilled squid. Keeping the menu as authentic as possible and reflecting the diversity in style of dishes in Sri Lanka is important to Gokani, who often turns to his chefs for inspiration.
"We ask the chefs from south India to go and create a dish they love, or to play around with the things their mums cook back home. Then Karam and I tweak the dishes to make them more restaurant-friendly, like using a different cut of meat or sauce to make the dish more subtle. For example, on a beef rib dish, we rebalanced the fat of the rib and garnished it with purple pickled onions and coconut chips for crunch."
Hoppers' drinks menu focuses primarily on beer and cocktails, plus one white wine and one red wine. "Beer is our biggest seller and we're one of the only restaurants to have Lion lager, which we serve in the can for nostalgia," says Gokani.
Coconut spirit arak is the most popular drink on a cocktail menu developed by JKS group bar manager James Stevenson, closely followed by genever, the gin-like liquor popular among Sri Lanka's Dutch community. One notable omission from the menu is desserts.
Gokani says the mixed reviews received for the durian ice-cream they launched with justify the extra chef required to deliver it or the time it held up the queue.
"You can get a phenomenal ice-cream around the corner in Soho, and I'd rather send people there instead," says Gokani, for whom great service is as important as great food.
"Just because we don't pour wine and wear a three-piece suit, it doesn't mean we can't be professional. We wanted trendy staff who are proud of what they do. They won't engage in casual banter, but will have a great conversation with customers."
It's a strategy that's working, and Gokani says the group is looking to grow when he finds the right site.
"There are a few more areas in London that could do with a Hoppers," he says. "It will never be in Mayfair or in a neighbourhood as it needs the footfall of walk-in crowds. Guests come for the buzz, to share tables and rub shoulders with other guests. You can create ambience, but you can't create buzz."
From the menu
- Bone marrow varuval, roti £9
- Mutton rolls, SL hot sauce £5
- Green peppercorn chicken wings £7.50
- Goat kothu roti £12
Hoppers and dosas
- Egg hopper £5
- Dosa £4.50
- Crab kari £9.50
- Black pork kari £9
Hoppers, 49 Frith Street, London W1D 4SG
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