Friday, 26 February 2010

Dinner @ Papaya (Sri Lankan), London

I moved down to London in the summer of 1994 – please don't work out my age – and on the stereo were the sounds of Blur and Oasis. Together with Suede and Pulp, they were the big boys of Britpop, the soundtrack of my early years in the capital. But as with all trends, Britpop was also full of 'me-too' mediocrities like Menswear and Northern Uproar who were unbelievably shite.

The era also spawned some bands that fell between these two extremes. Bands like Shed Seven and The Bluetones, who knocked out some killer tunes but whose albums could be patchy. In my opinion, songs like Chasing Rainbows and Slight Return would make anyone's Britpop compilation tape (tape – that's how old I am).

I know what you're thinking, just what the hell has this got to do with Sri Lankan food ? Well, part way through my meal at Papaya, I decided that this Ealing restaurant was a bit like Shed Seven. Having suggested The Bluetones, Mr Pak Choi then decided they were bit too good to be represented by Papaya in my 'ranking by Britpop' system. Apologies if you're bemused but please bear with me !

As Papaya is my mate Nuf's local, the family Nuf consisting of Mrs Nuf, Fay, and Yasmin joined us. Also in attendance were Mr Pak Choi, El Greco, and Mysterious Miss A (I promised everyone a mention in the style of radio DJ's of old). 

First impressions were positive as the warm interior made us feel at home from the off. Although it was quite empty when we rolled up at 7.30, the dining room soon filled with groups of mates, couples, and family outings, which gave it a convivial atmosphere.

Being a group of eight meant we could give the mainly Sri Lankan and South Indian menu a good going over. Although there were a few High Street curry house dishes for numpties the unadventurous, I gently encouraged my fellow diners to go Sri Lankan or at least South Indian and with one or two exceptions, they complied. 

The starters were cheap with none costing more than £3.50 but when the poppadoms were the highlight, you know you've got a problem. I can't be certain but many of the starters had a "made somewhere else" feel about them with only the uridu vadai (dhal rings) looking anything like own-made.

Most disappointing were the fish cutlets that looked like scotch eggs and the beef rolls and mutton rolls that reminded me of potato croquettes. In particular, the mutton rolls were a bit tough and like the beef rolls needed a bit of the chutney from the uridu vadai to perk it up.

I wasn't a fan of the doughnut-like uridu vadai, and whilst the accompanying chutney was tasty, they were bland and stodgy – not at all dhal-y. I didn't try the samosas or the crab claws although the latter looked like the Chinese restaurant two doors down could've served it. Not the most promising of starts.

Onto the mains, these were keenly priced between £6.95 and £9.95. I went for a Sri Lankan king prawn curry (headline photo) which the waiter advised me to have medium. This was a shame as I could've done with it being spicier. That said, it was delicious and it went really well with the string hoppers (see my previous post for the lowdown on these Sri Lankan noodles). Like much of the food here, the curry and noodle combo seemed to have some South East Asian influences, in particular the use of tamarind and coconut milk.

The ladies of the family Nuf went for the devilled dishes, which were stir-fries with spices, onions, tomatoes, and capsicums. The best of these was the king prawn (pictured below, centre) as it really absorbed the flavour of the spices. I didn't try the chicken but the lamb chops were past their best by the time I got my grubby mitts on one.

I had full-on main course envy when I tried the kothu. Just why the hell didn't I order this ? A choice of rotti, string hoppers, or pittu chopped up and mixed on a griddle with egg, onions, chilli, with either seafood, meat or veg. 

My favourite was the seafood kothu w/string hoppers (pictured above), which Mysterious Miss A sadly couldn't finish. Despite being ordered mild, I loved the richness of this dish and the string hoppers really soaked up the seafood flavour. I will definitely order this dish if I ever return here albeit with the spice level turned up. I also liked mutton kothu w/string hopper - it had a real kick as Nuf wisely ordered it hot. Less successful was PC's beef kothu w/pittu as I wasn't over-enamoured with the couscous-esque pittu. 

Having let the side down with his safe choice of meat samosa starter, El Greco plumped for chicken masala dosai. I didn't get to try it as he soon polished it off which meant that it was either really tasty or he was really nervous having seen me have a crack at everybody else's main.

We also ordered loads of sides including okra curry, coconut sambol, chapathi, paratha, poori, egg rotti, lemon rice, and string hoppers (I think I may have missed out a few). Sadly some of these sides stopped the mains from going for gold. In particular, the family Nuf thought the chapathi was thick and doughy whilst PC likened the texture of the poori to the outside of a microwaved petrol station pasty. Well at least they didn't balls up the string hoppers as there is no way back from noodle failure.

The bill was roughly £250 between eight including service. This was excellent value when you consider: 1) we were there for over three hours during which time we were amply topped up with Sri Lankan Lion lager, wine, lassis, and whisky (Nuf's latest fad) and 2) we over ordered as the masala dosai and kothu were complete meals and we didn't need that many side dishes. 

Service was good although the waiters did initially try to take the piss by getting us to order even more side dishes. Overall, it was a great night out and we all left keen to sample more Sri Lankan food. 

Verdict: Shed Seven were a great live act with some killer singles and to draw parallels, Papaya is a good night out with some excellent dishes. Yet like the York band, there are problems with consistency, in particular the disappointing starters and sides. In short, this is a decent neighbourhood restaurant but not somewhere you'd go out of your way to visit. 

Other Stuff: Although Papaya is in Ealing with a branch in Rayners Lane, most of London's Sri Lankan eateries can be found in Tooting and Wembley. 

Papaya on Urbanspoon


  1. Shame about the entrees but at least the rest of the meal looks pretty good! Quite a bargain too!

  2. Likjng your new ranking system - where would Pulp fit? Maybe signifying down-to-earth everyday ingredients combined and created with had of subtle genius. St John would be a good qualifier...

    Interesting review, I know little of Sri Lankan food and am intrigued by the SE Asian influence. I know there was much trading between South India/Sri Lanka and SE Asia and suspect that the influences went both ways.

  3. I'm not sure I'm particularly familiar with Sri Lankan food but there's one thing I am familiar with and that is MIX TAPES! Oh the mix tape - what a significant part of my youth. We used them to impress mates, woo potential partners and tape stuff off the radio. Heaven forbid if you nipped off to the loo and weren't back in time to press stop at the appropriate moment.

  4. 3HT - the mains in particular were good and I'll be tracking down more Sri Lankan food. Next time, I'll hit up one of the small 'community' caffs.

    Grubworm - I'm not sure which restaurant would be Pulp but it'd have to be different class. I think the trade routes between Sri Lanka and what is now Malaysia and Indonesia definitely influenced the food. Especially when you consider the Brits, Dutch, and Portuguese all had a colonial presence in Sri Lanka and SE Asia at one time or another.

    Helen - the kids of today don't know what they're missing out on. Burning CD's and creating playlists are no substitute for the joy of crafting a mix tape ! I mean it's all very well knowing how to illegally download but do today's youth have the reflexes and skill to release the 'pause' button during the Top 40 countdown at the right time ? Do they ?

  5. If you are trying more Sri Lankan food, give Apollo Banana Leaf in Tooting Broadway (about a 5-10 min walk from the station down a main street) a go. My Sri Lankan friend swears by it (to the extent I've never tried any of the other places in Tooting) and says it reminds him of the stuff his mum makes.

    Make sure you get the Mutton Kothu - either medium or hot (I find the hot is a bit much for me, it's not too hot to start with, and then just builds) and also the aubergine dish. I can't remember what else we've ordered, as we just generally pass the menu to my friend! Oh, and they do take away - 4 quid for a massive box of korfu! And you can bring your own alcohol too (there is a little offlicense along the way).

  6. Tracy - thanks for the tip. Coincidentally, Apollo Banana Leaf is on my list to try and I'm glad you and your SL friend like it.