Thursday, 3 November 2011

Dinner @ Banana Tree Soho

Banana Tree styles itself as an Indochina kitchen – offering dishes and specialities from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam amongst other countries in South East Asia. As long time readers of my blog will know, this kind of pan-Asian concept usually brings me out in hives.

Nevertheless, my curiosity was aroused when I was invited to review Banana Tree's new Soho branch. After all, it does no harm to challenge one's prejudices, especially when the first £60 of the bill is free. I know some of you are sceptical of freebie invite reviews, but in this instance I dined anonymously with two civilian mates, and only unmasked myself as a blogger when the bill arrived.

The Legendary Rendang
Like many casual joints, Banana Tree doesn't do starters and mains. Instead, they serve mains alongside a selection of smaller side dishes, and the food is brought out as and when it's ready. I don't usually mind this, but I was a little hacked off that everything, literally, came out at once, with no stagger whatsoever. This meant dishes got cold and table space was at a premium. Anyway, here's what we ordered:

The Legendary Rendang (£9.80) was probably the pick of the bunch, with its melt-in-the-mouth beef and rich coconutty sauce. It could've done with having more zing, but still, it was much better than the rendang I recently had at Tukdin, an ultra authentic Malaysian joint. It's just a shame there wasn't more of it. Sticking with Malaysian classics, the Kajang chicken satay (£8.50/6 pcs) was well marinated and had a nice char. Unfortunately, the chicken was a bit dry and overcooked, which was a shame as the peanut sauce was very good.

Braised Pork Belly
String-tied braised pork belly w/green coconut juice (£7.50) was the other highlight. The pork fell away in juicy tender strands, and the accompanying sauce picked up the flavour of the aromatics such as cinnamon and star anise. This Vietnamese style dish was better than a similar one I had at Viet Grill. But like the rendang, the portion size was a bit mean.

Phad Thai
Phad Thai w/prawns (£8.20) – for whatever reason, this iconic Thai noodle dish often disappoints in London. And this effort didn't buck that trend, as it was bland and unmemorable. As was the green papaya salad (£5.90) – this version of classic Thai som tum, was let down by the absence of chillies, which usually gives this dish a fiery kick.

Roast duck
Roasted duck breast with Pei Pa hoisin sauce (£11.50) is poor value when you consider a whole Cantonese roast duck from Chinatown doesn't cost much more. Cost aside, the meat was tender enough but the skin wasn't well lacquered. It also didn't help that the dish was doused in sauce, which would have been better served on the side. All in all, a bit underwhelming.

The atmosphere was buzzy and the service attentive. Together with some rice, a couple of rounds of beer and service, the bill came to £86 between three, which is roughly £29/head. Notwithstanding the fact that the first £60 of the bill was comped, this is quite expensive for what is a casual dining experience. That said, you can 'combo up' your main course, which makes it better value, although that does discourage sharing.

Despite my deep-rooted antipathy to pan-Asian eateries, Banana Tree wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Nothing was actively bad, and there were signs of promise in the beef rendang and the braised pork belly. Yet there was little va-va-voom (that's a new phrase for Food Blog Bingo) and to be honest, it isn't really my kind of place. Mind you, what I think is pretty much irrelevant, as this casual restaurant was never less than full in the hour or so that I was there.

Banana Tree on Urbanspoon

Banana Tree, 103 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UQ (Tel: 020-7437-1351)
Nearest stations: Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road


  1. Oh dear. This was the kind of thing I was expecting with a Pan Asian restaurant and the reason why I've not tried it yet...

  2. There's a Banana Tree in Angel that pretty much serves the same level of food - average and lacking any excitement. I go there when I'm desperate for a noodle or Malaysian dessert but it's not my kind of place either.

  3. It sounds like it fills a particular safe niche for people who might be cautios when it comes to Asian food. Maybe a similar niche to Yo Sushi for Japanese, Busaba for Thai, Canteen for UK cuisine?

    Still, interesting to hear that there were some decent dishes. I've been reading a few pleasantly surprised write-ups around the web of late. And I have to admit, my curiosity is being piqued.

  4. Gotta agree with you on the satay sauce, it was pretty good. Just a shame about everything else. A very bland meal indeed.
    Nice cocktails though, the Dirty Thai Guy had a kick to it.....

  5. Su-Lin / Crispy / Gworm - there's no doubt that Banana Tree is a safe option that appeals to the lowest common denominator. But it isn't without merit, and there is some quality on show. I just wish more of their cooking was of the quality of the rendang and the pork belly rather than the phad thai.

    Mzungu - I'm kicking myself that I didn't go for a cocktail.

  6. I don't like these pan Asian places either and this is pretty much as I expected. Nice enough but... meh. That rendang looks much more saucy than I'm used to.

  7. also don't like pan-Asian places, usually ends up being a generic, westernized mix. I am intrigued to try Banana Tree though as I heard some good things (relatively good for a pan Asian place I mean ;) and it would be a good budget option in Soho. At least now I know which dishes to avoid...

  8. Ah yes, I remember your search for good pad thai. have you tried Siam Central yet??

  9. Lizzie - you're right, others have mentioned that the rendang is 'wetter' than as is customary. That said, it was tasty, which is more than can be said for much of my order!

    Ute - At apx £30/head, I'm not sure it's that budget! If you consider all cuisines, there are cheaper better options e.g. Byron and Wahaca on this stretch of Wardour St. And for simple one-dish meals, nearby Chinatown is half the price!

    catty - I should've realised pad Thai wouldn't be much cop at Banana Tree! I've yet to try Siam Central - my list of Thai places is long...

  10. @Grubworm

    I really like Busaba - and I'm yet to find anywhere that serves stuff quite so fragrant and as good quality as that. Esp. for the price too.

    But since you put it in that bracket - where would you recommend that is better for Thai in central London?

  11. Frank - IMHO, I wouldn't necessarily bracket Busaba in the same bracket as Banana Tree, as it is of a standard better and sticks to one cuisine: Thai. But like all chains, it is generic, and there are better Thai joints in town.

    For example, @Siam on Frith St (next door to Ronnie Scott's) is very good, and if you're wallet is deep enough then I can suggest Patara (I went to the Greek St branch).

  12. Fantastic - cheers Mr. N

    Both are very near my place of work.

    I made a fantastic Som Tam last night - didn't know it was so easy. I'm guessing it is quite healthy too!

  13. Hi Frank - i think Busaba started out really well, but I've felt that they have lost their touch a little recently - maybe over stretched? That said, ther calamari is still very good.

    I think part of the issue is that good Thai food is hard to find in London, which I find odd given the amount of good Vietnamese, maybe it is something to do with the concentration of Vietnamese restaurants.

    The best two Thai restaurants that I have been to are Siam Central (I think that's Charlotte St) and Kaosarn in Brixton Market. But I hear from a lot of people that downstairs at The Heron on Edgware Rd serves authentically good Thai food - although the menu is only in Thai - The Skinny Bib has a translation here:

  14. Wow - Thanks Grubworm...

    Really much appreciated.

    Very interested in the Heron!

  15. @Frank - me too! Hoping for a visit there soon.