The Banana Tree, 103 - 109 Wardour Street, W1F 0UQ
Back when the millennium was still young, Mr F and I went through a phase of watching Asian horror films. The early noughties were a bit of a golden age, particularly for Japanese scary movies, and we revelled in the fear for a couple of years until one fateful night in 2004, when we finally got around to watching Dark Water. We enjoyed the film but I was less than impressed by Mr F's subsequent attempt to frighten me by turning on all the taps in the bathroom and hiding behind the shower curtain. Oh how we laughed at that one... once I'd stopped screaming and trying to batter him to death with the shampoo.
Our thoughts turned to those happy days when we ate at the Banana Tree last week. Not because the Banana Tree is scary or in some way possessed by a supernatural force - although it would be ace if it was. Rather because we remembered how we felt when we saw our favourite films had fallen victim to the West's need for a Hollywood remake. Yet this wasn't the crushing disappointment of a classic butchered by the upstart newcomers, rather this was something a teensy bit edgy rendered mainstream by a sensitive adaptation.
The Banana Tree has several outlets, and we were invited (along with many others) to try out the newly renovated Soho branch. All exposed pipes, shared tables and big filament light bulbs, the décor works with the general atmosphere of muted trendiness. It's the sort of place you might bring friends to, but you could also bring an elderly relative without them freaking out.
We started off with some abon sapi, a sort of spicy beef floss that looked like snuff and tasted chewy and slightly sweet, like caramelised biltong that had been through a blender. Being greedy, we followed that with a second more substantial starter of lettuce leaves, pickles and pork meatballs. This was our favourite dish of the evening, with the pickled vegetables adding a piquant crunch to our salad wraps. It was almost as good as the cooking found on the Kingsland Road. Almost.
For our main course, we shared two meat dishes and a pad thai. Mr F has long been a fan of their blackened chilli pork, ever since we lived near the Banana Tree in Clapham Junction. He judged that it remains as good as ever it was; but I found it a little tough. The beef rendang was better: with meat tender from slow cooking and an appropriately spicy, nutty sauce. The pad thai was very respectable, with plenty of juicy prawns and slightly sour, not-too-squishy noodles.
With few, if any, dishes costing more than ten pounds and an excellent location, it was easy to see why the Banana Tree was busy. In fact, it was doing so well on the night of our visit we wondered why they had invited us in the first place. It didn't seem like they needed much more publicity. However, I am glad they did because it made me realise that, whilst I generally prefer the original, there's nothing wrong with the remake. Banana Tree might be mainstream but it's one of the better places to eat pan-Asian food without it being too heavily sanitised and, therefore, underwhelming. As someone who thinks slices of lung in chilli oil are a tasty snack, and whose favourite restaurant ever is known as "Big Plate Rice" for want of a real name, these chain restaurants often leave me cold. However, just as I was forced to concede that the Departed was rather good, so did I conclude that there are situations when the Banana Tree would make a more appropriate, and enjoyable, choice than a grotty but authentic cafe. My friends will be so relieved.
The Forks were invited to review the Banana Tree