Sunday, 13 November 2011

Banana Tree, Soho

I had to admire the chutzpah of the marketing guy who sent me, unsolicited, a pretty-generous gift voucher to spend at the newly-opened Soho branch of growing Indochine canteen chain Banana Tree. "We would like to invite you personally to come and try out our new restaurant in Soho!" went the accompanying email; "If you like us, blog it! - if you hate us - let us know, as we are all about improvement and value all opinions, especially yours."

Flattery will get you everywhere with me, and where it doesn't get you bribery usually will, so an offer comprising both was always going to be pretty compelling. If I felt the slightest hint of righteous indignation at so flagrant an attempt to curry my favour, it was swiftly dispelled by the mischievous knowledge that even if I did love the place I didn't have to write about it, and if I hated the place, I didn't have to not write about it - the very opposite of their desired outcomes and 
more fool them for sending out money willy-nilly. Talk about sticking it to the (marketing) man.

But such an expensive and potentially risky marketing strategy must have been backed up by as much confidence in the product as money in the budget and sure enough, Banana Tree was, well, pretty top banana. Conscious that readers might not take me at my word knowing that my presence there had essentially been bought, I took along my pal Nicola who, as a director of  a high-end hotel and restaurant group knows her stuff and would, I knew, not hold back with her opinions good or bad. Guess what? She loved the place too.

Photo used with kind permission of Greedy Diva
The Soho outpost of Banana Tree - there are also branches in Angel, Clapham, Bayswater and West Hampstead - replaces what was a large Itsu on Wardour Street, evidently hoping to thrive where another Oriental chain didn't. The decor is a pleasant, funky-chain-by-numbers get up of exposed air ducts, concrete floors, low-hanging lanterns and open kitchen; if it's not original, it's at least bright, comfortable and welcoming, an ambience further enhanced by lovely staff.

Describing itself as an 'Indochina Kitchen', Banana Tree's idiosyncratically laid-out menu takes diners on a culinary tour of that region from Vietnam in the east, inland to Thailand and south to Malaysia and Singapore. We started with some Nyonya Achar - beautiful peanut and sesame-scented pickles, tasty crispy filo rolls with a punchy nuoc mam dipping sauce and a surprisingly delicious char-grilled aubergine half with aromatic caramel sauce. A sworn aubergine-denier, even I had to admit that served like this, eggplant was distinctly edible.

Poor Nicola suffers from that cruellest of afflictions, Vegetarianism, but her wretched kind are thoughtfully looked after here. Some dishes are confusingly described as being suitable for 'selective vegetarians' only, meaning that they contain eggs and/or fish sauce; Nicky erred on the side of caution and ordered the fabulously-named Thai Monks' Vegan Delight. A colourful fragrant stir-fry of pak choy, shitake mushrooms and tofu with garlic, Thai basil and vegetarian oyster sauce, it also introduced both of us to 'mock duck', a wheat protein-based meat substitute which looked, and I'll grudgingly admit tasted, pretty ducky.

I wanted to avoid ordering 'The Legendary Rendang' for the same reason I avoid staying in hotels that call themselves things like 'Splendide' and 'Excelente', namely that they're usually quite the opposite. But persuaded by our sweet waitress's enthusiastic recommendation, not to mention the endorsement of a Malaysian friend who'd visited earlier in the week, I went ahead and had it anyway and it was absolutely, well, legendary. Long, slow cooking of the beef in a top-secret blend of spices, the sauce reduced over time to a thick gravy, made the rendang a rich, sweet treat with just enough curry heat to stimulate without blowing one's head off.

This is the point in a post where I usually say something along the lines of, "we were stuffed but gamely soldiered on to desserts" - not so on this occasion. Our palates nicely tingling and stomachs not over-full from our savoury courses, Nic and I were both fancying something sweet to round things off and asked for a dessert menu, only to be told - to our great surprise and disappointment - that Banana Tree don't do desserts. None. At. ALL. Not even a banana split! They have proscribed puddings, sacrificed sweets, abrogated afters. Why I don't know, and nor it would seem do the staff, but it brought what had otherwise been a very enjoyable meal to a premature and unwelcome close.

With a serviceable bottle of ros
é at £16.95 from a drinks list which also takes in cocktails, mocktails (groan), spritzers and raw juices, our bill came to a perfectly reasonable £55, and as this was just under the value of the gift voucher I'd been lured in with I'd guess that this has been worked out as being about the typical spend for a couple.

So a good meal and time were had, but one thing about the experience leaves rather a bad taste in the mouth. Because our bill was covered by the voucher, we left a cash tip so that the staff who had served us wouldn't miss out on any discretionary service charge, and  later, closer inspection of the bill revealed that 10% service is indeed automatically added. I don't mind this in principle - 12.5% is the norm, as the title of this blog attests - but it occurred to me that I couldn't remember seeing this stated anywhere. Looking at the menu, it is there, but in tiny print in an already text-heavy section that most diners will disregard. Because of this, they'll leave unaware that the 10% 'will be shared among the kitchen staff, waiting staff and management'.

This, I have to say, appals me; I've always trusted that the 'service' charge I pay in restaurants is used to reward the (usually low-paid) staff who provide the actual service, not  to provide a bit of extra cash for the kitchen staff and management who, although obviously involved in the process of getting the food to my table, don't have to put up with my endless questions/flirtation/general showing off in the same way as waiters do. If, as I expect I will, I visit a branch of Banana Tree again, I'll be insisting that the service charge not be added to the bill and tip the waiter or waitress directly instead. I encourage you to do the same.

Banana Tree, 103 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UQ Tel: 020 7437 1351

Banana Tree on Urbanspoon


  1. I agree on how good Banana Tree is but good point on the lack of desserts! I want my fried banana.

  2. Almost all restaurants split tips with the kitchen - they are part of the service and often paid the same as the floor staff.

    The management thing is terrible. Banana Tree should be avoided on principle anyway as the food is utter rot.

  3. GD - Crazy innit? I seriously couldn't think of anywhere else that doesn't offer anything for afters at all!

    William - I disagree about the quality of the food, I really thought that everything we had was excellent - for me to enjoy aubergine, it must have been!

  4. Totally agree, food absolutely fabulous!! Great service too. Did you get your free chewy gummy thingy at the end? Poor replacement for desserts but gave me a sweet finish on my palate at least. I thought their Laksa was one of the best I've tasted in London. Great Blog Hugh!!

    Trixy Lee

  5. Thank you Trixy Lee! Actually good point re: the sweeties, I did get one, and in fact asked for another couple to (partially) make up for the lack of pud!

  6. I haven't used my voucher yet, seems like I should! Thanks for the tip-tip, I shall have the service charge taken off my bill when I go.

    1. Oh if you've got a voucher do go, it's definitely worth it. And guess what - they're now doing desserts so you can have the full three courses should you wish!

  7. I used to go to Street Hawker, next to Maida Vale tube station - it was a one-off, tiny place, churning out fantastic South-East Asian food. When I last walked past, a week or so ago, I saw that it was being refashioned into a Banana Tree! My heart just about stopped beating.
    Now that I've read your review on the Wardour Street branch, I'm keen to try out the newcomer in W9. Thanks for the review. It worked better than a defibrillator on my ailing organ.

    1. Delighted to have eased your heartache, although I agree it's always a wrench when a much-loved independent is replaced with a chain, even a good one. I hope your Banana Tree is as good as this one - they've started doing desserts now too I understand!

    2. Hi Hugh, For you information, speaking as founder and head chef of Banana Tree, Street Hawker in Maida Vale was actually my first restaurant with forty covers.

      Banana Tree Soho is the most recent addition to our small chain. We had grown organically over a period of 21 years with no outside investment and 6 restaurants in 21 years would not class us as a typical chain. I am still very much at the helm of my company and am still as passionate in our food today as I was when I started back in 1991 when I still had plenty of hair on my head! It is frustrating to be grouped together with chains that are created overnight with big backers. I had left my architectural profession all these years ago to slog in the steamy kitchen due to my passion, but for some reason due to our wide menu offering and being now a 'chain' some reviewers are very quick to slate us. I have just returned this weekend from my second food tour of Vietnam which you may have noted by my tweets, in the hope that we will further improve our Indochinese offering. So, watch this space as another revised menu will be coming out in due course, after having just launched one as recent as a month ago.

      If you like us before hopefully next time round you will want to sleep with us!

      Best, William Chow

    3. Hi William

      Yes it's interesting how the concept of a 'chain' can mean such different things to different people, although it's reassuring to see from the comments here that for the most-part Banana Tree is held to be a good example. I really enjoyed Soho and will certainly be back - and have recommended it to people who I know have also enjoyed it. Will be interesting to try the new menu - and hopefully meet you to hear about your travels!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment,


  8. Hugh,

    Will keep you inform when the menu comes out. Would love to meet up one of these days and to of-load some of our trials and tribulations in our relentless strive to be a credible ethnic chain at affordable prices and with an increasingly 'non-ethnic' workforce.(How does one compete when the general public that has a general expectation to pay no more than pizza prices when so much of our ingredients are either shipped or air-freighted in 6000 miles away!) It really is an area no one is aware of.

    Sorry to have got my violin out but i just couldn't help myself! Catch you sometime Hugh and by the way, loving your contributions to the general media.

    William Chow


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