The rules of restaurant reviewing include anonymity – unless you're a "celebrity" reviewer who doesn't mind the fact that what you're getting bears little relation to what's on the usual menu, because the kitchen's gone into a frenzy after the waiter's announced: "XX has just walked in." There are those who wear disguises and visit multiple times to ensure they get the authentic experience. I just use another name and rely on my innate forgettability.
So I'm rather flummoxed by events at Kopapa. I've chosen it because chef/ owner, New Zealander Peter Gordon, is a favourite – his west London Sugar Club was a major mover in the fusion scene in the late 1990s, and one of my first successful forays into the foodie world beyond Pizza Express. Gordon then went on to open The Providores in Marylebone, where the breakfast is worth a major detour. Now Kopapa joins the until-recent food blackspot of Covent Garden.
I'm eager to see Gordon's joint project with the original team behind Gourmet Burger Kitchen, and take my daughter and some friends for dinner. Alas, the little blabbermouth goes to the loo via the kitchen and tells that nice man Peter that her mum is going to write about whether the food is good or not and, oh yes, she's called Lisa Markwell. Cover blown.
A waiter soon glides by with a taster bowl of the laksa for Miss T to try. This is unusual, but welcome, as smoked coconut tamarind laksa with chicken and lime-leaf dumpling, somen noodles, crispy shallots and coriander is not your run-of-the-mill chicken soup. It is, however, delicious, so that's one order out of the way.
It takes some time to decipher the rest of the menu, not only because the lighting is that dim variety so loved by modish establishments, but also because the menu is a panoply of fusion: oysters come with gazpacho, wasabi and sake; there's an ox-tongue and cheddar fritter with pickled red cabbage; and deep-fried squid is accompanied by puy lentils, with chipotle chilli and aubergine salad, caramelised peanuts and rocket. If you like fusion, this is the place for you. Less successful is the shoehorning in of the sharing-plate phenomenon. It all requires a great deal of concentration and clear views on how hungry you are going in.
Given the wordy main courses, we four decide to share the mixed platter (£10.50) of grilled chorizo, guindilla chillies, marinated olives, Zamorano cheese, Marcona almonds, Hansen & Lydersen east London smoked salmon and a sourdough stick. It's a delicious array of good things; only the smoked salmon a slightly odd addition, since it is overpowered by the other flavours and drenched in their various juices.
The kid then has a full-size soup, while the rest of us choose that complicated squid thing; a duck-leg confit with Malaysian twice-cooked sweet-potato dumplings, sour-cherry jus and bok choy; and crispy-skinned Middle White pork belly on almond skordalia and buttered broccolini with moromi miso and tarragon dressing. Phew. That last one is me, a sucker for crackling, but it's where Gordon's deft touch with diverse flavours might have deserted him: the meltingly soft meat and crackly skin don't work with the faintly bitter sauce and although I love skordalia, it's good old-fashioned mash and gravy that I want.
The duck confit, though, is very well-judged and J loves his squid, so perhaps I'll just slink off to Roast, or Canteen...
I'd definitely suspect that I got special treatment on the puddings, if they hadn't all been dishes that must have been prepared in advance. A boiled orange and almond cake with passionfruit custard is intensely citrusy and moreish. Miss T's "plate of biscuits & chocolates" delivers so much more: rich chocolates, crumbly, buttery biscuits and sticky honeycomb. The star is the least lovely looking: black sesame brûlée with lemongrass ginger beignet and black sesame molasses. It looks like something the chefs of I'm a Celebrity... would fashion out of puréed kangaroo parts. But the taste? Sublime – creamy yet potent.
Kopapa is an all-day place, so whether or not I ever get the urge for mutton and quince stew, I'll definitely come back to try Gordon's breakfast concoctions, and for more of the sweet stuff with a cup of tea in the afternoon. But if you're the adventurous type, there's much to tempt you here – you don't need to be a critic.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Kopapa, 32-34 Monmouth Street, London WC2, tel: 020 7240 6076
Breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. About £75 for two, including a carafe of wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010' www.hardens.comReuse content