Banana Tree is a small chain of restaurants serving food from Indochina: Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Singapore. The first Banana Tree opened in 1991 in Maida Vale, London, with the aim of serving quick healthy food from the Indochina area. They serve fresh and fragrant salads, slow-cooked curries and stews and barbecued foods. They also specialise in Oriental cocktails and raw fruit and vegetable drinks. They have a separate vegetarian menu with an excellent range for non-meat eaters.
The second Banana Tree opened in West Hampstead in 1997 and now there are 8 branches, mainly in London but the newest is in Oxford. It’s the West Hampstead one I know best from years ago when my son Jonathan lived there, sharing a flat with his friend Rob. I’d often go over on Sunday evenings to visit and we’d go to Banana Tree for supper. We loved the place and the food was always really good. My favourite dish was their Laksa – rice noodles topped with their house special spiced coconut broth, aubergine, tofu and bean sprouts, garnished with coriander and crispy shallots. You can add in chicken or prawns for a little extra. Over the last year or so I’ve gone to other restaurants selling Laksa and always thought, That’s nowhere near as good as the one I used to have at Banana Tree. Then a while ago I was walking along Wardour Street in London’s Soho and saw a branch. I knew I had to go back.
Yesterday evening I met my friend Elsa at the Soho Curzon to see Pedro Amaldovar’s latest film, Julieta. It’s a wonderful film, very emotionally charged with themes of guilt and grief and, as often in Amaldovar films, a study of mother-daughter relationships. Afterwards, I suggested we went to Banana Tree for a meal – it was so close.
Wardour Street was heaving and when we arrived at Banana Tree there was queue but we didn’t have to wait long – about 10 minutes. It was busy with a great buzzing but relaxed feel. There are large communal tables as well as smaller ones. We were lucky that a table for two came free, which made it a little easier to talk as it was quite noisy. I of course just had to have the Laksa and chose to add in some prawns.
I could see how good it was, smell how good it was, as soon as it was put before me. It tasted wonderful – gorgeously spicy but not too hot; the prawns perfectly cooked so sweet and tender. It really was the best Laksa I’ve had since the last time I went to the West Hampstead branch – and that’s a few years ago! It’s a large bowl of food and we didn’t need starters or desserts.
Elsa meanwhile had said just being in the restaurant with all the lovely smells reminded her of her 6-week trip round the Indochina area at the beginning of the year. She chose the Rendang. Banana Tree describe this as ‘The Legendary Rendang’ – ‘A famous speciality from the Minangkabau Hill Tribe of Indonesia’. It’s a slow-cooked curry, dry and fragrant with a rich, nutty toasted coconut based sauce. You can choose beef or chicken – Elsa chose beef and said it was very good.
We each had a glass of wine and the bill came to £19 each, including a tip. I’m so pleased I went back and rediscovered Banana Tree. I can only hope they open a branch closer to Richmond/Twickenham soon – and then I’d be there regularly!