Lahpet, the London restaurant founded by Dan Anton and Zaw Mahesh, takes its name from the Burmese word for tea in a nod to its signature dish lahpet thohk, AKA tea leaf salad. Made with pickled tea leaves, double-fried beans, peas and nuts, tomato and cabbage bound in a zingy dressing that includes fresh garlic, chilli, fish sauce, dried shrimp and lime juice, its curious combination of earthiness and freshness is moreish in the extreme
Barely known outside Myanmar - the politically unstable Southeast Asian country’s official name - Burmese cuisine does not lend itself to easy categorisation. Neighbouring India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand, the country straddles Sub Continental Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia.
“The food is reflective of Burma’s geographical positioning,” says Lahpet co-founder Dan Anton. “The closer you get to each border the food will become more and more like that of the adjoining country. To further complicate things, the country is made up of lots of different ethnic groups.
“It is difficult to generalise, but constants include the use of simple Indian spice blends alongside fermented fish seasonings, including fish sauce and dried shrimp. And while a lot of the dishes do use chilli, they don’t tend to be as in-your-face as those found in Thailand.”
A new wave Burmese restaurant
Born in the UK but of Burmese heritage on his father’s side, Anton teamed up with Burmese-born chef Zaw Mahesh to launch Lahpet (pronounced la-pet) in 2016. It traded briefly as a street food business within Bermondsey’s Maltby Street Market but soon moved into a warehouse space in London Fields and – a year or so later – opened its first permanent site on Shoreditch’s Bethnal Green Road.
The pair are looking to do for Burmese food what restaurants like Kiln, Smoking Goat and Som Saa did for Thai cuisine by making it more accessible and serving it in a modern restaurant environment. The big difference, they say, is that very few people have a frame of reference for Burmese food.
Anton sees this as a strength rather than weakness. “There are literally a handful of other Burmese restaurants in London (Edgware Road’s Manderley, which was well known in Burmese and foodie circles, appears to have closed as a result of the pandemic). Tourism was not really a thing in Burma until quite recently but now quite a few people have been. When they get home, they want to eat the food again. We come up first on Google [when you search Burmese restaurants] and we didn’t even need to pay for it.”
Like a number of other operators that have sought to popularise less well-known South East Asian cuisines, the pair have found Londoners receptive.
“Despite being a great cuisine Burmese food has had few chances to evolve and be elevated,” Anton continues. “That’s largely because it’s never really left Burma. The country was nearly impossible to get into or out of for 50 years (political reform saw the borders reopen in 2011). It's a very different story to, for example, Thai food.”
Key dishes on Lahpet’s short menu of small and large plates include the fish noodle soup mohinga; the laksa-like coconut noodles; and balachuang, a garlic, chilli and shrimp-based condiment. Prices are accessible with small plates averaging £7 and large plates ranging from £13 to £17.
Making Lahpet of much more interest to those dining solo than many restaurants of its types are a range of bowls priced at £13.50 that include Shan noodles (rice noodles with ground chicken and pork, paprika, tomato, star anise, pickled mustard greens, peanuts and sweet soy); and the previously mentioned mohinga, again served with rice noodles.
“We’ve largely gone with the classics as we’re introducing a new cuisine, but we have modernised them a bit, particularly in terms of the presentation, to make them more accessible,” says Mahesh, who oversees the kitchen.
“Offering a menu full of dishes that very few people know is great as it gives us a real point of difference,” adds Anton. “But the staff need to be very clued up on everything we serve because they will be asked about it constantly. Staff training is key at Lahpet, the team must know their stuff.”
As part of their plans to bring Burmese food to more people, later this month the pair will launch a second restaurant at Slingsby Place within The Yards development off Covent Garden’s Upper St Martin Yard. The venue will be larger and far more prominent than their first project and will target a different demographic, trading alongside the likes of Dishoom and Bill’s in a much more touristy part of the capital.
"We wanted to open in the West End and this site was perfectly positioned, equidistant between Soho and Covent Garden. Being in the West End opens us up to a whole new audience, and make us more accessible from West London and to people visiting from out of town."
The new restaurant will also give the duo the opportunity to further explore Burmese cuisine, with around 50% of the dishes different to those served at Shoreditch. “We like the idea of people coming to the West End site to try something they can’t get in Shoreditch, and vice versa,” says Anton.
New menu items will include a selection of grilled dishes such as skewers (the original site does not have a grill) and a regional version of mohinga, Burma’s unofficial national dish.
“It’s usually made with river fish but the version we’re offering at Lahpet West End is inspired by Rakhine State,” says Mahesh. “It’s a coastal area so they use seafood and we’re going to be using a mixture of sea fish and shellfish. The spicing will also be very different as Rakhine State borders Bangladesh.”
With 100 covers inside and 75 covers outside, Lahpet West End will be considerably larger than Lahpet Shoreditch, which seats around 80. Like the original, the space will be modern and airy with subtle hints to the brand’s Southeast Asian source material including bamboo and tropical plants.
The new site has been in the offing for some time. The pair were in talks with the Slingsby Place site’s landlord Longmartin Properties (a joint venture between Shaftesbury and The Mercers’ Company) ahead of the pandemic, but uncertainty caused the deal to stall. Luckily for the duo, the London property market was looking quite different when talks resumed, resulting in what they say was a very good deal.
Though the pair owe the vast majority of their success to the quality of Lahpet’s offer – the restaurant has attracted favourable reviews, most notably from The Observer’s Jay Rayner – this is not the first time they have got lucky. Lahpet received backing from a hedge fund unusually early on its journey due to the fact that one of the fund’s scouts happened to have a Burmese wife.
Anton was also fortunate to find a Burmese chef. Having grown up eating Burmese dishes prepared by his grandmother and auntie, Anton fell on the idea of opening a contemporary Burmese restaurant while working in recruitment. But while he knew what the food should taste like, he didn’t know how to cook it.
“I knew I needed a Burmese chef,” he admits. “With more established Asian cuisines I could probably have gotten away with hiring a chef who wasn’t from the country itself, but that wasn’t an option for a cuisine for which so few cooks have a frame of reference. As I soon found out, there are very few Burmese chefs in London.”
Anton was close to giving up when a friend told him about an Indian takeaway in Herne Hill that offered a handful of authentic Burmese dishes. The venue – The Cook’s House – was being run by Mahesh and his wife. Mahesh had never cooked professionally in Burma but knew enough about the cuisine to prepare a few key dishes, which ended up being a big hit with the public.
“Looking back, I probably could have opened it as a Burmese takeaway but at the time I didn’t think it would work,” says Mahesh, who was running The Cook’s House to fund his degree Nutrition and Food Management at University of West London.
The course included placements at a number of Western restaurants including Corinthia London and Daylesford Organic. Mahesh’s limited experience in the cooking techniques of his homeland has had a big impact on the food at Lahpet, with the kitchen cooking the majority of its dishes on a Western stove in regular pots and pans rather than using woks.
“This has been a good thing. It makes it much easier for me to train the chefs as I don’t have to teach them a whole new cooking technique,” says,” Mahesh, who isn’t that interested in where his cooks come as long as they have good basic skills and are willing to learn.
“Our head chef and the person that will run things in Shoreditch as we open the West End site is from the Caribbean and started with us as a kitchen porter. We only have one other Burmese chef other than me in the kitchen at the moment.”