Do you want the good news, or the bad news? I know there`s more wicked fun to be had hearing about the bad, but I`m going to make you wait a bit here, because there`s much to like as well.
For a start, how many Indochina Kitchens do you know? Not many, huh. Another thing of interest to quite a few of its Westbourne Grove locals is that it`s Halal, so we have a pretty rare combination here.
Something that we all subliminally expect is that things match our expectations: a rustic French restaurant without at least one Gallic accent being heard seems somehow lacking a vital bit of authenticity, ditto an Italian without a bit of flirty flamboyance, so it was a pleasure to be escorted to our table by a wonderfully pretty and exotic waitress / assistant manageress.
From the outside, the Banana Tree is a bit of a sombre and dull brown, but the interior is duller yet, which puzzles me, and it doesn`t seem to matter where you sit. The walls are a mix of battleship grey plaster and old fashioned public convenience oblong tiles in a shade of beige. For a dash of relief, the back wall is bare brick, and there`s a lone somewhat dyspeptic looking pot plant near the tills. Bench seats with minimal padding and dark wood tables complete the picture, with a long low wattage bare bulb (in designer “fly zapper” style) hanging low over the table.
This is Wagamama style, with a dash of added gloom.
A bowl of prawn crackers and some excellent satay and chilli sauce accompanies the first beer, whilst we make up our mind up on mains. Her nibs chances a cocktail, which is adequate at the price. Whilst I`m staring at the bare grey wall it occurs to me that the music is rather good – an interesting mix of nostalgia & old reggae (Jimmy Cliff appears, as does Desmond Dekker) and this lifts the mood considerably.
Although the menu`s look a bit like the sort of thing that ersatz Mexican eateries put out, the quality is far from it, and the chefs deserve a serious pat on the back here – the food is way better than the price suggests, and here I think we may have discovered a bit about the philosophy behind the place. To make any sense of running a restaurant of this quality at these prices, you need a good turnover. Plush seats and art clad walls may make for a lovely environment, but at these rates you`d soon be skint.
We decided on a bit of a mix and match approach, and ordered the Green Papaya Salad, which had a myriad of fresh herbs and coriander bursting through, the Stir Fried Lamb, which was thin cut, blackened and delicious. The Roast Duck Breast was fought over, as was the Crispy Fish (don`t miss this one – Tilapia has never been done so well) Jasmine Rice and Fried Pak Choy completed the list, and all of it despatched with happiness.
We split a dessert of Pull Tea and Toasted Coconut Stuffed Green Thai Pancakes. The tea can be ordered hot or cold, but in a fit of indecision mine arrived just off lukewarm, however it`s a tasty and different finish that reaffirms the range of flavours on offer here. The pancakes, in common with a lot of oriental sweets are quite subtle, but go well with their scoop of vanilla ice cream.
I`m grasping a little to sum up the Banana Tree – even the word eclectic seems a bit tame for the myriad of influences in taste, decor, music and clientele. Faced with such blizzard of styles, perhaps a good arbiter is to go by is that old British expression “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”, and this eats well. This is a lively place to dive into, meet friends and spend a happy hour on so eating some great food with punchy flavours before zipping of to the Cinema or pub.