2 night pop up at Friends of Ours, 61 Pitfield St, London N1 6BU
Bong Bongs Manila Kitchen are certainly friend’s of mine. Which practically writes my intro as they pop up in the Australian coffee shop/brunch spot Friends of Ours. Back in Hoxton for two nights only after a sojourn in central, I catch up with Lee and Sinead (co-owners) on what is next for the Filipino trailblazer.
We love a re-review (well I do) and a returning angel is even better. Bong Bongs brought the sadly neglected East Asian cuisine to Cambridge Heath back in 2020 closing due to something disastrous beginning with C and ending in 19. Yet were they stumped? No siree, they up-sticks to the Seven Dial’s food hall. There a snipped menu wowed the tourists and foodies alike, and now they’re back to Hoxton to build momentum for a new venue in May. Leases haven’t been signed, but all I can say is if the whole of Hackney crosses its fingers, we might see them in ANOTHER central London food court very soon *enter conspiratorial wink. Although deserting East London, one can’t begrudge their crusades for delicious and reasonably priced food, can we?
7 courses, unlimited rice (white gold) drinks provided by Friends of Ours, along with the cool café setting-local artists’ work on the walls and the almost ubiquitous fingers of trapsing green vines. The music, a delightful mix of funky old school, and newer classics is Lee’s own. The food is birthed in the kitchen below us. Stumbling down the ironclad, and banister-less stairs was worth it to catch the Bong Bongs team in full swing, steaming bowls of rice chase me back up and we are off.
Dishes come out in a rather random order, although ending with dessert is a rule that’s not deviated from (thankfully). Like flexing their muscles this is a sweeping example of the tangy, touchingly homely fare Bong Bongs does so well. Although like all bottomless concepts, the rice bowls take a while to be refilled all in all we got through 4 and a half, which I think is a pretty good attempt!
Our elbows rub with the people on the stools next door (truly cheek-by-jowl dining) and I think I flicked a prawn shell into my neighbour’s cocktail. The 4 winking tiger prawns give off a salivating smell. The viscous coconut milk, ginger, and chili-heavy broth they rest in demands you upturn one of your many bowls of fluffy jasmine rice into it and mop until the bottom of the plate is smiling back up at you.
Duck hearts test the bravery of most diners and although aggressively fleshy are worth the gamble. A light dusting of chicharron and the deluge of fresh lime (by yours truly) combine for a bloody good bite of flavour. Sorry to the Canard!
Equally meaty and trend-bucking is the Beef Tapa. Now if you told me a dish would consist at its basic level of cold beef and tomatoes, I would have thought you were my nan reminiscing about the meals she had during the second world war. This is certainly not that. Cured Picanha steaks, with a nippy spritz of sugar cane dipping vinegar, sesame soy and egg yolk, coriander relish, and chopped tomatoes, a confusing but refreshing way to serve killed cow. Meaty ceviche anyone? Wet, cold, and wonderful.
Sticking with the murder, we have Lechon Kawali. 24 hours took this free-range British pork belly to become what it is, and what it is is a contradiction in texture. Stripes of almost foamy fluffy flesh, with ridges of hard crunchy skin on each chevron. As the last main it’s a coup de grâce.
The fish is not forgotten, a grilled mackerel, perfectly flamed, plated on a red ceremonial mound of sweet and sour pickles. Like the mangled bodies from some medieval campaign. It’s so exciting to try a famous style of sauce, on a new meat, long live sweet and sour fish!
Of course, in seven courses there will be some less exciting moments. After all, even in the seven circles of hell, there are ones that one rushes through unenthused. A chicken tinola (broth) is a good palette cleanser but a meek watery thing with not much to commend it. Also, sadly the Cinnamon Turon (the only dessert) although a classic doesn’t quite live up to the inviting ingredients involved. Dissected coconut, sweetened haduki beans, and vanilla ice cream combine into a slightly sickly banana spring roll. A bit like the film Morbius brought together vampires, Jared Leto and Matt Smith together, and still managed to flop.
Lastly, may I be petty? As a food reviewer, it’s literally my job. We bought (from Friends of Ours) the cheapest house white for 28 English pounds. A dull bottle of Chin Chin Vinho Verde, yet across from us in the “shop” corner of the coffee shop it was being sold to take away for £15. Now I understand the price of restaurants and service tax etc.. but that’s just bad business to flaunt what you could have saved if you stayed home. Do we in the hospitality industry want to tempt people with their PJs, an affordable bottle of wine, and a lack of human interaction? I think not…
I digress and don’t want you to think that small disappointments marred an exquisite evening. Tasting menus are normally tiny, overpriced, and swaddled in a mist of better-than-thou-peasant. But for 45 squid you get a welcome drink (gorgeous Calamansi iced tea), 7 medium-sized plates, served by Lee himself, and a big hocking smile on your face! Think of it as Bong Bong’s greatest hits album.
The last few years have been tough on anyone wanting to open something new that involves humans leaving the house. With the recent rising price of everything (bottles of Chin Chin for example, long stare) tasting menus and new restaurants are a hard sell, people instead opting to eat in (if they can afford to heat our hovels that is, second long stare). But Bong Bongs is always worth the journey, whether to Hoxton, Cambridge Heath, Seven Dials, an undisclosed location, or the Hackney Brewery (where the next pop-up is rumoured to be happening). Their food won’t leave you destitute, their waiters won’t snub you if you don’t know what a haduki bean is and their ethos won’t leave you depressed. But instead, you will be proffered an evening of newness, kindness, and interest! I will keep Bonging (sorry) the drum for this restaurant and hope they find they’re forever home soon, hopefully within walking distance of my flat.
if you want to keep your eyes on these guys for their forever home, click here!