Address: 7 Blenheim Crescent, W11 2EE
Area: Portobello Road
Nearest Station: Ladbroke Grove
Tel.: 07900 266 080
Good For: Sinful snacks, Sharing many dishes, Introduction to new foods, Friendly conversation, Loitering over drinks
This review is long overdue. As someone who is amazingly keen on promoting Filipino food to anyone and everyone at the drop of a hat, I don’t quite know why I’ve forgotten to write up my experiences at Lakwatsa, the past year’s hottest Filipino newcomer in London.
So hot, that it even warranted a glowing article in the Evening Standard introducing ‘meriendas’ as the new tapas. It was a lovely little introduction to one aspect of Filipino cuisine, even if it got things slightly wrong: call me horrifically pedantic (it’s okay, I’m used to it), but ‘meriendas’ are not small plates like tapas; merienda is more like a catch-all term for a snack, savoury or sweet. But that is not the totality of merienda as I understand it.
It is a cultural institution, a time in the day to pause and have a bite to eat with friends and family, sharing news (and gossip), spending some quality time with people and just generally relaxing and enjoying some time off.
And it seems that Claire, the lovely lady behind Lakwatsa, has tried to encapsulate this spirit in her little cubby hole just off Portobello Road. For starters, she tells us that lakwatsa translates from Tagalog as something like ‘relax’, and back in my mum’s day it had the connotations of playing truant (don’t tell my client this is where I’ve been going).
And certainly, the vibe you get there is pretty chilled. It is, after all, a merienda lounge. Alongside one side of the wall there are swing benches, which is an AMAZING idea (some design ideas for my flat…?) that just screams chillin’. Cotchin’, even. Throw in some rustic crate-like boxes for chairs and tables, and a menu on the wall composed of giant Scrabble tiles, and you’ve got a place that just screams, nay mumbles (as screaming is just a bit aggressive, and like, kills my buzz, dude) coolness. In a lovingly inclusive manner too, for my mum thought its twee-ness was wonderfully charming
And so, when I later came with friends, we spent a good amount of time just hanging out and making kwento. Other tables came and went, but we stood, or rather sat, our ground – Lakwatsa just seemed like the perfect place to just relax and watch the day go by. Were we exhausting our welcome? Please, we’d ordered one of EVERYTHING off the menu; I think that bought us a good couple of hours there.
And so what did we think of the food? Let’s do this properly:
Adobo rice balls: sticky rice balls with chicken adobo pieces inside – absolute genius idea. However, the execution could have done with a bit of honing. Whilst the chicken pieces were flavourful and had an even measure of sharpness and savouriness, when I went with my mum there were hardly any pieces in the balls. Also, I love the idea of dipping my adobo rice balls into more adobo sauce, but it did cause the balls to disintegrate. If you’re not keen on the idea of eating kamayan-style, then the lack of a spoon becomes a real problem. Perhaps serve each rice ball on a big china spoon? And then you can dip it into a big bowl of sauce and then eat it all in one go.
Lumpia: ah, the humble Filipino spring roll served with spicy vinegar, often under-appreciated. Such a simple little dish, yet devilishly hard to make so that it smacks you in the mouth and says “I’m damn good”. I don’t think Lakwatsa’s versions (the meaty shanghai and the normal vegetarian) quite live up to that mouth-smacking expectation, but it is definitely a solid offering that helps to provide much-needed sustenance as you wait for the other dishes.
Prawn toast: not strictly-speaking Filipino, but I’m not going to begrudge Lakwatsa when they make prawn toast that actually tastes and feels like there is prawn in there (because, well, there actually is a layer of prawns in the middle. Awesome). Surprisingly chunky and substantial, something I’d definitely have again. And a very nice touch was the garlickyness, which I guess grounds it as a ‘Filipino’ dish.
Tempura: again, not quite Filipino, but considering that many Japanese chefs retire in the Philippines and open up sushi places there, I guess you could argue for the inclusion of this dish. Lakwatsa manage to pull this off with some lightness and fluffiness, evading the usual mistake of letting it get too greasy. The prawns used were sizeable beasts, which was impressive and much appreciated.
Spicy fried squid: this was a bit of a disappointment of a dish. Yes, there were lots of yummy scrummy fried crispy bits hiding around, but the flavourings of the squid were somewhat lacklustre and… unusual. Not quite sure it worked, especially as the squid felt a bit squidgy (I always thought this was a default texture of squid, until I had some absolutely amazing squid at Ceviche and the Quality Chop House). I don’t think it was one that we were too keen on polishing off.
Pandesal: these buns are very good. Very, very good. Light, fluffy and achingly soft, this is very evocative of what you can get in the Philippines. And I’m not just saying that because it is very rare that you can get good, commercial pandesal in London. Even my mum was rather taken with these. They are served wonderfully warm (freshly-made, which probably explains the lag time in getting served), allowing for the butter to melt into every airy nook and crevice of the ripped open and steaming bread. I am told that you must try it with the ube halaya… but it is still very good with strawberry jam. I wonder if they would ever import Good Shepherd from Baguio?
Turon: again, it is rare to get turon on a regular basis in London, outside of the various fiestas that are scattered throughout the country and the year. But Lakwatsa does a fine job of filling the gap – their turon is freshly-made and crisp, and is stuffed with lots of banana and jackfruit without being cloyingly sweet. Luscious!
Leche flan: I do remember this to be a bit creamy and rich, but feeling just a bit unsubstantial. Filipino leche flan, again, is a fairly straightforward dish to make, and in order to make it stand out it needs just a bit more ‘oomph’ about it – Lakwatsa probably need to just finetune things a bit, as it was nearly there (I can’t quite put my finger on what though… such a useful reviewer, aren’t I?). My mum did comment that she could probably make this dish better at home, and being a good mummy’s boy I’m not going to argue with her about that.
Bubble tea: both times I’ve been I’ve gone for the taro bubble tea. I presume when they say taro, they mean ube (though correct me if I’m wrong) – it’s purple and tastes like ube, so I guess it must be ube (though technically ube is a purple yam, not a taro). It’s not overly sweet and has a good level of milkiness and creaminess, which is enhanced by the ube. The bubbles themselves were a bit on the softer side and perhaps a bit too gummy, but at least they erred in that direction rather than make them too hard (I’m looking at you, Manchurian Legends)!
Overall, I’ve had some good times in Lakwatsa, and I look forward to my next visit there. We definitely need more Filipino places in London offering good food and a great experience, and I think Lakwatsa is doing its bit in a modern, slightly-non-traditional but fun way. But, as I always say, the more choice we have, the better it can be for everyone.
VERDICT – A good place. Lakwatsa has a fun and chilled vibe, perfect for hanging out in. It could do with a bit of polishing up in tightening the operation and perfecting some of the dishes, but they’ve got many of the other ingredients right. I do hope that they become settled and established and really find their stride – and maybe then they’ll open up a branch on the better side of London…?
Currently listening to: Pedicab – Simulan Mo Na