I liked the Banana Tree Canteen, I really did. Doesn’t mean to say it was anywhere near very good, but I liked it all the same. Their MO – blandified pan-Asian food at honest prices, trestle table dining, and quickfire service – is fair enough I suppose. There’s a demand for that kind of thing from semi-adventurous diners all over London and if you can get it right there’s money to be made. The owners of Wagamama will testify to that.
The problem is, the fledgling Banana Tree Canteen (four branches, two in construction) just isn’t very good at it. It’s all over the place, literally and metaphorically. Food comes from Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia, via the prism of a Western palate and through a massively overworked kitchen. Cheap and cheerful décor favours the former half of the phrase much more (‘toilet’ signs on A4 paper, toilets themselves that give off an NHS feel) while the website’s ‘ambience’ section features a rotating selection of images intended to convey conviviality but that depict a guy seemingly about to slap his wife in one shot. The menu feels embarrassed to make any tangible claims, as if it knows the hustle they’ve got going on. Words like ‘pho’ come wrapped in quotation marks while their regional specialities are described as “authentic-style”.
What hits you most, though, is the unashamed and unnecessary power of the flavours. Subtlety is chased off down the road with a massive stick at the Banana Tree Canteen, so both crispy tofu with nutty chilli and coriander salsa and aubergine with aromatic caramel sauce from the Let’s Begin! section smacked us upside the head with the kind of intense kick normally reserved for kids’ food. If that aromatic caramel sauce had made it to a McFlurry tasting session Ronald himself would have dismissed it as too potent. The aubergine never stood a chance. Gado-gado salad with satay sauce, meanwhile, was a lake of peanut purée with a few desperate strands of greenery waving for help from the gloop.
We skipped the opportunity to order unspecified “char grilled meat” and went for chilli pork and chicken bakar jawa, in my case accompanied with the £2.95 supplement special (not sufficient to share in a group, we were warned), a plateful of sesame glass noodle salad, sweet corn cakes (which were more like onion bhajis in their construction), prawn crackers and jasmine rice. The menu promised “yum!” and it was yum enough, especially for three quid. The pork, meanwhile, was a decent enough cut cooked about right, if smothered in comedic amounts of sauce once again.
The BTC is fine. If you want to spend fifteen-odd quid, feel like you’ve been dragged backwards through Asia in 30 minutes and leave with your jaw fused together by a variety of cloying concoctions, I’d suggest popping in.
Price per head: £18
Soundtrack: Generic background tunes
Clientele: North Londoners on their way somewhere else and a fearfully large amount of people dining solo.