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My favourite new restaurant in London? Donia – a Filipino fantasia

Last summer I wrote a love letter to Soho, reflecting both the louche legend and its current crisis of identity. During that June visit I lingered over lunch or dinner at the likes of Quo Vadis, Mountain, Noble Rot and 64 Goodge Street (in adjacent Fitzrovia). Enough said. And all within easy reach of my habitual Soho base camp, the Z Hotel at the end of raucous Old Compton Street.

A recent return was similarly gastronomically reassuring with forays to old fave Kiln and newcomers The Portrait by Richard Corrigan, the all-conquering Devonshire gastropub and Filipino standard bearer Donia, my most exciting destination of the year so far. 

A further spice hit was tagged on with an expedition to champion of the Sri Lankan diaspora, Rambutan, out at Borough Market. There was a tentative Soho connection even here; the plan had been to investigate neighbouring Camille, from the same small plates and natural wine stable as laid-back Ducksoup in Dean Street. But, once down by London Bridge, I couldn’t resist the Tamil-influenced treats of chef patron Cynthia Shanmugalingam, who I‘ve written about before she opened up on Stoney Street a year ago.

But back to my Soho jaunt… and a Sunday evening just off Carnaby Street. Kingly Court at first glance is just an atrium of bland offerings, but the Top Floor has been the spawning ground for some laudable food – Indian served up by the all women brigade of Asma Khan’s Darjeeling Express and the cuisine in exile of Imad’s Syrian Kitchen. Now they are joined by Donia, open for just 10 weeks. 

It is an ambitious offshoot of a London-based Filipino food group, defined previously by their bakery and ice cream specialities. I really can’t gauge the ‘authenticity’ of the Donia menu. My conception of Filipino food is of a melting pot of south-east Asian, Chinese and Spanish culinary influences; my only real experience a street food tub of national dish adobo, a stew featuring marinated meat and vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, black pepper and bay leaves. 

This is on a thrillingly different level. Maybe I did over-order, Blame it on the covert grande dame of food reviewers, Marina O’Loughlin, whose adulatory Instagram post first alerted me to Donia’s delights. She described the lobster ginataan as “so sweet and rich with coconut milk we basically had it for dessert.” After that I couldn’t resist. As a solo diner I restrained myself to just the half-crustacean (still £42), after which I hug on in in for the real signature pudding. The ube choux (£12) is a crunchy craquelin pastry with coconut chantilly and an initially off-putting cream made from purple sweet potato. Be brave. It might be a contender for London’s best dessert de jour.

Then again the large house pie (£27, main image), made for sharing really (heroically I had to go it alone), is also a triumph. Traditionally caldereta is a Filipino goat meat and liver spread stew. Donia’s version encased in pithivier-style pastry is altogether more refined, but both the lamb shoulder filling and the stew ‘jus’ pack a chilli kick.

Offal is very much a Filipino thing. The meal gets off to a blazing start with a £3.50 chicken heart skewer, six smoky nuggets perched on an adobo sauce. The dish that follows is a more elaborate culinary statement. Brown butter lime sauce is the base, on top lashings  of roseate white crab mayo and a crumb crowning a trio of prawn and pork wontons. £15 and worth every penny.

I enjoyed a glass of my favourite French rose, Triennes,  with this hugely impressive procession, but I’d suggest cocktails are the way to go in this joyous, simple dining room, First a palate cleansing ‘Pipino’ (£12, cucumber, sesame, gin, lime, coconut), then a ‘Plum’ (for a quid more a potent Negroni where mezcal replaces the gin and the Japanese plum wine umeshu supplements the vermouth).

Denman Street is just a five minute walk away from Kingly Court. En route, you’ll find my Soho ‘local’, The Lyric. I couldn’t resist a pint of the regular Harvey’s Sussex Bitter. That stalwart real ale pub was heaving but tumbleweed compared with much hyped newcomer The Devonshire, which is shifting Guinness at, well, a Guinness Book of Records level. Co-founder Oisin Rogers is from Dublin and particularly proud of his keeping of the black stuff. He’s convinced the punters. They were six deep outside a rammed downstairs bar. 

Upstairs across two floors of dining rooms is where the food action is with tables being snapped up a month ahead. First floor is home to the Grill, furnace-like pumping out the heat. No charcoal used; it’s all embers of kiln-dried oak, I’m told as I gingerly inspect the operation and feel for the rosy-faced team loading beef steaks from their own ageing room and iberico pork from equally  impeccable sources. It all looked amazing and so I regretted having already ordered beef cheek and Guinness suet pudding for my main (check out that encounter here).

I dined in the top floor Claret Rooms, as atmospheric as if Dr Johnson or that hyperactive   Mr Dickens were expected imminently. Solo, resisting an inviting wine list, I stuck with a couple of pints of Guinness. The stout was particularly suited to accompany a crab salad that spoke of the team’s commitment to the freshest of produce served simply. So worth all the hype? Positive vibes, but perhaps It needs to settle into its skin perhaps.

Oisin’s compatriot, Richard Corrigan, is a chef/restaurateur long settled into his own skin and his latest venture puts to bed the old stereotype: you’ll never handsomely dine in a major public museum or gallery.

The Portrait is pretty as a picture (sic), on the top floor of the magnificently refurbished and recently re-opened National Portrait Gallery, just above Trafalgar Square. The rooftop views from the dining room are spectacular, but would that also be the case with the £39 set lunch? Fear not, it may be a definite downsizing from the a la carte but it is a canny offering matched by a consummately smooth service. Corrigan is class. Each ingredient speaking for itself. A slice of romaine lettuce on a slick of romesco, wrapped in pale, subtle Bayonne ham, then conchigliette pasta with rosemary infused braised rabbit and a flurry of pecorino, blood orange sorbet with the fruit both softly sliced and and stiffly confited. 

Kiln, in Soho proper, is a far different beast, its gap year inspiration some uncompromising food shack in North East Thailand. Primitive fire and smoke applied to almost feral ingredients in clay pots and iron woks as you sit mesmerised at the walk-in counter, it was a game changer when it arrived in Brewer Street back in 2016. 

The formula remains the same. With an hour to spare mid-afternoon I revisited old favourites – raw mutton laap (£12.50) and clay pot based glass noodles (£7.85). The hand-chopped laap, a kind of Northern Thai tartare, is spiced with makhwaen, garlic, star anise, coriander seed and dried chillies and served in cups of radicchio.

The glass noodles are simmered with slivers of rare breed Tamworth pork belly and brown crab, both UK sourced, with the boost of pungent fish sauce and soy. After which, yes, I did require a further Harvey’s quencher at The Lyric. So easy to become a Soho flaneur.

Harvey’s is also a fixture in another fine old London boozer, the Market Porter, cheek by jowl with Borough Market. It’s my usual refuge from the multitudes swamping this foodie magnet. 

On this occasion I walked past 50 metres to the very different Rambutan. Set across two floors, it is a casual, almost canteen-like dining space specialising in the cuisine of northern Sri Lanka, though the first dish I order, a green mango and yoghurt pachadi (£6.70) is the kind of raita you’d also find across the water in Kerala. It is a cooling antidote to a red northern prawn curry (£17.40), dense with tamarind, that ratchets up the scoville count (to nowhere near Kiln levels) after a subtler starter of gundu dosa (three for ££5.30). 

These are nothing like the now ubiquitous dosas of India (or Drummond Street next to Euston Station), similarly made from fermented rice-lentil batter but more akin to mini doughnuts. You bite through the crisp exterior and encounter a soft texture spiced with chilli and mustard seed. Extra oomph comes when you dip them in a jungle-green chilli  and coriander chutney. Rice and a flakey, paratha-like roti completed the good value lunch order. And so back to my Soho manor.


Donia Restaurant, 2.14, Top Floor, Kingly Ct, Carnaby St, Carnaby, London W1B 5PW.

The Devonshire, 17 Denman St, London W1D 7H.

The Portrait by Richard Corrigan, National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place, London WC2H 0HE.

Kiln, 58 Brewer St, London W1F 9TL.

Rambutan, 10 Stoney St, London SE1 9AD.

• I paid for my meals at all five restaurants with Donia kindly on the night offering me a ‘friends and family’ discount.

I stayed at Z Hotels Soho, 17 Moor Street, London W1D 5AP. This is a bargain lodging for somewhere so central and handy; it’s best to  book well in advance. Claustrophobes take note: some of the rooms lack a window. Pay a bit more and land lucky, like I did this time, and you get a wizard view over Cambridge Circus and the the Palace Theatre, currently hosting Harry Potter & The Cursed Child. The Z Hotels group have 10 further hotels in London and three others – in Bath, Liverpool and Glasgow.