Señor Buddha Pop-Up – Review
10th October 2014
‘Fusion food’ is really a modern term for something that has happened for millennia, with different regional or national cuisines taking influences and adopting ingredients from other cultures. European/Asian pairings are common, thanks mostly to colonialism – the Portuguese influences on Goan cuisine, for example, or the bánh mì baguettes of Vietnam, a result of French colonialism in Indochina. Thai/Spanish, however, is not a combination one expects to find on restaurant menus. In this respect, Señor Buddha, a monthly pop-up at Lala’s Café in Hove, offers something rather different.
There is certainly a buzz about the place on the night that we visit; the restaurant is on its second service of the evening and has a full house of chattering patrons eager for new taste experiences. Señor Buddha offers Spanish tapas plates and raciones (larger dishes also made for sharing) but incorporating Thai flavours. It’s not an obvious combination; the idea of fish sauce and paprika, olives and galangal, seeming like potentially uneasy pairings.
It’s great, then, when the first plate we sample is a surprisingly successful amalgamation of the two cuisines. Thai patatas bravas might sound like a risky take on a classic, but it works beautifully – crisp fried potatoes topped with a delicious Thai-influenced sauce with red curry spices and Thai holy basil. Other dishes work similarly well. Spring rolls offer a surprising new vehicle for braised oxtail, the light crunch of the case giving way to rich, tender meat inside. The roasted pork belly is admirably juicy, with crisp, golden crackling, served on a delicious mound of Thai stir-fried cabbage.
Occasionally, dishes fail to deliver a satisfying hit of flavour from either style of cuisine. The meat in the mountain goat stew, slow-cooked on the bone, is beautifully tender, but the sauce could probably stand up to even more robust flavouring. It’s tasty and discernably Southeast Asian in character but just lacks the spicy punch typical of Thai food. It leaves me longing for a Thai curry sauce. And that is the main problem with the fusion style of cooking here: it’s interesting but occasionally feels tentative. The vegetable croquettes are perfectly cooked, soft and fluffy inside with a serious crunch on the outside, served with a sweet, deep purple beetroot sauce, but the croquettes themselves might benefit from an even more vigorous approach to seasoning. The mackerel with rhubarb and wasabi seems shoehorned into the menu somehow. It’s a good combination of flavours but they are neither Thai nor Spanish.
Some tapas work well purely as Thai or Spanish dishes in their own right. The fabulously sour green mango salad is purely Southeast Asian in origin but it’s such a fresh foil to the heavier flavours of the stews and roasted meats that it complements the overall meal excellently.
Lee Shipley, the man behind Señor Buddha, is seriously enthusiastic about what he’s doing and, judging from the atmosphere when we visited, it seems his diners share his excitement. Would a Thai/Spanish fusion tapas restaurant find a permanent home as a success on the Brighton dining scene? I’m not entirely convinced. But as a pop-up it offers a unique dining experience and the opportunity to take a chance on something a little outlandish. It’s great fun waiting for each dish to arrive, not knowing quite what to expect, and at £20 a head for up to 5 tapas and one dessert it’s also really good value.
In a culinary scene that already caters for those with an exotic palate, finding something to eat that makes you feel adventurous is no mean feat. And that, really, is the beauty of the pop-up restaurant. It allows chefs to take more risks, safe in the knowledge that there are enough people in Brighton open-minded enough to give it a go too.