Mei Mei review, Borough Market: Don’t judge a dish by its looks
In a world obsessed with food being presented in minute perfection that’s pretty as as a picture, Ibrahim Salha finds there’s still beauty in simplicity
The talk of trends within restaurants is inescapable if you have more than even just a passing interest in food.
There’s a microscopic fixation on certain dishes, which has practically been the case as long as the internet has been around, but since the Instagram era, it’s boomed. It’s the social network that can make or break a dish, and looks count for everything.
It’s pretty surprising then, that Hainanese chicken rice (from the southern Hainan province) is one of the more recent “trending” dishes in the food world at the moment.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a looker, but for a lot of people unfamiliar with the dish, they see poached chicken sitting on top of plain-looking rice. It isn’t in the realm of cascading burgers and massive pizzas. But it is delicious.
Three Uncles, a cool little canteen in the City, has an excellent version, and the Hawker Chan pop-up in King’s Cross was a great chance to try a world class rendition if you had a spare three hours to queue, but my pick of the bunch comes from Mei Mei in Borough Market.
Mei Mei is former Masterchef contestant Elizabeth Haigh’s solo venture, after being awarded a Michelin star within a few years at Pidgin.
Here at Mei Mei, it’s a relatively modest counter space, seating only a handful or two at a time (while also offering a takeaway service). It opened just as it was starting to get cold in October 2019, which can be hard for something so open to the elements as this, but was reliably busy on both of my visits.
That could partly be because it’s the headline act of the brand new Borough Market Kitchen space, with a handful of new food stalls, but I think it’s mostly because the food is unquestionably delicious.
Chief among the best dishes on the concise, confident menu is that chicken rice. The poached chicken is wonderfully tender, yet has the firmness of an older, properly raised bird (from neighbouring butcher Ginger Pig) while the rice – the main event – has the schmaltzy richness which belies initial appearances.
On the side is a slightly spicy (and could be spicier, according to some early visitors, apparently) chilli sauce, as well as a thick soy sauce. It’s a dish that’s easy to get wrong and takes constant tinkering, but is a joy to behold when it’s done right, and all of the elements come together.
Saying that, I think the real crowd-pleaser here is going to be the nasi lemak. Another dish that’s all about the rice (its name loosely translates to “fatty” or “rich” rice), though this time cooked in coconut milk rather than chicken stock. It’s a wholly different experience. It comes served with peanuts, tiny fried anchovies, sambal, and a fried egg, though you can – and should – customise it to include a fried chicken cutlet.
While a nasi lemak should be judged on the rice, which is excellent here, it’s the fried chicken thigh which I can’t stop thinking about: crispy on the outside but cooked so you can cut it with just a spoon, it’s good enough to eat alone or with the nasi lemak. Or you can order the captain’s curry and make an impromptu katsu curry. That’s all to say, this is a must order and worth visiting Mei Mei for alone.
That’s without even going into the other dishes. Kaya toast, assembled with coconut jam and a generous wedge of butter in crustless, toasted bread, and among the most satisfying things you can eat; it’s one of the world’s great buttery foods. Forget Robuchon-style mashed potatoes, I prefer my meals to make their high butter content obvious. You also shouldn’t miss the carrot cake, containing neither carrot nor cake, as you may expect it. It’s stir-fried fresh and preserved radish with eggs and garlic, and it’s utterly brilliant.
And it would be remiss not to mention the drinks, which are inspired by the kopitiams of Malaysia and Singapore. There’s kopi gu you – coffee with condensed milk and butter – matching the colour and sweetness of a Werther’s Original, and the chocolate drink Milo, either cold or hot – though the latter goes best with the kaya toast.
In that sense, Mei Mei functions as a stall, takeaway counter and one of London’s more interesting cafes, all in a small space, and one that’s definitely worth a visit.
Mei Mei London, Unit 52, Borough Market Kitchen, Jubilee Place, London SE1 9AG; meimei.uk/menu; Mon-Sat