A flat lay of a table spread with food including chicken and rice

Mei Mei, London SE1: restaurant review

Does a regular diner reach the same conclusions about a restaurant as a food pro, who may get special treatment if recognised?* Critic Hilary Armstrong and olive reader Emily Bartle compare notes on this Singaporean street-food bar in Borough Market

About Mei Mei, London

After winning a Michelin star as the head chef of east London’s Pidgin restaurant, there were high hopes for Elizabeth Haigh when she announced her departure mere weeks later in 2016. The former MasterChef contestant, who’s also worked in Neil Rankin’s Smokehouse, has been teasing fans with residencies and pop-ups, even fully fledged concepts (rumours of an opening called Shibui bubbled under the surface until Kaizen House, a “platform for sharing stories through food”, was launched last year). But in November 2019 we were finally treated to Elizabeth’s first permanent site – a surprisingly modest, and affordable, Singaporean street-food and Southeast Asian coffee/tea bar in London’s Borough Market, in a nod to her heritage.

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For brunch you might find buttered toast with kaya (aka coconut jam), nasi lemak (coconut rice, sambal, peanuts, anchovies, cucumber and a fried egg), or chicken macaroni soup. Lunch sees the likes of Hainanese chicken rice, ‘naughty’ buttermilk fried chicken, captain’s curry made using 100-day-old chicken, and radish cake, alongside kopi (coffee and condensed milk) and kopi gu you (butter coffee). Grab a pew, Monday to Saturday, 10am-5pm, or order to takeaway.

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A woman wearing an apron stood outside a shop with a pig on the front
Elizabeth’s first permanent site offers affordable, Singaporean street-food

The pro restaurant reviewer

Hilary Armstrong is a freelance food writer and restaurant reviewer based in east London, and a regular contributor to olive and The Telegraph. @hilarmable


The punter restaurant reviewer

Emily Bartle lives in Wiltshire and eats out at least once a week. Her best dining experience was at Cornerstone in Hackney Wick but she also loves bagels covered in Clover spread.


Our pro’s Mei Mei, London restaurant review…

“Cup of coffee to warm you up?” asks Elizabeth Haigh, wrapped up in a puffer jacket and bobbing up and down to keep warm. “You’ll be converted for life,” she beams when I somewhat trepidatiously order Mei Mei’s signature kopi gu you (butter coffee). Elizabeth herself serves us as she does everybody. *I wasn’t recognised but Elizabeth knew my guest.

While I won’t be trading my single-origin filter for this triple-pronged pick-me-up of dark-roasted coffee, condensed milk and butter, I relish the rich, chocolaty flavour (and love the traditional porcelain cups). Mei Mei’s hero dish is Hainanese chicken rice, one of Singapore’s national dishes. This one’s a refined version in that the poached breast meat (capon from Ginger Pig) is served off the bone in silky slivers. The only downside is that we don’t get much all-important jellied skin. The supple flesh reveals the faintest hint of blush pink, exactly as it should, and is served cool, the better to contrast with hot rice, glossy with chicken stock. The mandatory trio of condiments (ginger, chilli and soy) have a shine that tells me they’re spankingly fresh. I’m blissing out.

A portion of fried chicken is cold within minutes (as are we, huddled up in our coats). Far better is ‘fried carrot cake’, a Teochew dish of stir-fried egg, preserved turnip and mooli and rice cake. It’s a delicious scramble of mild and sharp, soft and crunchy. The other vegetarian choice, tofu curry, registers as merely pleasant. We dip into the brunch menu too to try the kaya toast, Singapore’s iconic kopitiam (coffee shop) breakfast. Mei Mei’s has homemade coconut jam, slices of cold butter, fluffy bread and soupy, soy-drenched eggs. I could be in Singapore.

A pink plate topped with white rice and slices of poached chicken
Mei Mei’s hero dish is Hainanese chicken rice, one of Singapore’s national dishes

THE BOTTOM LINE

Mei Mei is a stylish update of the hawker stall, complete with brief menu, metal stools and speedy service. All that’s missing is the Singaporean sun.

Total for two, excluding service: £33.75

Food: 8/10

Service: 8/10

Vibe: 6/10

TOTAL: 22/30


Our punter’s Mei Mei, London restaurant review…

Head chef Elizabeth Haigh is warm and chatty, and keen to personally greet each guest that takes a seat at Mei Mei’s 12-cover counter in Borough Market. Her team interacts with us throughout, framed by an open kitchen, complete with steaming stock pots and hanging poached 100-day chickens. Mei Mei reflects the commercial buzz of its surroundings and is reminiscent of the Singaporean kopitiams (coffee houses) it sets out to recreate.

Given that no alcohol is served, I would recommend the homemade pandan syrup and soda, which provides a sweet, refreshing and unusual start to the meal. The flavour of pandan subtly runs throughout most dishes on the menu, too, most notably through the kaya, which is sandwiched between toast along with a cold sliver of butter and served with soft poached eggs and tea. The fried carrot cake provided an interesting contrast to the sweetness of the kaya, though was quite heavily over-salted.

Main courses of Hainanese chicken and captain’s curry were underwhelming. The Hainanese chicken would have been bland were it not for the accompanying chilli sambal, garlic-ginger paste and sweet and sticky soy sauce. The rice, however, is unctuous and glistens with the fat from the chicken with which it is cooked. It is certainly preferable to the overly sticky rice served with the captain’s curry which ended up becoming solid and soggy beneath the sauce. Although fragrant, the sauce doesn’t deliver punch, and while the chicken falls perfectly off the bone, the soft skin from poaching, albeit authentic, makes for a slightly flabby and bland end result.

A flat lay of a table spread with food including chicken and rice
Lunch sees the likes of Hainanese chicken rice, ‘naughty’ buttermilk fried chicken and captain’s curry

THE BOTTOM LINE

Mei Mei is a good-value offering of Singaporean food in buzzy surroundings but the food falls short of expectations. I wouldn’t rush to come back.

Total for two, excluding service: £31.25

Food: 6/10

Service: 9/10

Vibe: 7/10

TOTAL: 22/30


Mei Mei Sustainable Restaurant Association (SRA) rating: 7.5

If you’re looking to open a restaurant with easy access to quality, well-sourced food on the doorstep, Borough Market is about as good as it gets – in London at least. Elizabeth Haigh’s Mei Mei makes full use of the luxurious larder that is Borough Market. The foundation ingredient is the 100-day chicken from resident butcher Ginger Pig. To be super-picky, a longer life in Yorkshire is almost certainly better for the bird, but it does mean the mouth-watering sounding captain’s curry will come with a high environmental price tag. That’s one of the ethical dilemmas of a conscious diner. Serving no red meat more than compensates. Much of the menu is vegetarian and draws heavily on the local market stalls. With only a dozen or so seats at the bar, many of the customers will be taking away. Conscious of the disposable packaging nightmare this could cause, Mei Mei has ensured the containers are all biodegradable.


Listen to our podcast with Elizabeth Haigh here…


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Photographs by Steele Haigh, Kaizen House and Lucy Young