An oasis amid drab office blocks, See Café was calm, inviting, welcoming and friendly. Set in the developing Paddington Basin area of London, its location predisposes it to being a lunch venue, although See Café also boasts a criminally overlooked restaurant. And it was this that we had come to inspect, chopsticks – or in my partner’s case, spoon and bib in hand.
Welcoming and friendly not only describes the atmosphere, but the staff too. After being seated in the secluded restaurant section overlooking a courtyard and the canal, our helpful waitress practically bubbled over about the restaurant’s provenance and principles, all between answering our questions on what to order.
See Café is an offshoot of the well-established SeeWoo Group, a European Oriental food wholesaler, retailer and manufacturer. Having opened little more than a year ago, the café is one of the more recent jewels in the SeeWoo crown. Notably, one of the venture’s aims is to meet customers’ needs wherever possible. For one, they pride themselves in not adding MSG to their foods. (That’s right, the oh so good but oh so carcinogenic special ingredient that keeps you sneaking off to Chinatown once a fortnight.) A customer suggested the removal of it early on, and they began to experiment cooking their dishes without it. In the main, they succeeded.
At our host’s insistence, we started our dinner with a specially presented selection of salads from the lunch menu – the Oriental Noodle Salad, the Thai Prawn Salad, and Som Tum - scrumptious Thai coleslaw. Be warned: the Thai Prawn Salad is spicy, though very good and highly recommended. With each of the salads, we were immediately, and pleasantly struck by how fresh the ingredients were. We nibbled on tasty Kimchi (spicy pickled Korean cabbage) and Oriental Pickles (a mix of pickled veggies) while we waited for our dim sum to arrive. Though typically served at lunch in China, the dim sum proved to be an ideal preface to our main evening order.
If you’re tired of reviews that tell you, ‘If you don’t go to this restaurant for any other reason, go for the [insert obscure, pretentious dish you’re expected to know all about but have never even heard of]’, then apologies for this, but, if you don’t go to this place for any other reason – go for Char Siu buns. Sweet shredded barbeque pork encased in a thick, doughy mantle, these are a must-try. As is much of the rest of the Light Plates Menu. The prawn dumplings (Har Kau) were not only delicious but were beautifully presented, with a translucent, slightly sticky outer layer crafted into a shell-like design. In the interests of research we also tried the pork and radish dumplings. An interesting combination already, these also had a mix of peanuts and tiny prawns inside to surprise and delight the taste buds.
After an extended (and requested) break, our main dishes arrived. We had opted for the Salmon Teriyaki and the ‘See Curry of the Day’ – a Malaysian curry. Delicate aromas wafted across to my side of the table when the salmon arrived. The Malay clay pot brimmed with tender and succulent chicken, which fell off the bone at the lightest touch, and was complemented by flavours of lemongrass and coconut milk. The salmon was certainly no less appealing. It was cooked to perfection – slightly less raw in the middle than usual, in Teriyaki-style, and accompanied by a bowl of delicately flavoured coriander rice.
Between courses, we were able to take in the tasteful surroundings. This small café is divided into three zones: deli, shop and restaurant. It was quiet on the evening that we visited, but it was a weeknight, and we were informed that See Café is busiest at lunchtime, when the café is frequented by people working in the area. The shop and deli are bright and cheerful, while the restaurant is tucked back in a corner and is more softly lit and elegantly presented for the evening. A calming shade of green colours the walls, and hundreds of paper lanterns hang from the ceiling, swaying gracefully in an air-conditioned breeze. Before day morphs into night however, the restaurant is designed to look and feel more like a café, complete with no frills – the candles and tablecloths are removed and the tables reset.
Though you’d think we’d have eaten enough by this point, it is rare that I can pass up dessert – especially when trying somewhere new. So, I decided to round off the meal with ice cream. They had an impressive selection, complete with intriguing combinations. The ginger and honey was delicious; lightly sweet and not too heavy on the ginger. The chilli chocolate was also quite divine, a tasty combination that can go quite wrong (believe me, I’ve had it), but this was done to perfection: rich, bittersweet chocolate with a bit of a kick at the end. For something a bit more refreshing and light to conclude a meal, the gin and pink grapefruit ice cream served well as a palette cleanser. My partner was more adventurous and tried the flowering tea, which is not only fun to watch (I won’t ruin the surprise), but also tasted agreeably wholesome and organic.
We also explored the shop - its selection of wares from Asia was reasonably priced, and included items such as delicate dishware sets, candies for kids and soya drinks. Leaving pleasantly full (yes, probably due to the lack of MSG), we reflected fondly on the evening, deciding we’d be more than happy to go back for another visit. In the meantime, fortunately, we had some leftovers to look forward to.
A three-course dinner for two will set you back around £40 - £50. Bottles of wine range from £12 - £35. Alternatively, you could treat yourself to a lovely lunch for well under a tenner.
See Café: 4d Praed St, London, W2 1JX. Tel: 020 7724 7358
Reviewer: Lee Ann Tutton