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  • Writer's pictureZiggurat Realestatecorp

Donia, London: Fantastic Filipino food in the most soul-sucking part of the city

If you’re going through Carnaby Street hell, just keep going. Adobo will be your reward


They’ve renamed Carnaby Street. We’re supposed to call it “Carnaby” now. My cab driver said they’d reclassified it as a “quarter” so they could charge Carnaby Street rents in the less glamorous Soho side roads. Not, by any means, the most paranoid theory he expressed. Well, whatever they’ve done with the place, I think we can all agree it’s awful. It’s like a ride in a Soviet theme park, designed to convey the vacuity and decadence of western youth. It can only apparently be appreciated in mobs of 40, clad in identical puffa jackets, sharing two vapes and a litre vat of bubble tea.


Granted all the space in this magazine, I could not express the vileness of Kingly Court, the “dining destination” at the quarter’s joyless heart. I once had a temporary job as a security guard in a mall in North Carolina. I used to sit in the deserted food court in the small hours, entirely alone, wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. It was somehow a warmer and less soul-destroying place than Kingly Court. But the small clean room on the upper landing — light, bright and with whitewashed brick walls — is neutral and innocuous. Here is Donia, a small modern Filipino restaurant.


I’m not usually troubled by the acoustics of restaurants, but Donia’s are challenging. It’s a cruel and unusual battering with random fragments of unattenuated but enthusiastic food conversations. Probably what it’s like living inside Gregg Wallace’s head. I’d also like to express my undying enmity to the platoon of business bros at the next table whose knobs went all the way to 11 and were stuck on “transmit”. They obviously felt their squalid property transactions were “on a strictly need-to-know basis” but the bastards had decided we needed to know. There’s a special region of hell reserved for people like this. It’s basically them, me and an immersion blender for eternity.


The chicken offal skewer was easy to agree on and turned out to be half a dozen hearts on a stick with a dark, sticky sweet sauce. It was good, but I felt a little hard done by that they’d stayed entirely cardiac. I would gladly have extended at least into the hepatic or renal.


Adobo is regarded as a national dish of the Philippines — loved, celebrated and much debated. It’s a preparation of meat, poultry, fish or vegetables browned and then braised in vinegar and soy. The sour element is distinctive, unusual and stimulating. We Brits don’t use as much sour in our cooking as other cultures, and the effect on the palate can be every bit as transformative as the more familiar umami. Here, rather than a vast bowl of stew, they’ve made a smart little adobo of mushroom, which they’ve then used to make crisp fried croquetas. They were extraordinary, prompting me to reassess my life goals radically in favour of spending more time eating adobo.


We worry so much about eggs’ freshness here in the UK that we obsessively refrigerate them and panic when sell-by dates approach. The idea, therefore, of an egg brined for preservation is challenging to most of us. It calls to mind the pickled egg jar in the pub, only marginally less appetising than a pathology specimen. But we’re getting this catastrophically wrong. The Filipino way is to hard-boil and grate them on to a salad with chunks of fresh tomato. It looks like yellow snow, or what’s fashionably termed a “drift” of parmesan, but there’s no sulphurous egginess. There’s a very slight concentration of the yolk flavour and the salt picks it up further. Complex savouriness set off by a cool, crisp and neutral salad.


Kinilaw is a pickle of fresh fish in vinegar and citrus. In this case, the citrus is finger limes and the fish sea bream . . . but you guessed that. All fish in London at the moment seems to be sea bream. I’m not complaining, I just can’t work out if there can be any left in the sea. But all that fresh lightness was going to need a counterweight, and it came in the form of lechón.


Lechón is suckling pig, usually roasted whole with much effort spent over the crackling. The flesh is subtly flavoured and creamy, the skin a filigree matrix of gold, like the inside of a Crunchie bar. At Donia they serve just a piece, which by itself provoked moans of joy at the table, but it was as nothing beside The Astonishing Sauce. It was an extremely unprepossessing colour. What Farrow & Ball would probably call “Support Hose Beige” but it was made of puréed chicken livers, vinegar, soy and sugar. If you can imagine all the things you love about chicken liver parfait that elevate it beyond school-dinner liver. That. Poured over pig. This incarnation was also fired up with peppercorns. Shameless lily gilding that I can only endorse.


In the circumstances, it seemed just silly not to go the extra mile and order the fresh grilled half lobster, “ginataan”, humming with the scorched-shell redolence of a beach barbecue. It’s hard to do it justice. Imaging two alien xenomorphs wrestling naked in a drench of delicately fragranced coconut curry sauce. Lots of ferociously dangerous bits but strangely erotic.


The food at Donia was fantastic, new to me and a delightful revelation. Service was outstanding, and the wine list was smartly chosen to survive a firefight of new and unusual flavours.


If I could find a way, I’d like to be spirited into Donia, possibly through a back door and into the lift, wearing some kind of obscuring bag over my head so I didn’t register where I was. After that, all I’d need is a table away from the business bros and about a gallon of that lechón sauce.


2.14 Top Floor Kingly Court, Carnaby Street, London W1B 5PW

Starters: £3.50-£20

Mains: £22-£82

Sweets: £4.50-£12


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