the best comment I read about these starter plates is that they are what Hilary Briss’s contraband ‘special stuff’ in The League of Gentleman must have tasted like
It has been said the food of Southeast Asia does not travel well…
Here is a part of the world whose cooking is celebrated almost everywhere for its dazzling vibrancy and intensely high-definition flavours. Any palate that has ventured this far south and east of the Himalayas and Ganges Delta will know that there is nothing so colourful nor vivid, nor so much like a simultaneous bucket of cold water and hot slap to the face as that which each successive mouthful of Southeast Asian cooking brings.
Admittedly, the catch-all term ‘Southeast Asia’ paints in the very broadest of brush strokes, encompassing as it does an area of almost 620 million people, over 100 languages and incalculable practices and habits. Were it possible to identify any kind of commonality across a region this diverse it would simply be one word: harmony. Every mouthful strives for a balance of salt, savoury, hot, sour, and lots and lots of each. Seriously lots. Every dial is generally yanked firmly towards a realm of Beyond Eleven that even Nigel Tufnel might find troubling. But no one taste ever goes one louder than any other. Harmony is all.
And Thai is by far the most popular and most widespread food coming from Southeast Asia. In the UK it is the most popular Asian food after Chinese. And never mind about balance and harmony and all of that, we love Thai restaurants because everything on the menu sounds so beguiling: so cool and exotic, so mysterious even. Though these days there is pretty stiff competition. Maybe not the coolest anymore as Vietnamese is now where it’s at, though mostly still in London and the bigger cities. Nor the most exotic as that is probably Laotian which is harder still to find and so still has enough of the outlandish about it. And Burmese, should you ever come across it, has the ‘mystery’ element all sown up (hint – Myanmar’s food is like its geography: somewhere between India and China).
…And yet for all that, few cuisines from this dazzlingly diverse, far-flung corner of the globe travel well. Even though Thai sounds like it should be all cool and exotic and mysterious and, what you end up with outside of Thailand is often anything but. Why do Thai restaurants all taste the same – a vague nod towards some coconut, the merest intimation of something to do with lemongrass, a few bits of stir-fried baby sweet corn and bugger all else? This can’t be, like, actual Thai food can it? Where’s the heat? Where’s the funk? Even in London Thai restaurants have remained conservative in their outlook until only recently. In other words wan, insipid green curries and, inexplicably, fish cakes in breadcrumbs.
But even though there has been a recent fancy for Vietnamese, Laotian and what-have-you, Thai cooking has finally reinvented itself through some of London’s most intriguing street food vendors and fun new restaurants. High time, too. It has taken a surprisingly long time to get a 21st-century makeover but it has happened. Kind of like If Only Fools and Horses were to be reimagined on Netflix with Crystal Meth and Saul Goodman instead of Latvian alarm clocks and Mickey Pearce. But really, it has had to in order to keep the pace.
Ben Chapman and Seb Holmes are the names behind The Smoking Goat. It started life as a successful residency at Climpson’s Arch over in Hackney where a lot of tongues wagged over this New Kind Of Thai Cooking that was happening. This, then, is the permanent site situated at Soho’s fringes in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street) and which managed to see the light of day primarily thanks to crowd funding and determination on the part of the owners.
The Smoking Goat is a small restaurant whose offerings are loosely based around the food of northern Thailand. More specifically the street food and market stalls of the North East. What The Smoking Goat is really in the business of is wood-fired barbecues and meat. Various chunks of animal are subject to flame at high temperatures and accompanied by lusty spice, chilli heat and grungy lo-fi sensibility. Certainly, roasting and grilling resulting in strong, savoury flavours are the hallmarks of both North Eastern Thai and (some) neighbouring Vietnamese street cooking – and heavy on the chilli, too.
It is a small space. A bar and a few tables. The one thing that you and everybody else notices is the bloated puffer fish skeleton hanging up over the bar. The signature dish: smoked goat shoulder for the table to share. Straight from the horse’s (Seb Holmes) mouth The Smoking Goat is all about “wood smoke, fire, chilli, fermented flavours”. What he neglects specifically to mention is fish sauce.
Few things have quite that same distinctive, sharp animal funk as fish sauce, or nam plah. Except maybe a dead Alsation on the turn. Made from anchovy guts packed in salt into open barrels and left to ferment in the sun it is certainly an ingredient that has long repelled the western palate. And from the bottle it smells even worse than it sounds. More mouldering land-fill than fish. But with cooking its flavour rounds and mellows, providing an intensely aromatic savouriness, even complexity, that few other condiments can. Nam plah is the beating heart of Thai kitchens and is the life blood we tend to shy away from in the west. And it is for this reason, I think, that Thai food often just does not taste like Thai food. Fish sauce goes in everything. Indeed it goes well with everything. And you do find it with, well, everything here at The Smoking Goat.
First ordered was the eponymously named nam plah chicken. This soon became something of a signature and was easily the most popular thing on the menu, if not also the most pungent and deeply uncompromising pieces of fried fowl you are likely to come across. Leg and thigh are dipped in a rice flour primer before being deep-fried Tempura-style. They are then copiously slathered in a topcoat of sesame and nam plah. The batter was crisp and brittle, almost toffee-like, the flesh steaming and succulent underneath. The fish sauce didn’t quite ride roughshod over the white meat but you feel that it could do. Almost profane waves of umami bludgeoned with each bite. Utterly addictive. One serving will never be enough.
Barbecued lamb ribs nahm jiim jaew (fermented shrimp and white pepper) continued the assault. You will not tend to find lamb very often in Thai cooking but its naturally robust taste and fattiness is perfect here. Heat, fat and even more pungently dripping sauce is the end result.
A slight change of tempo with scallop nahm yum. These were plump specimens, cooked over open coals in the shell and washed with a classic nahm sauce. Stabbed through with insistent darts of lime, tiny yet blistering birds eye chillies – and more fish sauce – consensus is that this most gently sophisticated of bivalves should not be beset by something so bracing. Here, that contrast was wonderful.
Crispy pork belly with pickled watermelon was pleasingly sweet and sour but probably the least interesting thing on the menu. Barbecued duck legs marinated with galangal and lemongrass then enjoyed a further basting in ketjap manis, a thicker, deeper, sweeter, more complex cousin to soy sauce. Much as before it was straight off the flame and getting stuck into crisp, charred skin and seared flesh. Duck has a tendency to dryness though and so it proved here unfortunately.
Then rendang short rib of aged beef was probably my favourite of the lot: served on the bone it was all marbled fat and tender smoked meat dissolving without resistance into its deeply dark marinade of – well I picked out ginger, coconut and cinnamon.
If you now have the meat sweats just by reading this then the house som tam would be the perfect antidote. And if fish sauce is the heart of Thai cooking then som tam must be its soul. Lovers of the dish are nothing if not dedicated in their Rāgarāja-like ardour for what they would consider to be the world’s best salad. Here, as you would by now expect, it came with the anticipated explosion of flavour. All at once it was thrillingly hot and fizzingly sour as papaya, chillies, lime, tamarind and tiny fermented and dried shrimp (plaa raa) repeatedly somersaulted over each other. Green beans and a handful of peanuts provided the window dressing. Really, the clue is in the name: tam means ‘pounded’ and the correct method is to muddle and smash everything together with pestle and mortar. The pleasing thuds coming from the small kitchen next to the bar were further confirmation that these guys knew what they were doing. You also get glutinous rice served in the time-honoured method of the road-side vendor: rolled into a semi-sticky ball and straight from a polythene bag.
The Smoking Goat’s wine list is put together by Zeren Wilson and reputed to be very decent indeed. I never checked it out, wondering what on earth could possibly stand up to what is on the menu, heading instead for the cocktails and necking back a couple of cardamom gimlets. But of course.
fish sauce goes in everything. Indeed it goes well with everything. And you do find it with, well, everything at The Smoking Goat
A ten minute walk away on Brewer Street is Kiln, the second permanent venue opened by Chapman. There is always the risk that a subsequent opening becomes just a second dining room yet Kiln feels palpably different the moment you walk in.
If The Smoking Goat is all brash barbecue, hands-on and sleeves-rolled-up, Kiln plays it cooler. Where The Smoking Goat has an evening dedicated solely to offal, Kiln is a bit more user friendly. It has broadened its influences plus this time you get to eat with cutlery. Food is still cooked solely over glowing embers only this time in clay pots and woks. The ‘kiln’ refers to the site’s huge wood burning oven. According to Chapman it is “road-side food” inspired by his time travelling around and across the northern borders of Thailand. Yet although the simple menu aspires to be an uncomplicated reflection of these rural border lands, a part of the world Chapman clearly loves, you have a hard time imagining you are in some grill shack at the side of a potholed road next to a steamy Mae Hong Son paddy field. This is by no means a knock. The idea is brilliant. But you walk in and realise Chapman has in fact nailed his other vision for a Thai dining spot: “we wanted to go for a late night Brooklyn bar feel.”
It is all at-counter seating, either at the bar or directly in front of the open kitchen. Everything happens right in front of you – similar to Barrafina or The Palomar – but with the music cranked right up. Yes, they have a record player at the end of the bar. And you are welcome to browse their vinyl collection. You hang about and have drinks until space becomes available. Servings are tapas-sized.
As for that uncomplicated menu, aged lamb skewers punchy with cumin are a buff riff on a similar dish popular in China’s northern provinces. You, like me, would no doubt question the need to dry-age a meat like lamb but it did indeed make for a rounder, higher flavour, more akin to goaty beef (or beefy goat for that matter). Alongside was a plate of smoked sai ua sausage, thick and fatty, humming with bagfuls of earthy turmeric and fiery birds eye chillies. Sausage is not as incongruous a dish as you might think. Grilled sausages such as this are enjoyed widely in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and beyond into Burma, and they, like here, are a cheap and easy way to eat what is available. The best comment I read about these starter plates is that they are what Hilary Briss’s contraband ‘special stuff’ in The League of Gentleman must have tasted like.
A blazingly hot green monkfish curry was superb, and indeed, greener than a Wordsworthian springtime. Duck heart kaeng som was an altogether more primal thing, a deep house remix of that traditional market stall staple, the sour curry. Usually made with white fish, this version was dark and worryingly savoury, insistent with offal. The last in a trifecta of curries, all of which were very different, was long pepper and pork shoulder. Eschewing all-out heat for a more sonorous, more musky sweetness it was by far the best.
Aged beef short rib with fermented shrimp was in many ways a nod to The Smoking Goat’s barbecue roots. Flashed rare over the coals, sliced thin and melt-in-the mouth, it came with a bold dipping sauce and even that managed to be a thing of intriguing complexity. There was that ever-present, insistently salty, fermented piscine tang but with additional hues of bitterness, tartness, even treacly sweetness. I’m guessing…tamarind, lime, ginger, palm sugar?
Accompanying dishes were unfussy: thai greens in soy and just a simple bowl of brown rice. Wine was once again by Zeren Wilson and the bar staff were more than eager to chat and give recommendations. I was willingly propositioned with a young Roussane blend and a pear-droppy Nahe Riesling. Both were as excellent as previously reputed.
“None of what we do is verbatim Thai food,” says Chapman. Variously, both establishments have been described as “smoky”, “crazily busy” and later in the evening, “deafeningly loud”. They tick the boxes in terms of the dining style that remains on trend throughout London: informality; a thrall to a particular way of cooking, in this instance with wood-fired grilling; no reservations; short, focused menus; minimalist décor; a rather earnest striving for a sense of authenticity and geography and a definite attempt to create ‘buzz’. So clearly both The Smoking Goat and Kiln are aimed at younger, more liberally-minded Londoners who enjoy and appreciate eating out but who now consider New York rather than Paris as the place where all the good restaurants are. New York’s Pok Pok is every bit the inspiration as the market stall.
Not that any of this is supposed to do Chapman or Holmes a disservice. Both clearly understand and love their craft and both have spent their working lives learning how to cook Thai. The Smoking Goat and Kiln just work. Both are as riotously fun as restaurants are allowed to be. I genuinely wonder who would not want to sit at the bar at Kiln eating Thai street food to The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. Of course these are the very things likely to bring on Middle England harumphing: too pretentious, hipster-ish, London-y – that kind of thing. The ‘Standard’s Grace Dent gave a well-observed smirk at the potential for I Swear I Was There syndrome with the line that there were more young guys claiming to have eaten at Kiln when it opened than there were claiming to have watched the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. But even all the gumph and bumph about Cornish smallholdings and rusticity doesn’t really grate as both places deliver in spades.
Kiln is better than The Smoking Goat and probably one of 2016’s best openings. It takes the same ideas and improves upon them without changing what made them good in the first instance. It is the ultimate second record (Fun House being the best example of that here, surely?). Though The Smoking Goat was and is the original.
In any case, it is all about Thai flavours that do indeed travel well and which have both the heat and the funk.
The Smoking Goat 7/10
The Smoking Goat
7 Denmark Street
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58 Brewer Street
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