I am not very clear on what the situation is with Thai food in London. I do know that it’s very popular—there are a number of Thai restaurants around town, and the Thai Square chain is ubiquitous. But it doesn’t appear from a desultory survey of food reviews and blogs as though there are any Thai-owned/operated restaurants that anyone gets excited about. Time Out’s list of the 100 best restaurants in London, for example, lists a number of South Asian-run South Asian restaurants and Chinese-run Chinese restaurants and even Malaysian-run Malaysian restaurants but the only Thai places that show up on it are a couple of places (Som Saa and The Begging Bowl) which are in the vein of Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok mini-empire in the US—namely, restaurants run by non-Thai chefs who have spent some time traveling in Thailand, researching Thai food and whose restaurants translate that food into forms and spaces favoured by metropolitan (mostly) non-Thai diners who might not otherwise spend a lot of money on Thai food or think of it as hip. I have some thoughts, as you might expect, on this larger phenomenon and even more broadly on the controversies around such approaches to non-Western cuisines and “cultural appropriation” currently raging in the US, but I don’t have time to go into them right now. I do have a review of Smoking Goat, however.
Smoking Goat, on Denmark St. on the border of Soho and Covent Garden, is not on the aforementioned Time Out list but seems to be very much in the vein of The Begging Bowl; indeed, its original head chef was an alumnus of The Begging Bowl. The emphasis is on putative street food and it serves it in a space of a type in which you could imagine (mostly) white hipsters eating many different cuisines in many cosmopolitan enclaves around the world (in fact, you could swap the interiors of Smoking Goat and Gunpowder and nothing would feel out of place). And while the hat-tipping is to peasant and street food in Thailand, the menu here takes pains to note the provenance of the ingredients (which I suspect is not much of a concern in Thai street food stalls). I don’t note any of this as a criticism, merely to give a sense of the aesthetic and milieu.
What does this mean in terms of the food on offer? Well, you shouldn’t expect tom yum or drunken noodles or large bowls of curry—at least none have been on offer on the (changing) menu on my visits in the last few months. The emphasis is on smoked and grilled meats and salads: authenticity at places like Smoking Goat and its cosmopolitan peers mostly means an embrace of barbecue of one kind or another. None of what I have eaten has been particularly hot and nor has anything we’ve eaten been particularly funky (in the sense of fish sauce funk); I might even say that there’s been a bit of a sameness of flavour among a number of things I’ve eaten. However, howsoever deracinated and re-articulated the food may be, most of the dishes I’ve eaten have been very good and when you’re dealing with a restaurant that’s what mostly counts.
And so, the food. The menu is abbreviated, on some occasions even more abbreviated than others: at this point I’ve probably eaten the majority of what’s been on offer in the last month and a half. Here they are in order of where they appear on the menu:
- Coal roast scallop with red nahm yum: Couldn’t resist this on my first visit but while it’s an attractive presentation and tasty enough it’s nothing so very special.
- Mussels steamed in red curry sauce: This was on the menu on my second visit (it’s not the exact name of the dish); very nice but made me wish I could have had more of that red curry with rice.
- Smoked aubergine salad with soft boiled egg and chilli: I have an aversion to eggplant but the people I was with really wanted it and I always like to make people happy. I snuck a taste (it was long eggplant and so devoid of the seeds that I dislike) and it was quite good. The eggplant-positive people really liked it.
- Chilli fish sauce wings: Got this on my first visit and on every visit since. The wings are perfectly crisped and seasoned but it’s the chilli fish sauce that’s the real star. On the first visit we bleated so pathetically when the server tried to take our wing-less platter away with some of the sauce still in it that they brought us a bowl full of it for the rest of the meal. Believe me, I’d be happy just eating that sauce with rice.
- Smoked lamb ribs with gapi rub and pickles: These were very, very good. The lamb was sliding off the bone and perfectly crisped at the same time. Please forgive me: I ate the last of this dipped into the chilli fish sauce and liked it even more that way.
- Bavette “waterfall beef” nam dtok with lemongrass and chilli: This was tasty enough but suffered in my opinion from the refined presentation. I’ll take the classic, rustic preparation from regular Thai places any day over this.
- Barbecue beef shortrib massaman with pickles: Here’s another dish that didn’t survive the fancification well. The shortrib was undercooked and there was far too little of the massaman curry sauce. The curry itself was tasty and once again left me wishing I could have gotten a proper massaman curry from the kitchen.
- Smoked goat shoulder with sweet soy: This is listed on the menu as being for two people. Really, four people could share it (when ordering a few other things). Unlike the shortrib eaten at a different meal this was cooked perfectly. The goat was pastrami-like (does anyone actually specialize in goat pastrami? if not, why not?) and the sweet soy and the greens etc. perched on top harmonized well with its earthy flavour.
- Northern som tum: A very nice papaya salad in its way but could have stood to be both a little hotter and a little funkier.
- Grilled hispi cabbage: Looks like someone didn’t notice they’d placed a head of cabbage on the grill until it was burnt beyond saving but in reality it tasted great.
You are charged £1 per person for sticky rice to eat the above with but it’s unlimited rice for £1.
For pictures of the food please launch the slideshow. Scroll down for notes on price, service and the overall experience.
As noted above, it’s not the most comfortable place to eat. The restaurant is small and cramped and the stools are small and hard. I’ve only been at lunch when it’s not terribly busy—can’t imagine wanting to eat there at dinner when they’re apparently much busier. On the plus side, they take reservations. And the service is very friendly.
The prices are not low. Unless you order very little you should expect to spend at least £30 per person—and quite a bit more with drinks. Is it worth it? That’s a hard question. As I said, there’s a bit of sameness in the flavours of a number of dishes—unavoidable given the emphasis on smoking and grilling—and in some cases the re-articulation of classic dishes didn’t work for me. Given the abbreviated nature of the menu, if I lived in London I’d probably stop by occasionally to get an order of the wings and a beer but I don’t know that I’d eat full meals here very often.
Though I’ve eaten at Smoking Goat more than once it’s not the only Thai food I’ve eaten in London. I will, in fact, have a report in a few weeks on a lunch at a branch of the Thai Square chain. If you know more about Thai food in London and have recommendations for places to eat it that are neither chains nor aimed at the cosmopolitan elite please write in below (and hurry: we only have one week left in London).