Wood-fired Thai food that’s fiery in more ways than one
Claim to fame: Thai-style cooking on charcoal-burning stoves
Reason to go: You’ll need to visit South East Asia to find another kitchen like this
To look out for: The sour fermentation of real Thai cuisine
The line filling the doorway tells you this isn’t just another high street Thai. Give your mobile number to the greeter, and then head elsewhere for an hour or more until your text alert arrives. On return, fasten your seatbelts for a tuk tuk dash through the most thrilling flavor combinations you’ll find in Soho.
The kitchen staff – all Westerners, mostly British – take their inspiration from dishes found in northern Thailand, Bangkok, Laos, Burma and Yunnan. But rather than trying to reproduce the cooking of these tribal homelands, they’ve applied South East Asian techniques to sustainably-sourced British seafood, British pigs and sheep, and fresh Thai herbs and Chinese vegetables grown in Dorset. The brief menu changes daily.
Sit at the kitchen counter that stretches the length of this narrow room for a front row view of the chefs at work. No gas or electricity is used; charcoal is made on-site. Skewers are grilled, giant mortars beaten, woks tossed, smoking embers moved around like incense in a temple.
Little sticks of aged hogget (older lamb of 1-2 years age), spiked with cumin and chili, warn you of the palate assault to come. The meat is aged for up to five weeks after slaughter to further intensify it. Turbot might be cooked in a sour turmeric curry; the lip-curling fermentation and bitter flavor have been expunged from most Thai food in the West, but not here. Laap, an Isan dish of minced meat, mixes ox heart with whole birds-eye chilies to heart-breaking effect. Meat-free dishes are less thrilling, but never dull. A vegetable curry had a complex mixture of sour, sweet, salty and bitter; what the Thais call ‘rot chart’ meaning ‘balanced flavor’. The herbs are one of the most striking aspects of the dishes, going beyond the familiar lemongrass and holy basil; phak pai, which is misleadingly called ‘Vietnamese coriander’ in English (it’s not a coriander), add a distinctive sharp, citrus aroma to some dishes. Green nam jim dipping sauce is supplied with some dishes in case you need an extra fillip of chili, coriander root, lime juice and fish sauce.
It takes an extraordinary wine list to withstand the shock of these dishes, but the natural wines kick-box back against this boldest of menus. Although the flavors might jostle and honk as riotously as a Bangkok traffic jam, the service is unflappable and unfailing gentle; rare groove vinyl provides the curious soundtrack.