It’s not exactly a pioneering discovery on our part. This second restaurant from Smoking Goat founder Ben Chapman has enjoyed a flurry of hyperbole from critics since it opened late last year.
The hype is justified (as we found out), but it suffers slightly from its popularity, so for our first visit we chose a Sunday lunch service, anticipating it as the best time not to have to queue.
And it was. Arriving just before 1pm, when the restaurant opens, we had the pick of the counter upstairs, a curving affair that stretches from the window down towards the open kitchen, where a wood-burning kiln is the focus for the clay pot, barbecue and wok cooking overseen by an energetic gang of young chefs. The vibe? As by-the-roadside as you can get in smart old W1 these days.
The cooking is rooted in northern Thailand, where Chapman has travelled extensively. But it’s by no means Thai food in the traditional sense, as the menu is clear about suppliers being mostly farms and fishermen from the UK, especially Cornish pigs, which are bought whole. Even the herbs are grown in this country.
Service was a tad slow to get going – and the last thing we wanted was to bark a drinks order– but once we had engaged her, she was charming and helpful. It’s a sharing-plates-kinda-place: as we ordered, she insisted we try the clay pot baked glass noodles, which subsequently proved to be the best dish of the five or so we tasted, with its meltingly soft pork belly, brown crab meat (the flavoursome bit) and lithe noodles. A dipping sauce of potent green herbs provided a zesty foil.But we started our meal with an attractive skewer each of aged lamb, crusted with cumin, its fat making the texture marshmallow-like. They’re only a couple of quid each and slip straight down in one: “They don’t even touch the sides,” laughed the waitress at our instantly empty plate.
The two fish dishes that followed were somehow light and fiery; invigorating to say the least. A laap, or salad, of pollock with roasted rice, which adds a nutty flavour, had notes of lime, garlic, mint and spring onion – but it was armed with a battalion of chilli too. Don’t underestimate its harmless appearance; there’s a real thwack of dry heat here.
A super-fresh plate of mackerel may prove easier for some palates, its rich flesh expertly seared with three different chilli peppers in a curry paste.
I’m a big fan of superior Iberican presa, the tender pork cut served fashionably pink, and so had to order the grilled mangalitsa, what some term the ‘Kobe beef’ of the animal. A Hungarian breed of domestic pig developed in the mid-19th century by crossbreeding with wild boar, it grows a thick, woolly coat similar to that of a sheep. Here it was served thrillingly rosy and very tender, with a herby sauce. A real match for any Spanish porker, in fact.
Even a side of greens packed a punch, stir-fried with a little soy and honey to counteract the heat.If there’s one point to make constructively, it’s that sharing these plates is a little tricky, or rather messy – especially the noodles – but that’s a minor problem when the food’s this good. I also wonder if the chefs might consider serving milder dishes such as the grilled pork first, and the super-hot dishes at the end: after the fiery pollock the subtleties of the mangalitsa were compromised on the tongue.
But ultimately? My favourite meal out in a long time. Even our grape juice and soda was suitably sweet and sharp to cut through the heat.
Oh, and if you arrive and it’s full, they’ll text you when a table is free, while you repair to a handy pub. We’re already planning at least one return visit – and next time we’ll perch at the kitchen-end of the counter, with full view over those steaming clay pots.