Jimi Famurewa reviews Kolae: I’d made plans to come back before the bill was even paid

Authentically brilliant: the Kolae dining room (Adrian Lourie)
Authentically brilliant: the Kolae dining room (Adrian Lourie)

The promise of “authentic Thai food” has long been an especially elastic and problematic one; an ever-moving target shaped by time, context and whatever level of regional fidelity the cautious masses deem tolerable. Fifteen years ago, I could shuffle my ill-informed, skinny-jeaned carcass to The Walpole Thai pub in Deptford, order a searingly hot pad krapow that would offend the gaze and spirit of any self-respecting south-east Asian, and still think, because I could feel last night’s Jäger tobogganing from my pores, that I was partaking in the apogee of cultural faithfulness.

Now, of course, London’s Thai restaurants interpret the cuisines of Isaan, Laan or Bangkok’s micro-cultures with breathtaking focus and specificity. Now, the unapologetic home-style brilliance of Leyton’s Singburi is so revered that you can’t book a table until 2024.

And now, most pressingly, we get places like Kolae: a new Borough Market, southern-accented grill restaurant from the creators of som saa that feels, at last gasp, like one of the more confident, distinctive and utterly exhilarating openings of the year. Yes, there is familiarity here, in its curry-slicked skewers and funky, fresh-pounded accompaniments. Yet there is also, for many of us, the feeling of being led into thrilling new territories of flavour and possibility. That sense of discovery extends to the fact that you are probably mispronouncing the name of the restaurant. We had not long sat down beyond the hulking gate doors of its vast former coach house site, when I began to wonder what this “go-lay” that our servers kept mentioning referred to.

This, as it turns out, is a phonetic approximation of the Thai way to pronounce the word kolae (also written as kawlae or gawlae): a grilling method from Thailand’s Malay-influenced southern borderlands that comprises skewered meat, repeatedly daubed in a rugged, clingy coconut milk-enriched marinade, and then methodically cooked over live flame. That’s the slightly nerdy, explanatory background, anyway. The cooking approach will perhaps be best understood via a plate of kolae mussels: hefty, shelled brutes, steamed to a meaty, tumescent plumpness, and practically dancing in the fragrant tang and rounded sweetness of an orange curry glaze. The same trick was repeated, for us, with chicken; bubbled and burnished on the grill but, again, in possession of a kind of liberally-sauced and almost laksa-ish depth and dynamism.

Kolae mussel skewers, with jackfruit and kale fritters (Adrian Lourie)
Kolae mussel skewers, with jackfruit and kale fritters (Adrian Lourie)

Kolae’s menu is the sort of tightly focused small plates affair that will probably anger starter-main-dessert absolutists. The terminally cranky may also have something to say about the quantity of fat on a sublime griddled hogget chop, buried beneath an autumnal leaf-pile of frazzled onions. But the focus on shareable, interactive little bites of things — the giddy blur of crispy rice cakes piled with a zapping chicken and peanut salad; bitter leaves loaded with a gloriously aggro tai pla mackerel relish; briny pickled green mango martinis administered after ragged kale and herb fritters in a fireball of a fermented chilli sauce — only adds to the sense of exploration, variety and a kind of heady, synapse-firing delight.

Kolae is a mature and matured project (founders Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie first launched a crowdfund in 2019); a fact that bleeds out into the details of the food (fermented soy beans anointing smoky wok-fried greens; the intoxicating balance of a Phuket-style middlewhite braise that is like sweet and sour pork for grown-ups; the resounding mic-drop of a Grinch-hued pandan sticky rice and coconut sorbet that comprises the lone pudding) but also in the assured subtlety and cool of the three-story, 80-cover space.

Bustling house music rings out across starkly shadowed halls of stone and scant foliage. Clouds of new season rice scent the air. Spires of wok-flame occasionally leap from the pans of chefs at work in the open, ground floor kitchen. And if you care at all about excitement and vigour in dining, you will look around at all of this and be plotting your next trip before the bill has been brought over.

Debates about cultural accuracy will continue to rage; some other rip-snorting synthesis of sub-regional Thai is undoubtedly around the corner. But, for now, Kolae is a sophisticated, scintillating shot in the arm for a beloved genre — and about as authentically brilliant as it gets.

6 Park Street, SE1 9AB. Meal for two plus drinks about £120. Open Tuesday to Saturday from noon-10.30pm and Sunday from noon-9pm; kolae.com