58 Brewer St, London W1F 9TL kilnsoho.com
dinner for two £75
Kiln is an offshoot of the much-lauded Smoking Goat, a Thai restaurant set up by Brits – a Caucasian Asian, if you will. It’s a bit more small plate-ish and street-foody than its sibling, but shares its focus on northern Thailand, and points still further upward: Burma and Laos, and even China’s Yunnan province. They do have a kiln: they use it to preheat the rest of their cooking kit, which is achingly rustic – small clay bowls filled with glowing wood embers. (“There’s no electricity or gas used in cooking!” I was proudly told.) Perhaps they also hedge against fluctuations in the ever-volatile hospitality trade by making their own pottery during quiet moments; who knows. Woks are “hand-hammered”, presumably by someone with really strong hands.
We had planned to go to Kiln way back on the cusp of December, after the Bad Sex Party, which is not a bad party – far from it – nor a party devoted to bad sex, though Lord knows we’ve all been to plenty of those, but rather the annual bash of a magazine I write for, during which a plaster cast of a sandalled foot is awarded, inexplicably, to the author who’s penned the worst sex scene this year. It’s always well attended, partly because the magazine only pays £50 a throw and its contributors seize the opportunity to make up the annual shortfall in liquid form.
It turns out you can only book at Kiln if there are four of you or more, which was no good to me as I didn’t know how many of us there were going to be until after the party. In 2015 some of us went to Brasserie Zédel, because it’s open late and you can usually get in without booking. I had the choucroute. This time we all just went to the pub.
We tried again 10 days later, after another party, this one thickly attended by card-carrying Music Business Geezers, all rocking a sort of superannuated mod look, with little John Smedley button-up tops and those hairstyles that look as though you’ve just had a bucket of water upended over you. We embarked for Kiln at about nine. On arrival we shuffled into a longish but narrow space with a bar along one side dispensing drinks in front, food in the back. All the covers on the ground floor face this, so you can admire the pots, woks, lovingly hand-tooled chefs etc; but you have to talk to your dinner date sidelong, like two secret agents, or a wisecracking middle-aged couple in a Forties romantic comedy.
Eventually a maître d’ emerged from downstairs, where the bigger tables are. Nothing doing, she said: there were four people ahead of us, and the kitchen shut at 10.30. So we went to Brasserie Zédel instead. I had the choucroute.
We finally made it, on our third attempt. I went straight after work and gave them my number (at least there’s no queue – they text you a link to Qudini, a sort of e-queue), and said it’d be about 45 minutes. I bided my time, calm amid the melee, a gumshoe on assignment; leafing through old Italian horror film posters in Vintage Magazines, running a dreamy finger over the lavish Oriental embroidery on the repurposed army surplus schmutter at Maharishi, much favoured by the Music Business Geezers of yesteryear. I met my partner for cocktails around the corner. We looked into one another’s eyes for what felt like the last time.
Eventually – rather later than advertised – the message came. And do you know what? It was absolutely fantastic. The staff were engaged and expert, but there were no concept recitals, no condescension; they kept our wine in the fridge for us (we went for Sekt – the wine list, by blogger and eminence grise Zeren Wilson, seemed generally excellent, chosen with a keen eye for the robust dishes on offer).
Do you know what? It was fantastic. The staff were engaged and expert; there were no concept recitals They even have a guy in the West Country growing Thai ingredients in a polytunnel
As for the food, it’s not as “authentic” as Som Saa across town, if that matters to you; but it’s absolutely coherent and true to itself. Dishes are simple, focusing on two or three flavours. European tastes (notably lashings of lemon balm) work perfectly alongside the soursweet-salty-spicy flavours of south-east Asia – they also have a guy in the West Country growing Thai ingredients in a polytunnel.
Even all the slightly annoying hipsterish stuff, the pious no-tech ethos, the hand-hammering and aching rusticity, made sense. Much of what we’d do by cooking is accomplished in Thai cuisine by pounding ingredients together – here a guy was making industrial amounts of tangy nam jim sauce in a mortar the size of a Fifties hair dryer. A perfumed smokiness pervaded our food, from the Yunnan-style lamb skewers to a spectacular hotpot made with glass noodles, Mangalitsa pork belly (all the meat has a CV, and it shows) and crabmeat, to a simple side of greens with sweetish soy and chili. Also tremendous (though not on the menu every day) was a laap – small pieces of pollock, dressed with herbs and heat and lashings of citrus.
Another laap of minced ox heart had a couple of whole bird’s eye chillies (in Thai these are known as “mouse poo chillies”) charred on the embers and flung in whole so you could eat around them if you preferred. By the time we paid the bill – strikingly cheap, given how much we’d ordered – we’d forgotten all the faff and fiddliness of getting to eat here. I can’t wait to go again. In fact, as we walked back to the Tube, we passed the entrance to Brasserie Zédel, and I didn’t give it, or its choucroute, a second thought.