Friday, 14 November 2014
Smoking Goat serves some of the best Thai food you will eat outside of Thailand. I needed to say this up front, and I've deliberately put it in italics because all said and done it's the most important thing about the place. So please bear this crucial fact in mind as you read through the rest of this post, because if it weren't for the food, the wonderful, wonderful food, the following paragraphs would be not much more than extended rant about, well, let's see now...
Firstly, it is noisy. Very, very noisy. Hard surfaces and a low ceiling create the kind of acoustics that encourages everyone in the room to shout just that little bit louder than everyone else, and despite sitting barely two inches away from my friend that night (I'm coming to the seating arrangements, bear with me) we each had to bellow into each other's faces to be understood. On top of that, a powerful sound system supported by two huge speakers near the front door add to the general cacaophony with some bass-heavy dance music. We asked them to turn them down a couple of times during the evening, but they somehow always crept back up again in volume.
So, the seating arrangements. It's a tiny restaurant, which is fine, and tables are very close together, which is also understandable, but there are just so many little standing-room-only drinks perches around the room that when they're all being used (which they generally are within two minutes of the place opening) getting to the toilet and back is like a Crystal Maze puzzle - "I'll stand here so you can get past, now you stand there, good now I'll move into the space left by him", and so on. Also the bench seating along one wall is a plank of solid, uncushioned wood about six inches wide, the kind of thing you might expect to find in a Victorian workhouse or a particularly "character-building" boarding school. It's second only to the booths at Quality Chop House in terms of excruciating agony, and that's saying something.
And finally, they don't take reservations. And under normal circumstances that wouldn't bother me in the slightest - I'm always banging on about eating at midday or 6pm where you can generally snag a spot at even the most oversubscribed places - except that the kitchen at Smoking Goat doesn't open until 7pm, so from 5:30 ish onwards the room is full of people sipping beer and twiddling their thumbs until they can order the Whole Cornish Crab or the lamb ribs or whatever. It's completely counterproductive - those queuing outside (or where it extends slightly inside) know they have to wait until everyone already seated has finished and paid up, and those inside have no intention of leaving until they've ordered the crab. Sure you can eat oysters and chicken wings before that, but you'd be an idiot to have lucked out on a table at Smoking Goat and not waited to order something more substantial.
Anyway so those are all the reasons why you might not want to bother going to Smoking Goat. And here are all the reasons why you absolutely must. Oysters, at an incredible £1 each come with a sharp nam jim (dipping sauce), sweet and vinegary and a perfect foil for the salty bivalves. Fish sauce wings, £6 for four, moist and crunchy in all the right places, in an incredible fragrant marinade, are now coming in a close second for my favourite way of having chicken wings, and believe me I love buffalo wings a LOT so this is high praise. Both of these items can be ordered all afternoon from the bar menu, so if you're happy sipping craft beer and eating your bodyweight in oysters and wings, perhaps you don't need to wait until 7pm at all.
But then again, perhaps you should. The main draw from the menu proper is of course the whole Cornish chilli crab, liberally dressed with herbs, palm sugar & fresh coconut cream. The shell is only weakly cracked, so you will definitely need the extra tools they give you, claw breakers and pickers, because most of the sweet white meat is quite hard to get at. But it's worth every sauce-splattered, hot, dark, noisy, painful minute. If there's one dish that's going to make you forget where you are and transport you to a seafood shack on the white beach at Ko Chang, it's this. Already one of London's signature dishes, the Smoking Goat Chilli Crab is an instant classic.
Other main courses are hardly less accomplished, though. Coal-roast hand-dived scallop with nam yum (lime juice, fish sauce, sugar and chilli according to a quick Google) is a huge, fresh, meaty thing with a smoky crust and a generous roe. Like a lot of Thai food it's superficially straightforward in terms of ingredients but the balance of sweet/sour/smoky/chilli is absolutely spot-on; these guys really know what they're doing.
I was expecting the slow roast duck legs to be stringy and collapse-y, like you might find in French stews or or Chinese pancakes. But these were moist and firm, with a sweet, crunchy glaze and a charming multicoloured dip of pickled kumquats and who knows what else.
I don't think the same dip or sauce is used twice. Lamb ribs are basted with fermented shrimp, chilli and palm sugar, and are served with a kind of sweet chilli dip (though obviously a million miles away from any sweet chilli you may have had squirted around a salad from Thai Square; this was sharp, fresh and incredibly moreish). The flesh from the ribs tore off in thick, satisfying chunks, and had that funky, deep flavour of clearly top quality lamb.
House som tam (green papaya salad) is another minor classic, and comes with all the mains. It's packed with flavour and heat - surprisingly so, in fact, given the chilli levels elsewhere stop thankfully somewhat short of authentic - and is a multicoloured, multitextured joy.
What else? Ah yes, wines and beers are far from an afterthought. The rare and brilliant Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is available in 750ml measures, and the wine list, curated by the omnipresent Zeren Wilson, offered a sweet German Riesling to go with our crab and scallops, and a lovely (and very reasonably priced) glass of natural prosecco to go with, well, more or less everything else.
As I arranged my coat and jumper around myself to cushion against the harsh bench seating, and while yelling conversation at my friend between mouthfuls of chilli crab, I wondered whether there was an easier way of doing all this. If I was a millionaire, maybe I could get someone to queue up and order for me, then as soon as it arrives courier it to my house where I could demolish the crab using a salad bowl as a finger wash and finish with fish sauce wings in front of the X Factor. Or maybe I could wear earplugs and they could have a separate queue for the seats that aren't a medieval torture device, like for people who queue separately for the front of the Nemesis at Alton Towers.
But even as I emerged, sweating, crab-stained and deaf onto Denmark Street after my meal at Smoking Goat that night, I knew with almost absolute certainty that I'd be back. Food like this, especially in London where you can count the number of decent Thai restaurants on one hand, is a rare and precious thing, and though everything that doesn't involve filling your face with smoked lamb and scallops is a test of almost every faculty I possess, what's coming out of that tiny, smoke-filled kitchen is enough to make me forgive almost anything. Uncompromising, infuriating and brilliant, Smoking Goat is a one-off.
I was invited to the opening night of Smoking Goat, then went back under my own steam for more, the glutton for punishment I am. I'm reliably informed they are hoping to open the kitchen earlier in the evening, so there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon
Thursday, 13 November 2014
"I find your review way out of kilter with the meals I have eaten there, as well as several friends. Maybe they did have a bad day. Why not try again?"
This appeared below my post on A Wong from April last year, based on a visit shortly after it opened. In itself, comments like this are not unusual - you're never going to get a complete consensus about a restaurant (not even Tayyabs) and under ordinary circumstances I would have shrugged my shoulders, carried on and never gone back to A Wong. Each to their own, no harm done, let's move on.
Except in the 18 months since my visit, the one thing London hasn't done is move on from A Wong. What was once a murmur of happy contentment from early adopters has turned into a roar of overt approval, from critics, foodies, close friends, basically anyone ever taking the time to eat there. But chief amongst these influencers, as far as I'm concerned, is wine expert and general restaurant spod (I'm sure he won't mind me saying) Zeren Wilson, whose instagram feed from countless dinners there is as good an advertisement for the place than pretty much anything else.
So finally this week, breathlessly expectant along with my five other dining companions (all the better to cover more of the vast menu), I returned to A Wong. And with any luck over the next few paragraphs I'll give you some of the reasons why it's pretty much the best Chinese restaurant in London.
Of course, most of those reasons are the food. It's all about the details, such as these two different types of chilli oil, one with tofu and one with some kind of seafood I think. To dip in them, house prawn crackers like nothing you've seen before, studded with interesting spices, topped with finely-diced cubes of astonishing pickled vegetables. Pickled vegetables are something that A Wong does very, very well indeed.
Such as these batons of pickled cucumber, slicked with sugar and chilli and (I think) soy.
Two whole, soft, sweet steamed Scottish langoustines which would have been swoon-worthy enough even if they hadn't been a bargainous £3 each. You can barely find them much cheaper wholesale, and even if you did, would you be able to cook and present them as well as this? I doubt it.
These miraculous dumplings, Shanghai steamed with ginger vinegar, contain - it hardly seems possible - a pork soup, which releases its complex, fragrant flavour once you've carefully hoisted them out of the steamer (hint: use the spoon) and burst them in your mouth. Alongside, as part of the dim sum trio, are these prawn and porky things each topped with a square of crackling and more pickled veg, and prawn dumplings coated in a clever vinegar-citrus froth which rushed through the sinuses like Vicks Vaporub. Could these really have been the same items I dismissed so easily as "frothy spittle" back in April?
We were only just getting started. "Honey roasted foie gras with candied pork jerky and pomelo" looked almost like a Simon Rogan presentation in its thick earthenware bowl and use of form and texture, but no clever technique came at the expense of taste. The foie was declared by more than one of our group to be the best they'd ever eaten, and it's testament to the quality of yet more amazing vegetable pickling that the neat curls of carrot brought just as many gasps. This was clearly world class stuff.
Even the nominally "straightforward" dishes still impressed. Singapore noodles had a lovely deep flavour from a clever "shellfish vinaigrette" and little bits of crunch on top for texture. And barbecued lamb chops, coated in a spice mix that would be the envy of any Whitechapel grill, came with a chilli and pomegranate salad, shades of the Indian subcontinent.
And the desserts! An afterthought in most Chinese restaurants, but here a chilli roasted pineapple with Sichuan pepper ice cream came topped with an impossibly light ball of marshmallow of some kind, and "tea smoked banana, nut crumble, chocolate, soy caramel" was pure theatre, a sphere of chocolate collapsing dramatically into a sweet, rich puddle of banana and nuts as sauce was poured on top. Both technically impressive, and a joy to eat.
There isn't sadly enough time to go into detail about just how the food at A Wong is unlike anything else I've tried, and I'm sure I possess very few of the skills to sufficiently explain why even if there was, but hopefully you can see by this point that it's the kind of place that attacks preconceptions about Chinese food from all sides, and combines clever technique and cutting-edge gastronomic theatre to present a version of the cuisine that's occasionally shocking (some Sichuan-spiced beef left us gasping for air), occasionally challenging ("Smoked duck and jellyfish and pork crackling salad") but always, always great fun.
As for what's happened between my first visit and now, who knows. Perhaps they did have a rare "off day" that some have suggested. Maybe I accidentally chose all the dishes that have benefitted from tweaking and improvement over the last 18 months. Perhaps - and I have to allow for this possibility - perhaps I was just plain wrong. But really, it doesn't matter what happened the first time, because all that matters is what's happening now. If there's a single more innovative, exciting and enjoyable way to enjoy Chinese food in London I'd be very surprised indeed.
Huge thanks to Grant Hawthorne for organising such a brilliant evening, and to Adrian, John, Dave and Julie for being such great company. For yet more photos of yet more of the menu we ordered that night, here's a Flickr set.
Photos taken with a Canon 700D with 50mm lens, kindly loaned from Canon