Monday, 17 October 2016
They're like the buses, these 10/10 restaurants; you wait six months for one, and then two come along at once. And actually, Kiln probably has more in common with the previously reviewed Chick'n'Sours that you first might think. Both a based around an idiosyncratic Western-leaning vision of Asian food, sensitively adopting cooking techniques and flavour profiles for a local audience, keeping everything that makes the original cusine so special while making the most of available ingredients. Both keep turnover high and costs down, meaning you can eat plenty of food for not much money, even if at busy times you might have to wait for the privilege. And both, crucially, are about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
The attention to detail is, at first, overwhelming. If you're lucky enough to grab a spot near the roaring heat of the charcoal-fired kitchens (no gas or electricity here) you can see first-hand the complex series of techniques that goes into every dish at Kiln, whether it's the seasoning and re-seasoning of pork belly and short rib before they're carefully sliced and handed further up the line for saucing and plating, or the timing required to get the exquisitely delicate lamb cumin skewers so that the cubes of flesh are bouncy and just-pink, and the fat just hot enough to bind them together.
Perhaps it's best to ignore the somersaults going on in the kitchens best you can and just enjoy the food, because there's more than enough circus on the plate to keep anyone entertained. This was an early favourite of mine, langoustines (3 of them for £8.80, take that River Café), blanched and cured in citrus in such a way as to keep the flesh plump and plentiful while avoiding the gloopy translucence of completely raw shellfish. Fragrant, fresh and colourful, there's barely a better langoustine dish in London.
Also from the seafood section (the menu reads with the stark beauty of a haiku) is "Mackerel dry red curry", tender fillets of fresh Cornish fish dressed in a complex series of herbs (dill and lemongrass, and probably much else), chillies and with a dense, rich spice mix clinging to it all like a winter blanket.
Dishes come and go based on availability of ingredients, as they very much should, but this welcome unpredictability understandably affects the seafood dishes more than the red meat. On an early preview I enjoyed steamed hake, its bright white flesh gleaming under a coating of lime leaves, sat in a clear, precise fish broth that could have been the highlight of any meal by itself. A week or so later it had been replaced by a stunning gurnard curry, crisp skin binding a thick tranch of moist flesh, cooked to perfection, in a sauce of ginger stems, lemongrass and dill.
Kiln would be the first to admit they're not aiming for strict authenticity, but dishes such as Tamworth pork belly with long pepper taste very much like the kind of thing you'd be served roadside in Northern Thailand, in terms both of its sinus-blasting heat and deeply satisfying flavour profile. Those are the pork belly pieces you see being chargrilled to order in the open kitchens; nothing hangs around for more than a few seconds. The immediacy of it all is impressive, and the results are breathtaking.
Clay pot baked glass noodles has the winning combination of pork and brown crab meat, a theatrical presentation (guests are required to 'mix up' the ingredients themselves), and that same exhausting attention to detail that informs everything else Kiln do - the little dip on the side (sharp and herby and shocking green) is made every twenty minutes throughout service. Also, this huge pot of noodles, top quality pork and seafood comes in at £4.75, which seems almost unfairly cheap.
Look, the point is, everything is good. Everything. Even the sides, where something coyly described as a "mushroom salad" turned out to have a heady, meaty flavour so bafflingly rich and complex you'd swear it contained at least some animal protein. But no, just oyster mushrooms and girolles, bound with lime juice and soy and fresh herbs. I'd call it a must-order, but that wouldn't really help distinguish it from the rest of the food, so what's the point.
I'm not the first to fall head-over-heels in love with Kiln, and I certainly won't be the last. On Friday the wait for a table at about 6:15 was 1 1/2 hours, and I fear this is where I may lose a few of you. But like any of even the most super-popular no-reservations places, if you time your arrival well enough (midday or 5pm Mon-Sat or a weird "shoulder hour" like 4pm on a Sunday) you won't have to wait too long, and you won't even have to stand in line; they'll take your number and call you when your table's ready as you enjoy a pint in a nearby pub. And anyway, I'm not about to apologise for one of the best restaurants in the entire city being popular, and for that matter, neither should they. Kiln is a marvel - a true one-off - and deserves every last man, woman and child of the vast crowds that are already flocking its way.
Kiln will be in the next version of the app. Most of the photos above were taken on the preview night, but I have been back since on my own dollar hence the bill.