In the lines of duty

Fashionable food spots too cool to take bookings aren’t worth the queues

Restaurants
Not cutting-edge, just really good: Sea bass with turmeric at Rosa’s Thai Café (©Rosa's Thai Café)

Do you remember The Beach? Alex Garland’s 1996 bestseller which poignantly skewered the Britpop zeitgeist in its tale of Western backpackers in Thailand and their pursuit of an inevitably polluted Eden? Such innocent times: Leonardo DiCaprio was still hot, Noel and Liam Gallagher were on speakers and if you went to a party in Notting Hill you could hang out with bronzed trustafarians in ashram trousers who’d explain why “Koh Phi Phi is like, totally, over now” between drags on a rollie. Back when Gap Yah travellers eschewed cameras and rolled their eyes at the mention of the “banana pancake” crowd on the Khao San Road, Thai food meant rubbery fishcakes in chili jam and green or red curry — we were still in a tizzy about lemongrass and holy basil. So simple, so Insta-free, so — quaint.

I didn’t make it to Thailand during my own gap year, much of which was spent signing on in Stoke-on-Trent, but I’m very partial to a chicken satay and a khanom jeep. Yet one must move with the times, and I’d been wanting to try Kiln in Brewer Street for ages in the hopes of expanding my repertoire. Kiln, which has just recieved a Bib Gourmand (the Michelin junior accolade), is an outpost of the Smoking Goat, a northern Thai barbecue spot which is not quite as cool as another northern Thai barbecue spot, Som Saa, across town, but Kiln may be cooler than them both, because actually the food is all cooked on wood embers in dinky little clay pots and you can’t make a reservation. That is, you can make a reservation if there are four of you, which means you enter all your details into their system in order to find out there’s no table but you’ll be receiving cheery little updates on social media every five minutes for the rest of your life instead. Or you can sign up for a sort of virtual queue where you give them your number and they send you a text after you’ve been hanging round in Soho for an hour and a half, or you can chance it and try for a seat at the bar. Good luck with that. We arrived on a wet Monday evening at about 8.30 and the line was already spilling morosely out of the door.

Can we just take a moment here to ask who are these people? People whose idea of a top night out is schlepping Up West to hang around in a doorway with their coats on being barged by harassed waiting staff and trying to make conversation sideways whilst tackling an obscure artisan mojito in a jamjar as their hair becomes slowly encrusted with the charcoaled grease of the grilled beef with Isaan herbs and stir-fried banana peppers that they are not eating? How did their hedonism gene grow so morbidly stunted that this counts as fun? Admittedly, Kiln is not a pricey joint but you could achieve the same effect by buying a cheap takeaway and sniffing it while going round and round on the Circle Line in rush hour with your face in a stranger’s armpit.

So I can’t tell you anything about the food at Kiln, partly because we couldn’t face the wait but mostly because when I checked out the menu options on the Tumblr-blog style website with the aim of going back at 11am on a Bank Holiday I found this, under a picture of an LP:

Bringing a few more sacrificial lambs from the home collection this morning. Feel bad dropping them off to a short hard life of constant wear, fingerprints and being marinaded in spilt orange wine. We’ve got Mingus, speed glue and shinki and some Congolese psychedelic rumba.
21. Aug . 17

I think we all need to look away now.

So, we rang up Rosa’s Thai Café round the corner on Dean Street and spoke to a human person who gave us a table. Rosa’s proprietor, Saiphin, grew up on a farm in Khao Kho, south-east Thailand, where she opened her own noodle stand aged 16. After training in Bangkok and Hong Kong, Saiphin started a foodstall in Brick Lane in 2007 and her first café the following year. There are now ten branches in London, and while Rosa’s may not be exactly hip, it retains a certain rarity value in being a restaurant where they, you know, let you sit down and order dinner.

Rosa’s does all the dishes which have come to be accepted as Thai classics — pad thai, crispy squid, tom yum soup, which wouldn’t get through the door at Kiln, not that that puts them in a minority. We began with fresh summer rolls with fat prawns, som tum spicy papaya salad and laab gai chicken with fresh herbs, all of it spiky with crunch and flavour without any particular fireworks, but then a really excellent crisp grilled sea bass with turmeric and ginger, the delicacy of the fish heightened rather than swamped by the heat of the paste. Two plates of noodles — “drunken” style with beef and flat in gravy with prawns, richly slurpy and satisfying, and aubergine baked with chili and yellow beans that was maybe a bit on the worthy side. It’s not surprising, cutting-edge food, nor is it sexy, macho grill-my-offal-with-a-white-hot-poker, but I’m at the point with central London where I’d happily pay a premium not to have my belly pork’s CV recited to me by some dickhead with a topknot. Rosa’s is not smart or fancy, it’s a café where they serve really nice Thai food. The wine list needs some proper thought — northern European wines can be fantastic with south Asian dishes, but the best on offer was an acceptable, rather dull Gavi. There’s Thai whisky if you actually want to make like The Beach, a short cocktail list and a choice of Thai beer (not available, mysteriously, at the Brixton branch).

We passed Kiln again on the way home. The line was still there. What made Garland’s novel so brilliant was the satire on the pursuit of the unsullied authentic, the fraught status anxiety masquerading as chilled-out expansiveness. His point was, of course, that Eldorado, whether on the beach or in the kitchen, can only exist as hypothesis, because as soon as we’re there it ceases to be. We bring the banana pancakes with us and there is no escape. It was funny, then. In 1996.