Review: Kolae, Borough Market

Kolae grill

Kolae grill

I wonder if there are two different threads of “modern Thai” in London? My favourite spot, Plaza Khao Gaeng, is full of bright, bold flavours and feels as unashamedly colourful as a Buddhist temple in Bangkok. Another favourite, Kiln, focuses on fierce often spiky flavours mixing earth and fire… more like a trip to the shadowy jungles along the banks of the Mekong? I dunno.

Anyway, if there are two vibes of modern Thai then Kolae in Borough Market belongs firmly to the fierce & earthy Kiln vibe. It’s a big place, laid out in an industrial style that’s getting so familiar it’s going to be hard to remember which modern Asian place is which soon. We sit at the bar counter and the team look after us really well.

Hogget chop

Hogget chop

First bite is crispy fried prawn heads with turmeric, very strongly prawn-y and munchable. There’s also some crunchy puffed rice crackers, dressed with the only bright flavours of lunch; plenty of ginger and chilli in the salty-sweet dressing.

We pick two dishes from the Kolae grill: squash and a hogget chop. The chop is full of flavour and nicely grilled, the deft touch of slicing it into bites and then reassembling them on the bone shows a lot of care (it’s a Thai place, so of course we only have forks and spoons). The squash is one of my favourite things, it’s sturdy texture has lovely charred edges from the grill and a really warm and earthy sauce slathered over it. A sauce that I can’t even begin to work out the makings of, sorry. Good though.

Fiery, fiery venison

Fiery, fiery venison

I like the sour mango salad, particularly the generous scattering of tiny fried dried fish. It’s good but, again, more complex and earthy than the bright zip of a “typical” Thai salad. Our other main is a minced venison “kua kling” curry. This is a delicious portion of plump venison mince cooked in an absolutely fireball of a sauce – the first couple of mouthfuls are fine but the heat builds and builds. Undeniably good, gnarly, earthy, delicious, but very much fire.

I soothe my tastebuds with their dessert of charming green pandan sticky rice, coconut sorbet, peanuts and soft slivers of amber jackfruit. All desserts should be like this: fragrant, refreshing, delicious.

Lunch was plenty big enough for us, and about £32 each before drinks. This feels about right for what is a very good addition to the modern Asian eating options around London. We sampled a good makrut lime-led cocktail and enjoyed a couple of glasses of white wine from a really interesting list.

Cheers!

Cheers!

Review: Behind, Hackney

Behind

Behind

Back from a six week trip to Patagonia and I was looking forward to some fine dining! It’s not that you can’t find any good food in Chile… it’s just really hard, especially as we were (deliberately!) exploring the back of beyond. Some of the best bits were straight from the sea: if you’re ever in Chilean Patagonia look out for “puye”, a dish of tiny fish fry very similar to baby eels in a garlicky pil-pil dressing.

Behind in Hackney is also a seafood menu, very much more classy but also packed with big flavours. The dining room is only about 20 covers, a modern setting dominated by a curvaceous blond wooden counter. All the chefs share all the front of house duties, which makes for an informal and friendly atmosphere. They’re super-helpful and love talking about the food and the wine list.

Magic prawn

Magic prawn

We began with two accomplished bites of mackerel, a tartare and a tiny but perfectly charred slice of fillet. The next dish was a knock-out. Half a beautiful red prawn, uncooked but with the head meat made into a simple but powerfully pungent sauce with some Riesling. Served with a small cup of clean and warming prawn broth and a lovely springy little prawn bun, this was really single-minded excellence.

They followed it with a more complex bundle of flavour; a piece of trout long-preserved to build density and umami, wrapped in nori, with a parsley and turnip sauce, a big oyster leaf full of oceanic flavour and all doused in a beurre-blanc made super-salty-smoky through the inclusion of strong kipper and trout roe in the sauce.

Trout and kipper beurre blanc

Trout and kipper beurre blanc

Another very clever combination was built around monkfish cheek with celeriac, pear and mint, the overall flavour being beautifully fragrant on the sturdy white meat. Then a very easy to love dish of pumpkin and crab tortellini with candied pumpkin seeds and a crab bisque absolutely humungously full of flavour. The final fish course, a piece of plaice, was quite restful after this rollercoaster of flavours.

Desserts were neat and delicious. A cleansing shot of rhubarb with apple foam, a fragrant herb sorbet with a dollop of lemony meringue on the side, a lovely swig of lassi absolutely humming with cardamom, and then a dark chocolate concoction shot through with black olive to cut the richness.

This menu was 100% aligned with my food preferences: big flavours, unexpected combinations, lots of umami. Everything was delicious, I don’t remember a bum note anywhere. At £98 each before drinks this is totally worth a special trip if you like some of the same things as me.

Crab and pumpkin tortellini

Crab and pumpkin tortellini

Review: Kachori, Elephant & Castle

Muttar truffle kachori

Muttar truffle kachori

There are two demons inside me. One of them was saying “hey, wow, this new area around the back of Elephant & Castle is looking pretty cool now… nice urban park, handful of hip street food options, couple of sharp looking pubs, couple of glossy modern restaurants.” The other was saying “yeah, but where exactly are all the people who lived here before but now couldn’t afford even the tiniest one-bed flat in these shiny new high-rises going to live?”

I’m not a social issues blogger, though, so I’m going to chicken out of that conversation and talk about Kachori, one of the glossy modern restaurants here. It’s a big place, loads of covers, but comfy enough and they didn’t want to flip our 7pm table. There’s plenty on the menu, a mixture of more modern Indian street-food inspired stuff and curry house classics.

Bikaneri kachori

Bikaneri kachori

The best starter was boned guinea fowl off the tandoori grill. This was beautifully soft from its warmly spiced marinade and smoky from the grill. Tempered curd rice was a mildly pleasing accompaniment, new to me. We tried both of their kachoris, with a good sturdy crisp shell and – in my case – plenty of warm and green spices. I’m not sure there was much point in labelling it as a “truffled” kachori, the spices comfortably overwhelmed any hint of truffle flavour. Good though.

We had some good and not so good mains. My goat varuval was a dark and earthy dish, chunks of flavoursome meat in a dry sauce full of warming spices. Maureen’s Cod Malay Meen could have been re-badged “Cod in Cream of Tomato soup” as the smooth orangey sauce was terrifically mild in flavour to the point of being quite unappealing. But then, we had a very good tadka dal on the side, packed with garlicky and smoky flavours. The cauliflower side also had good flavour but was a bit over-salted.

Desserts were very worthy. My mango and cardamom kulfi was exactly right, plenty of perfume but not over-sweet. The salt caramel, jaggery and peanut parfait was exactly as good as it sounds, like an extremely elegant and fragrant Snickers ice cream.

You’d probably pay £45 each for food before drinks, so this isn’t a cheap meal. On the whole Kachori feels like a decent option for modern Indian, but it doesn’t sit at the top table of spice-driven restaurants with the ones I return to regularly.

Mango kulfi

Mango kulfi

Review: Pivot, Covent Garden

The terrine

The terrine

It’s always useful to know about good casual dining options near Covent Garden. So we stopped in post-ROH for a meal at Pivot early Sunday evening. Maybe we didn’t catch them at their best?

The decor is “down-at-heel central London pub with unironic UK pop culture wall art for tourists” which may be very deliberate or very lazy, I couldn’t decide. It was also really quiet, which was both surprising and also, to be fair, did no favours to the atmosphere. We’d also picked a Sunday evening, which meant the Sunday lunch menu of three starters, four roasts and a couple of puds.

The soup

The soup

The starters were… white bean soup, smoked salmon or chicken terrine. This is my problem, really: none of these are things I would normally ever order. We are in way down in retro land. I picked the soup and it was good, garlicky, hidden bits of cauli, not too creamy. Maureen had the terrine and it was inoffensive, nice piccalilli, tiny bit of white baguette. Whether the pared-back 70’s London dining aesthetic is intentional or not, it’s just going a bit far.

My roast cod was an impressive slab of fish, well cooked. The warm tartare sauce was kinda weak stuff with the consistency of a thin beurre blanc. Extra crispy roast potatoes I liked a lot. The Yorkshire pudding was quite darkly brown and yet still stodgy within, it was perfectly okay but not a great specimen. Maureen’s beef was also very well cooked and a decent piece of meat. Cabbage, beans and carrots were good accompaniments.

We didn’t stay for dessert – chocolate mousse, poached pear or ice cream weren’t reason enough. The two course Sunday roast is £32, three courses £38. That’s a pretty decent price for Covent Garden. But I’ll happily stretch a few quid more to actually enjoy my dining out! For me, the cooking at Pivot is fine but they’ve aimed for “comfort classics” and ended up just choosing some really boring ones.

The roast

The roast

Review: Lao Cafe, Covent Garden

Mushroom curry

Mushroom curry

My only brush with Laos up to now was three nights in Luang Prabang as part of a trip down the Mekong a few years ago. I remember the food as very fiery, strong on herbs, not using coconut milk and fairly distinct from neighbouring countries. I also remember wandering around the market and finding more bizarre and alarming things on sale than any other market I’ve been to. I honestly think I saw a bucket full of live tribbles. So how well does Lao Cafe bring the cuisine of Laos to central London?

Pretty well. The vibe of this small eatery is street food, with stripped back reclaimed furniture and bare industrial details. It’s all about the food and the flavours.

Herby spicy sausage

Herby spicy sausage

We pick a grilled pork neck laab, which is meant to be a salad but there’s honestly not much of anything else with the meat apart from some onion and the gravy. Still, it’s a fierce and delicious plate of pork, sharp and herbal with sweet notes and very nicely grilled.

Our other salad is a papaya salad, similar to Thai som tam but with a heavily fishy anchovy dressing. This did make the salad an unappealing dirty dishwater colour, but flavour-wise it hit all the right notes… maybe just a bit TOO fiercely hot for me. Their method of letting you choose your heat level is quirky: they ask how many chillies you want in the salad. Erm. Kinda depends how hot the chillies are? How big the salad is? I asked for 3 chillies and can report that I wish I’d gone for 1 or 2.

Pork neck laab

Pork neck laab

Anyway, a northern Laos herb sausage off the grill is absolutely bursting with fragrant spices. And the mushroom curry is a fine contrast to all the ferocity. It still has a very full-flavoured broth with some warmth and a lot of intriguing flavours in it, with a good mixture of sturdy fungi soaking in it, and for a couple of quid extra you can try ant eggs sprinkled on top. They aren’t eggs. They look like giant baby white ants. More for novelty and protein than flavour.

Lao Cafe brings a different cuisine to the middle of London, and if you like spice and haven’t tried it then you should definitely go. You can probably spend £28 each before drinks, which is good value. The dishes are a little less accomplished than some of the very best South-East Asian places around, but only a little.

Lao Cafe

Lao Cafe