Monday, 17 January 2011
101 Thai Kitchen, Hammersmith
I had almost given up trying to find decent Thai food in London. In fact, more than that, I had given up. At one time I had a (short) list of potentials that I'd collected from recommendations and review sites and I was quite prepared to travel far and wide in the mindlessly optimistic hope that eventually I would come across something worth paying for. It always seemed so odd that while Indian/Pakistani, Vietnamese, even Malaysian cuisine had at least a couple of restaurants that did them justice, all London had to fly the flag for Thai food was a few branches of Busaba Eathai (tame, but OK), Patara (OK but expensive) and Nahm (hugely expensive and still just OK). Where were the Thai restaurateurs doing for their cuisine what Mien Tay were doing for Vietnamese or Tayyabs for Pakistani? I assumed there must be somewhere out there, but successively more depressing experiences in places like South Norwood (I wasn't exaggerating when I said "far and wide") eventually got the better of me and I stopped trying.
So why, after all that, did I find myself in Hammersmith on a damp Saturday night, risking further disappointment? The main catalyst was a thoroughly dispiriting press trip to a flashy new Thai restaurant/bar in Fitzrovia called ORA, where we nibbled on starters that looked like something Kerry Katona might advertise followed by hardly very exciting mains that (I learned later) would have pushed the price per head to around £50. The owners, judging by the "no expense spared" decor, bespoke cutlery and overblown branded reception area (perfect for being spotted in Heat magazine, I imagine) are probably far more interested in attracting along minor celebs for a photo opportunity than providing a value for money dinner, and although sadly they are hardly unique in holding these priorities, it doesn't make it any less annoying. And it was after I'd slunk away home from ORA, sick from soggy crab cakes and sweet cocktails, that my determination to finally find a Thai restaurant worth the money was reborn. Harnessing the power of Twitter, and the phalanx of supremely well-informed and well-travelled foodies that lurk there, I booked a table at 101 Thai Kitchen.
I know this shouldn't really mean anything, but I couldn't help being pleased to see a number of what looked like Thai families amongst the boisterous crowd inside 101 Thai. In all likelihood there's no reason why Thai diners shouldn't make as poor a choice of restaurant as anyone else, but even so, it served as a Sign. We browsed the large menus helpfully appendixed with a pictorial guide to all the ingredients (some more necessary than others - I'm quite happy to discover what sator is, but I'm already quite familiar with garlic thankyouverymuch) but in the end made most of our choices based, yet again, on tips from the Twitterati. First to arrive were the Isaan sausages, which had a pleasing loose texture and sweet caramelised skin. They were served with some simple Thai greens, and some dry roasted peanuts. Yes, those dry roasted peanuts, like you get in the pub. A bit odd, you might think, but who doesn't like dry roasted peanuts?
Laab is a kind of meat salad, a traditional recipe from Northern Thailand (so I'm told) and very nice it was too. In this case the meat was duck, but also included a healthy smattering of offaly bits which provided texture and some added complexity of flavour. It was surprisingly fiery too, shot through with a healthy handful of red chilli and who knows what other spices.
The star dish overall was this fried sea bass, served whole but helpfully filleted into two gorgeously crispy halves. The flesh of the fish was moist and delicately sweet, with the colourful salad topping consisting of shallots and red chillies and bean sprouts amongst, I'm sure, much else. On the one hand this was a fairly straightforward dish but it is never easy to cook fish this well, as anyone who's ever had a mushy overdone specimen can tell you. The flakes of sea bass fell apart with the gentlest of prods, their crispy coating working addictively in the mouth. Very good indeed.
Along with our food arrived a selection of greens - just plain vegetables, carrots, iceberg lettuce, mint - and a bowl of pork scratchings. No, not some kind of traditional Thai pork, or exotic Asian preparation, these were Mr Porky's. You could either criticise a bowl of Mr Porky's pork scratchings for not been authentically Thai, or just shrug your shoulders and roll with it. We opted for the latter.
I suppose, in the end, much of what makes a good restaurant is very difficult to put your finger on. The food at 101 Thai Kitchen was excellent, of course, but there was something about the honest presentation and bold colours and flavours that I just found irresistible - the character of the place just shone. This was probably helped by the service, our waitress being so friendly and helpful that if she'd presented us with trays of Iceland brownfood and sweet chilli dip we would probably still have enjoyed ourselves. But homely details like the hilarious appearance of pub snacks masquerading as authentic Thai ingredients (no pictures of them in the glossary, I notice) gave the whole experience real charm. I am happy, not to mention relieved, to report that the long search for a good Thai food in London is over, and for only £25 a head with a bottle of wine. Other restaurants in London may have the engraved cutlery, bespoke uniforms and tabloid photo opportunities, but 101 Thai Kitchen has the heart.