Thursday, 20 October 2011
On my way home from a pleasant, cheap but ultimately disappointing meal at Kaosarn I texted a friend, sympathising with her similar experience a few weeks back. "Did you ask for authentic spicing?" she replied, and immediately a conversation we'd had around that time came flooding back - namely that Kaosarn will up the heat to face-burningly authentic levels if - and crucially only if - you ask. Naturally, I was annoyed I'd forgotten this bit of advice but annoyed not just with myself - why is getting more authentic (and by all accounts better) spicing incumbent upon the customer to happen to know to ask for it? Why didn't our waitress, when we'd made our selections, pro-actively offer at least the option of the hot stuff?
Having to go through hoops to get better food from restaurants reluctant to serve the "authentic" dishes to anyone who looks Western (or otherwise) enough not to appreciate it is a depressing feature of dining out in London, and yet it doesn't need to be like this. Many decent Chinese restaurants for example, if they're really so sure that a good chunk of their customers wouldn't be able to cope with Sichuan peppercorns or crispy pig's intestines, have a section of the menu for timid gweilos and a section with all the good stuff. It shouldn't be a battle, or segregation based on insider knowledge, all we need is all our options presented to us so we can make an informed decision.
Anyway, we forgot to ask for authentic spicing, and so everything we ate at Kaosarn is in the context of being more Western-friendly than we would have otherwise liked. But even so, a small bowl of larb was so stunningly flavoured with kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce (I think) and rich minced pork that you hardly noticed the tame levels of chilli at all. This dish encapsulates everything I love about Thai food - fresh and colourful, with great texture contrasts and a complex mix of powerful flavours that still somehow managed to stay clean and refined. A triumph, it's just a shame that nothing else we tried lived up to it.
Moo ping (grill pork skewers) had a decent sweet marinade and I liked the mix of lean meat and fat, but they needed more crisping up on the outside, perhaps over hotter coals; these were rather uniformly flabby. And a Som Tum Thai papaya salad was overwhelmingly sugary - what both dishes really cried out for was a lot more chilli to balance the sweetness out, but of course, it wasn't to be.
And if not asking how spicy we'd like our food was a service issue, then the same is definitely true of how they allowed us to order two plates of exactly the same dish. Perhaps we should have guessed that Peek Gai Tod and Gai Tod were, in fact, the same thing in two different sizes, but I still don't think we would have minded too much if either of them tasted of much. The chicken itself was moist and well cooked, with a golden, greaseless crunchy skin, but it was desperately bland, with no sign at all of the garlic and pepper that supposedly went into it, and the accompanying sweet chilli dip was - you guessed it - rather heavy on the former and rather lacking on the latter. All dishes also came with a chilli/soy dip which suffered from a similar lack of punch.
There will be people out there, lucky people, who knew about the secret way of ordering the better food and may have had much more enjoyable evening than the one we had last night. But in the end, I can't recommend anything I wasn't offered and didn't eat, and I can't imagine that the majority of punters that turn up at Kaosarn will know about this covert system either. So, despite it being very reasonably priced (our substantial meal came to under £15 a head and we were able to Bring Our Own beers) and perfectly nice in an everyday Thai kind of way, I've still had better elsewhere.