Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Kolamba, Soho

I was convinced I had been before to the building that Kolamba occupies. Home to a constantly shifting and evolving - for better or for worse - row of shops and restaurants, Kingly St is one of those places that even if you're a regular Soho wanderer you will always spot a new addition or somewhere with "Coming soon!" on the hoarding, and you never really know what's going to happen next.

In fact, I hadn't ever been here before - for some reason I thought it was where short-lived but much-loved BBQ spot Shotgun once stood, but a look on Google Streetview reveals that was a few doors down. And I'm afraid I avoided the site when it was seafood proto-chain Claw, mainly because - and correct me if I'm being unreasonable here - I tend to think anywhere naming itself after a part of a crab, and using a crab as its logo, should serve at least some fresh crab* (the only thing they had on offer when I peered at the menu was soft-shelled crab, which doesn't count).

Anyway to Kolamba, an altogether more enticing prospect, the latest smart, mid-range Sri Lankan restaurant (after Hoppers, and Paradise, and probably loads more I'm unaware of) to bless central London. And the evening got off to a cracking (pun intended) start with some tastefully bijou pappadums and some superbly balanced chutneys, one date and lime with a brilliant sour/chilli note, and one "Malay Pickle", earthier and sweeter. There seems to be an endless capacity for the Indian subcondinent to dazzle with the inventiveness and variety of their pickled goods.

Hot Butter cuttlefish consisted of nicely bouncy little parcels of squid in a bubbly coating, doused in chilli and nestled amongst various fried vegetables. A "bar-room classic" so the menu says, and who am I to argue - I can not think of a single table in any pub in the UK that wouldn't look better with this colourful little dish served alongside a nice cold pint.

Black pepper prawn fry were equally enjoyable, but would have been completely useless as a bar snack thanks to the utter mess you have to make of yourself to eat them. I actually made an elbows-forward trip to the bathroom sink to clean myself up twice in the few minutes or so it took to eat these tasty little fellas, such was the ability of that rich, dark sauce to attach itself to my forearms.

Cashew Fry was only slightly underwhelming thanks to needing a bit of extra crunch from the nuts themselves. Perhaps this was entirely deliberate, and if so I'm not going to argue, but I always prefer cashews with a crunch rather than a chew, and I probably always will. And although the caramelised onions they came in with were nice, as was the beguiling spice mix, this was essentially a bowl of onions and nuts for £10.

More interesting was a Seeni Sambol, a dark, salty and umami-packed dish of onion and dried Maldive fish, with a flavour profile utterly impossible not to fall in love with.

Price, though, is something I'm going to have to start being a bit more reasonable about when it comes to judging restaurant menus. Not so long ago, a dish of 4 prawns for £20 would have had me whingeing too, but given what I know about how restaurant profits work (which is very little, but bear with me) they're almost certainly charging what they need to given the cost of ingredients, energy, staff, you bloody name it these days.

This is Jaggery Beef, a Sri Lankan staple which involves cheaper cuts of beef slow-cooked in a variety of different herbs, spices and vegetables with coconut milk and "jaggery", some kind of unrefined sugar I think but for which a brief Google is a bit inconclusive. It was fantastic though, with large, wobbly chunks of jellified fat which dissolved in the mouth.

It was almost worth ordering the tomato sambol for the resulting photo, which was so vibrantly colourful it almost gleamed like a light source in that dark Soho basement. It wasn't just about looks though - the mix of tomatoes, green chilli and lime is a reliable one, and we happily polished this off.

Finally, the house string hoppers, lovely in every way, from the bouncy fresh noodles to the tasteful bowls of coconut milk curry and fluffy Pol Sambol, a great (and - relatively - inexpensive) way of padding out your appetite at the end of the meal and ensuring we wobbled off into the Soho night nicely sated.

With food this good, you'd find it very difficult to not have a great night at Kolamba but in the interests of managing expectations we did think the tables uncomfortably close together, and a bit too small for the amount of space-hungry dishes that tend to arrive all at once. Not a dealbreaker, of course, just worth mentioning. And you'll have to decide for yourself, too, whether this objectively good but determinedly unfussy menu is worth paying the Soho premium for if you live a little closer to Harrow (Gana, Palm Beach) or Tooting (Apollo Banana Leaf, Jaffna House). Though I expect these days those aren't as cheap as they used to be, either.

Anyway there's plenty to love at Kolamba and not much to dislike, and its arrival in London is very much welcome. For as long as this city continues to play host to such a startling variety of cuisines and cultures, it will continue to produce restaurants like this, serving South Asian staples with the odd local twist, in smart and friendly surroundings, with attentive and pleasant staff. And really, what more could you want from a night out?


*Although a glance at a more recent menu online suggests they've fixed that particular supply problem.

I was invited to Kolamba and didn't see a bill.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Decimo, Kings Cross

One of London's greatest strengths is its ability to offer up a good feed, in any chosen cuisine, at most price points. Taking Spanish food as an example (as that's why we're here today), it's just as easy - and rewarding, in its own way - to sit down at Bar Pepito (Kings Cross) for ham croquetas, tomato bread and a glass of sherry and be presented with a bill of £15 as it is to head down the road to Pizarro and drop a ton on a plate of silky Iberico ham, seafood paella and a roast suckling lamb for 2. I can't think of many notable world cuisines that aren't represented at at least an option of budgets, and most can boast quite a range, from super cheap to wallet-busting.

Decimo, perched on the top floor of the five star Standard hotel in Kings Cross, will be the first to admit they are placed very firmly in the "special occasion" price range. One of the more eyecatching items on the menu is their signature tortilla topped with caviar which weighs in at £170, and though not every dish is quite this bling, this is a kitchen that prides itself on the finest ingredients, cooked perfectly. And it shows.

Before that though, a drink. The bar at Decimo is large and beautifully appointed, with interestingly designed leather bar stools and a list of house speciality cocktails alongside the usual classic repertoire. And though my martini was decent in the end, they lose a couple of points firstly for in that vast bar space having no freezers for frozen glasses, and secondly, and perhaps less forgiveably, for noticing at the last minute they were serving my drink in the wrong glass. Instead of just sticking with their first choice, which would hardly have been a problem, I watched as it was poured back into the shaker, stirred briefly and then reapplied to a smaller glass, leaving leftover martini in the shaker which I never got to enjoy. Which was a bit upsetting, to be honest.

Fortunately from the moment we were sat in a nice window table and the food started arriving, Decimo hardly put a foot wrong. The famous (caviar-less) tortilla is literally perfect, even more accomplished, with its notes of wood smoke and soft sliced potato, than the version served at Barrafina, up to this point the gold standard of Spanish egg dishes. I mean, look at the colour of that yolk.

I avoided the taco as I'd eaten enough of the things to last me a lifetime on a recent trip to San Diego and Tijuana. However, what arrived in front of my friend was so attractively constructed and colourful it really made me think twice about my decision. I did try a bite of the chicharrones on top, though, which was very nice.

Tomato salad was the kind of thing Bar Nestor (San Sebastien) would have been proud to have on its menu. These were either superb quality tomatoes, or they had been subtly sweetened somehow to bring out a more intense tomato flavour. Or in fact, most likely, both of those things. The advertised 'herbs' weren't heavy handed, just enough to add a bit of extra depth - really the star here was the main ingredient, and it really shone.

Then, all at once and with very little fanfare, four dishes that rank with some of the finest things I've ever had the pleasure of eating in the capital. Each was good enough to justify the existence of the restaurant by itself, and deserves far more attention than a few lines on a blog. But, in the interests of not boring you senseless and to stop my gushing from becoming too embarrassing, I'll keep it as brief as I can. Firstly, Iberico pork, fillet I think, cooked carefully over the flames and with just a gentle touch of pink in the flesh, which absolutely melted on the tongue, dissolving into pork fat and salt and smoke. I can hardly remember a better bit of pork, and Iberico already comes with a serious weight of expectation. This was world-class stuff.

Giant fat asparagus, again grilled with a masterful timing to just get licks of charring on the outside but be absolutely the right texture on the inside, simply seasoned and dressed with scattered rosemary sprigs. No hollandaise, no pointless spices, no cleverness or complications, just a fine ingredient, grilled and plated. We ate the whole plate in about 30 seconds between us.

One giant langoustine, was also expertly grilled so that the legs were all crisp and crunchy but the tail and claw flesh still firm and coherent. The flavour from the thing was unbelievable, sweet and salty and powerful, and enough to remind me that despite so many places overcooking, undercooking and otherwise messing up the preparation of these delicate animals, when it's done right, and you start with the very best, langoustines are my absolute favourite shellfish.

Well, my favourite before the red prawns arrived, at least. The deep, rich, buttery flavour of these beautiful things has about as much in common with a normal Atlantic prawn as a frozen fish stick does to an Alaskan King Crab - these are not just a different variety of prawn. They are the pinnacle of the seafood experience, as close to life-changing as anything else you can order in a restaurant anywhere, and we are deeply privileged to have them available to us here in London. The first slurp of the head juices (not in the least bit bitter, it's like a mini portion of the finest buttery seafood bisque, believe me) took me right back to when I'd first tried them back in 2009. I pointed this out to my friend, who said it was the wankiest thing I've ever said.

Desserts were pleasant enough to preserve the memory of what had come before, if just a little unambitious (and rather small). Crema Catalana was nicely done but about 2 teaspoons worth, and I suppose a single scoop of masa ice cream continues the stripped-back nature of the way they go about things at Decimo, but it would have been a bit forgettable indeed without the suggested pairing of caramelly Mount Gay rum.

But despite the odd niggle, Decimo managed to be one of the most memorable meals of the last few years simply down to an experts sourcing of the finest British and Spanish ingredients, and an ability to present them at the very peak of their powers. And yes, for this kind of experience you need to open your wallet a bit. A quick tot up of the menu reveals our dinner would have come to about £120 each, not a ruinous amount of money compared to what you can shell out (no pun intended) elsewhere, but still an amount that you'd need to be very confident in advance would yield significantly impressive results.

Well, take it from me, you can be absolutely sure Decimo is worth your time and your money. Inexperienced bar staff and unadventurous desserts, these are things that can be easily fixed and even if not, are not the end of the world. Where it matters, in sourcing of ingredients and live fire cooking skills, Decimo is already streets ahead of its rivals, and it's only going to get better. If you have any kind of curiosity about just how good food like this can be, and you have the means to enjoy it, then don't even hesitate for a second. This is the restaurant you've been waiting for.


I was invited to Decimo and didn't see a bill.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Khun Pakin Thai, Hammersmith

You think I'd have learned by now, quite honestly. The rule is, if I enter a Thai restaurant and it's full of Thai people, I do not ask for anything even approaching a 'medium' heat. I like to think I can take quite decently spicy food on a good day, and never shy away from some of the hottest (within reason) dishes in Mexican or Indian food, but the levels of heat applied to even the most entry-level Thai dishes can be astonishing, and humbling.

Of course, it having been so long since I had been exposed to truly authentic Thai spice levels, I had let my guard down. Like the pain of childbirth (so I'm told), the agony of a chilli bomb fades as time goes on, and it had been so long since my last visit to a truly dangerously authentic Thai experience (the Heron in Paddington) that I had somehow convinced myself I handled it pretty well (my friends with me that night will remind me: I did not). Khaosarn (Clapham Junction) I love you, but you have quite sensibly noticed your catchment areas consist largely of people not really accustomed to the full chemical attack of a genuinely Thai-spiced laab, and while the food is easily enjoyable, it all ends up being, well, quite Clapham-friendly.

Not so a Khun Pakin. On ordering the main courses, you are asked where on a scale of 1-5 we would like the spice level set. With serene assuredness, we replied 4. An expression somewhere between surprise and concern flashed across our server's face.

"4 is very hot, I would recommend 2."

Clearly, she was judging us based on the fact we were the only two non-Thai faces in the room and needed to be protected from ourselves. We'd show her.

I and my dining companion exchanged knowing smiles, then turned back to the server, "OK, let's compromise. We'll have the tiny pickled crab salad and raw prawn salad in a 3, and the deep fried pork neck (seriously, how spicy can pork neck be) as a 4.", then with a raised eyebrow and wry grin for extra dramatic effect, "Do you think we could cope with that?".

She paused for a second, presumably weighing up how much energy she could put into persuading two smug idiots not to damage themselves vs just getting on with her evening serving a rammed pub. She chose the latter and trotted off, shaking her head slightly.

First to arrive were mu ping, skewers of grilled pork with lovely highlights of charring from the grill, tender and glistening with a complex sweet glaze. Effortlessly easy to enjoy, and a superb example of their kind, they were nonetheless not quite the rollercoaster of fire and flavour we were bravely preparing ourselves for. We rolled our eyes at each other at the naivety of our waitress. Didn't she know we were seasoned food adventurers, with stomachs of steel? Was this it?

Next the pork neck. First impressions were of a beautifully tender fillet in a crunchy tempura-like batter, sliced atop a colourful salad. The pork itself was faultless, greaselessly fried and boasting perfect textures, but the salad and associated dressing completed the dish, offsetting the grease and crunch with sweetness and what at first seemed like quite a mild heat. At first. The first few mouthfuls were pleasant but unassuming, a bit like a mildly chillified vinaigrette. We were seriously considering getting up and asking if they'd not changed the other for our own good and downgraded the chilli level. Then, within a minute or so, all hell broke loose. The chilli heat built from mild to hot to severe with terrifying speed, and we went from one minute laughing about the patronising server to something similar to that diner scene from Dumb & Dumber.

It was, as we had been told perfectly clearly, way too hot for us. Gasping for beer and tears streaming down or reddened faces, we ploughed on, partly because we could sense a room full of bemused Thai eyes on us but also, despite the pain, it was genuinely brilliant stuff. Tiny pickled crabs were exactly that, crunched whole to release complex seashore flavours involving sea urchin and seaweed, alongside a good hit of earthy brown crab. They were woven into a papaya salad that also hurt to eat, but in a good way.

Raw prawn salad used clearly excellent live (I assume) prawns, with a smooth, solid texture of healthy animal and another colourful and distressingly hot salad. The latter stages of the meal were spent in kind of feverish panic, desperately trying to hide our sweaty, panting faces from the rest of the room, most of whom were knocking back the same stuff as if it was a McDonald's Happy Meal. As a final humiliating act of retribution, we were forced to pay our bill (£27 a head, very decent really) to the same person who'd tried to talk us into downgrading the chilli levels initially. She took a good long look at the broken individuals in front of her and finally asked, with a deadpan expression, "how was your meal?". "You were right, I'm so sorry" was all I could croak in return.

Don't let our stupidity put you off though. If I went back to Khun Pakin (and I very much hope to), I'm going to order everything at spice level 1, which I'm sure would still pack a punch but be less likely to trigger a full cardiac arrest. And it will still be brilliant because this kind of intelligently constructed, imaginatively sourced food (really, where else are you going to get tiny pickled crabs?) is always worth the effort. There's a special whole blue crab salad which you have to order a week in advance which I spotted with some measure of jealousy being delivered to other tables. There's a whole other menu section of soups and curries that we didn't even try. You could have a lot of fun here, working your way through it all.

Just don't do what I did, and please accept the sage advice of your server who is, after all, just making sure your memories of eating at Khun Pakin are of the superb fresh seafood and expertly fried protein, and not gently sobbing as you attempt to douse the inferno in your mouth with yet another cold beer. Consider myself chastened, and duly reminded that when it comes to authentic Thai food, the best places don't hold back, and nor should they.


Tuesday, 5 April 2022

The Bridge Arms, Canterbury

It's not that I begrudge Cornwall, or Lancashire, or Kent, or any other part of the country at least a 2 hour journey from my house, their world-class lineup of restaurants. Honestly, I'm happy for them - I love to eat in these places, and I'm happy to travel to be able to do so. It's just there's a part of me increasingly convinced that there's some kind of elaborate conspiracy at work that puts the very best restaurants in the country about as far as possible from my house, while equally anywhere walkable from my front door in Battersea (Mien Tay excepted) has some kind of clandestine mandate to be as mediocre as possible.

The last three trips to Kent, for example, trips that have taken at least 2 hours door to door, sometimes even more, have now been (spoiler alert, sorry) to solid 10/10 rated establishments. And I'm not expecting to be tripping over that kind of quality within my own postcode but could not just one of the hundred or so pubs in SW11 find some kind of ambition greater than serving chicken tenders and bean burgers next to pints of Camden Hells? I don't need them all to grow a pair, I can be realistic. Just one. Please.

So yes, inevitably, the Bridge Arms near Canterbury, run as it is by the Fordwich Arms team, is yet another crushingly wonderful gastropub, serving imaginative, beautiful yet always accessible food, requiring me to spend half a day on the stopper service from London Victoria to reach. And just thinking about the smug faces of Canterbury residents, knowing they live close enough to the place to call it their local, makes my blood boil.

Firstly, the bread. Everything bread (or pastry) related was impeccable, starting with this kind of herb-glazed focaccia loaf with lovely soft salty butter. If this was served as the house offering in a 3* place in Paris, you'd still be impressed, never mind from a country pub in the South East of England.

Buttermilk fried chicken were superbly done, a greaseless crust containing soft, yielding flesh. Also the tandoori mayonnaise was almost like soft butter, with a nice amount of salt and spice.

Flatbread was another masterclass in baking, topped with lardo, parmesan and grilled onions. An irresistible combination of carbs, fats and vegetation, it came with that unmistakable faint whiff of real charcoal, a detail that not many places bother to stretch to. The results, though, are always worth the effort.

Even padron peppers, a dish ostensibly so simple even I can pull it off to reasonable effect, conspired to somehow be the finest examples I can remember eating, great big things packed full of dense, salty flavour and absolutely impossible not to polish off immediately.

Those, you may have noticed, were just the snacks. We hadn't even got to the starters yet and already we were planning our next visit to try the monkfish dumplings and whipped cod's roe we'd annoyingly (but probably sensibly) decided not to add to the order. This work of modern art was chicken liver parfait with pickled pear and ice wine jelly, a completely perfect dish in of itself but served with a 'brioche' so buttery and crunchy it was basically a pastry. Try and imagine the best croissant of your life, shaped like a tall bread roll.

Jerusalem artichoke tart with egg yolk and Westcombe cheddar, also essentially perfect, looking like something you could hang on a wall and containing all the vibrancy and colour of the finest early spring ingredients. The Bridge can do straightforward when they want to, but are equally happy to pull out all the stops to create something so striking it makes you gasp.

Scallop came presented in its own shell, the theatre of opening it up revealing another achingly beautiful arrangement of pickled onion, beetroot and herb-butter-crusted seafood.

None of the mains were any less impressive. Mangalitsa pork chop, ever-so-slightly pink and brilliantly textured, was served with a celeriac purée, a herb-crusted stick of salsify, a little bit of charred hispi cabbage, and a dainty sausage roll of what they called "maple bacon", a wonderful thing indeed.

Rack of lamb, themselves pink and tender, came with a portion of unbelievably good glazed breast, a tantalising tease of creamed potato (enough to make us curse we hadn't ordered more as a side) and a little dollop of smoked anchovy mayonnaise. And obviously, it was brilliant.

But the most stunning dish out of a succession of some of the best things any of us had eaten all year, was this huge trunk of new season asparagus, genuinely so good it made you wonder if any other asparagus is fit to use the same name, with blue foot mushroom and another dollop of that potato pureé, topped with a dollop of sharp, savoury housemade ricotta. For as long as the asparagus season lasts, this is a must-order dish, made up of ingredients that come along barely a few times in a lifetime.

Sides of neat parcels of hispi cabbage drenched in smoked tarragon butter were yet more evidence that this is a kitchen at the top of its game, similarly hand cut chips which came arranged in a ramekin, as if huddled up for warmth.

I hardly need to go on, do I? I didn't try the lemon meringue pie or chocolate mousse with peanuts and snickers ice cream, but I did take photos of them and they're hardly likely to be horrible are they. And though there's probably an argument to be made that my baked pistachio cheesecake could have probably survived without the rhubarb sorbet element, it's not something that's likely to drop them any points.

The bill (not pictured, sorry, I was having too much fun) came to £260 for 3, and if you think that sounds like an utter bargain for that amount of food of that quality, it's worth pointing out that one of our party, a designated driver (because how else were we supposed to get there, bloody helicopter?) wasn't drinking. So yes, this is not a cheap place to eat, but I imagine you could probably go a bit easier on the wine (and digestifs in the sunny garden after) if you wanted to save a few quid. I bet you'd regret it if you did, though.

And that's because the Bridge Arms is a very special destination indeed, soon to become one of the hottest tickets in the South East (if it isn't already; we ourselves had to book 2 months in advance), and if you're lucky enough to eat there there's no reason why you wouldn't just order as much of their menus as you can possibly cope with, safe in the knowledge that every single last element of it will turn out to be exquisite. You will have the time of your life. Just make sure that includes the bread, and if the time is right, that game-changing asparagus. You can thank me later.


Not an invite, but we had a round of champagne thrown in (thanks Dan and team).