Thursday, 20 October 2011

Kaosarn, Brixton

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.


Kaosarn on Urbanspoon


Mr Noodles said...

When I went to Kaosarn, I got uncompromised proper spicy food. Was I lucky? Did they profile (I'm not Caucasian)? I don't know but regardless, it's a shame your meal was lacking zing.

The practice of dual menus in Chinese places is bad but I just want to say that this practice isn't as prevalent as it used to be. Some of London's better regarded Chinese restaurants like Ba Shan, Phoenix Palace, Princess Garden and Empress of Sichuan have everything on a single bilingual menu.

William Leigh said...

Just a quick aside:

I recently discovered (was reminded) that in Thailand, Thais go to various establishments for different things - a soup here, a salad there. The practice, according to a good Thai friend, is the same in this country. Not an excuse for a bad meal - but perhaps indicative of a different eating style. Think tapas in Spain rather than in Bermondsey.

Thais also almost always request the 'four flavours' so they can customise their dish. (Pickled large chillies, bird's eyes in fish sauce, chilli flakes and sugar). You can request these in Kaosarn.

Next time give the kuey teow tom yum goong a try (sp). It's the bollocks.

Again - none of this an excuse for a bad meal but perhaps an explanation.

Have you checked out the Heron yet?

Lloyd said...

I have lived and worked in Thailand on and off for more than 20 years, have a Thai wife who is a chef, just to point out a few things...

Laab Moo is not meant to be spicy in its "common" form, its is a dish from North Eastern Thailand, Isaan, that is eaten with spicy condoments and sticky rice (Glutinous rice). Varieties are made with fried dried chilli but this is regional. The spiced powder used is more akin to black pepper than chilli.

Som tum Thai is always "made to order", even in Thailand, if a Thai orders they will typically say how spicy they want it straight up. A typical som tum Thai served at a wedding in Bangkok will be sweet, from the palm sugar, with a stronger lime citrus flavour whereas in Nong Khai it is normally loaded with red chilli. Som tum Loa however is typically very spicy and pungent from the fermented crab or fish.

I can't blame your reasons for faluting their system of serving less spicy yet flavoured dishes however I am surprised you, as a somewhat season customer who makes reference to knowing what a spicy Thai dish pertains to, did not ask, or raise a question about this.

Chris Pople said...

Mr Leigh: The Heron is next on the list, going early Nov. And really looking forward to it. Your comment slightly validates my point though - "you can request these in Kaosarn". How are we supposed to know you even can?

Lloyd: Comments like that are why I blog - many thanks for the info. As for being a "somewhat seasoned customer", I am definitely no expert but I have spent a month in Thailand and I would do anything to eat food like that again. This wasn't it.

Hollow Legs said...

it's fairly annoying, I agree but then again I know the majority of people like it this way - still, we should have a choice.

(I was once refused beef tendon in my noodle soup - the woman looked so doubtful that I had to bust it out in Cantonese and just had to keep saying it until she relented... "NGAU GUN!"

Unknown said...

Annoys the crap out of me when available options aren't proactively made available. And don't even get me started on 'secret' dishes - usually burgers. If you make it, and anyone can order it, have it on the bloody menu.

miss south said...

The first two times I went to Kaosarn, the food was excellent and well spiced and reminded me of times in Thailand.

The last twice I've been now they have the new menu, it's gone sweet and gloopy a-go-go and nowhere near as good but for higher prices. Plus the staff are so damned rude half the time. We left after being snapped at asking if any dishes come with tofu (it's not marked) and I've also been told not to ask for a refill on tap water.

It's jumped the shark for me.

Sharmila said...

I've not been yet. Primarily because I've had two instances of trying to get a table and staff being very evasive and almost rude with me. The second time, we did a merry dance of myself being shuffled between two tables before telling me they were both booked and I couldn't have dinner there. I've kind of given up since.

Anonymous said...

yes , it's just dreadful there isn't it? I suggest everyone stays away (so I can get a table whenever I damn well feel like it). Never had a bad dish there, in fact have had meals I'm still looking back at fondly weeks later. Sigh. I've found the staff nothing short of delightful. Lighten up people, you're in Brixton Market, not the Wolseley!

Anonymous said...

So the restaurant staff are supposed to read your mind are they? I bet you've never even been to Thailand. Reviews like this make me sick. Please stop poisoning the internet with your drivel.

Terd said...

Cheap and friendly but also not very tasty.

Might have been good once upon a time but I suggest you don't waste your time.

The Panang Gai chicken curry I had there was terrible. One of the worst Thais I've had in ages. Sweet, milky, tasteless.

Moo ping skewers flabby, dull, as the review states. But the beef massuman was OK though.

What's with the 'authentic spicing' bullshit. If I take the trouble to go to a dump like Brixton for THAI food then I expect some THAI food. I hate this 'secret menu' shit. BTW I look SE Asian so you'd have thought they gave me the real deal.

Nonsense. Cheap though.

Londoner said...

Terd as in Turd??