Thursday, 10 September 2020

From the archive: Farang, Highbury

The idea of using a recently-closed or temporarily unused Italian restaurant to host a different kitchen team has precedent in London. It was, if you remember, an abandoned "candles-in-Chianti-bottles" Italian above a pub in New Cross into which the Meatwagon team moved back in 2011 and launched #MEATeasy, introducing artisan bacon cheeseburgers and buffalo wings to a rabidly enthusiastic public. And we all know how that ended.

I'm not about to suggest that Farang, who've currently set up shop in what used to be restaurant San Daniele in leafy Highbury, are on the verge of national success; I don't think their food, individually crafted and thoughtful takes on Thai street cuisine, really lends itself to a "rollout" (I'm sure they won't mind me saying). But there's something pleasantly ad-hoc about sitting in ludicrously uncomfortable chairs in a stubbornly un-airconditioned room of wilted plants and faded photos of Tuscany, eating bowls of sinus-blasting jungle curries and vibrant chilli-spiked pickled-veg salads that brings to mind that early let's-do-the-show-right-here #MEATeasy aesthetic. It feels organic and unpredictable. It feels fun.

Of course, it helps that the food is fantastic. Chef Seb Holmes has previously showcased his idiosyncratic takes on Thai street food at the lovely Begging Bowl in Peckham. He's mates with Andy Oliver, Masterchef finalist and along with Mark Dobbie head chef at Som Saa in the city (which itself began life as a popup). Holmes was also once head chef at Smoking Goat in Covent Garden, yet another unassailably wonderful place to feast on regional Thai specialities. This community of enthusiasts has blessed London with a network of restaurants all feeding off and from each other, heralding what feels like a genuine renaissance in Thai food in the capital.

The familial connection to Smoking Goat in particular is evident in the 'Gai Prik' - fried chicken in a thick, sweet, crunchy, fish-sauce glazed batter, much like the Goat's Fish Sauce Wings. Although actually, I think I preferred Farang's take, the boneless nuggets of white meat being much more fun to eat (and far less messy) than the wings. They come draped in a fierce scotch-bonnet based sauce which boasts a complex citrussy flavour and just the right amount of sharpness to attack the chicken's glaze.

A pork belly pickled watermelon salad contained a generous helping of pork, the folds of gooey fat only just brought the right side of overwhelming by a chorus of fresh herbs and pickled vegetables, and of course chunks of refreshing watermelon. Crunch is provided not only by a delicate layer of skin on each cube of pork (quite an achievement in itself) but croutons of crackling and a topping of fried shallots.

Duck breast, perfectly pink, came sliced on blackened pak choi and an addictive dollop of roast chilli chutney. Without a touch of dryness, and with a level of tea-smoke that was neither lost nor overwhelming, this was another dish that ate as good as it looked.

Perhaps the only slight mis-step of the evening was a bowl of "pickles", which had been pickled in the same way that Churchill added vermouth to his martini - ie. not very much. In other circumstances we perhaps would have enjoyed a bowl of raw radish, turnip, cucumber etc., but I'm afraid when promised pickles I expect pickles. Still, they were pretty enough to look at.

And there was more than enough to enjoy elsewhere. 'Lon' is, we learn, a coconut cream-based curry containing minced pork belly, seafood, white pepper and a host of other Thai herbs and spices. The Cornish lobster used here was a luxurious alternative to what is presumably usually prawn, but worked really well, being meaty and fresh. The pork belly mince had a lovely loose texture in contrast to the lobster, and dissolved into the coconut cream as the curry was poked and prodded by the provided dipping vegetables. If every truly great restaurant experience must involve a genuinely new experience, this bowl of 'Lon' was it.

The speed at which London has got used to the new reality of great Thai restaurant options is surprising, yet inevitable given the ability of Holmes and his kin to present Thai food in such exciting and accessible (and, importantly, affordable) ways. It is fantastic that we have places like Farang, and Smoking Goat, and Som Saa, each a slap in the face to every lazy branch of Thai Square or box of Pad Thai slapped onto the back of a Deliveroo driver, but let's hope we never take such places for granted. This kind of thing, food cooked with care, using carefully sourced ingredients and presented with style and colour, it's not easy. They just make it look that way.


This is one of a series of articles I wrote for the now-defunct Just Opened London website. I'm republishing them here for archival purposes, but most of what I say above I'm sure still applies (apart from the fact they've now got themselves a fancy new paint job). I visited Farang in July 2017.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great article Chris. Jealous. Not getting this level of SE Asian cuisine in Osaka or at least I'm not privy. Like the Churchill pickle analogy