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).