Tuesday 29 November 2022

Speedboat Bar, Soho

It's been a very long time since I did my post-University trip to SE Asia (yes, I am a cliché, I know) and although this was 2001 (I am also old) and years before I thought about starting a food blog (in fact probably years before the first blog even existed) I remember being constantly surprised by the quality and value for money of the food at every turn, but in Thailand in particular, at everything from roadside cafés to hotel breakfasts. I would not expect perhaps, twenty years on, to still be able to pick up a plate of seafood noodles for 40p as I did back then, but this is a country used to eating very well and not paying very much for the privilege.

Now there are some very good Thai restaurants in London, and some extremely talented Thai chefs, but they all have the issue of what is the typical London one-two of staff costs and rent, and what seems to be a perculiarly Thai cuisine issue of complicated and expensive supply routes. Some places, like the wonderful Kiln in Soho, sacrifice some ingredient authenticity for more local alternatives, such as the use of Matt Chatfield's cull yaw for their cumin skewers, and do very well out of it. But the fact is, for whatever reason, there is no such thing as a cheap Thai restaurant in London.

At Speedboat, then, and following the success of the Plaza in Centrepoint, chef Luke Farrell has turned his attention towards more informal, café-style food to go with an interesting drinks list in this new spot in Soho. This doesn't mean it's a budget option - we managed to spend £46 a head on a normal amount of food and a couple of drinks - but it is very good, and a hugely enjoyable way of spending an evening soaking up a Snakeblood Negroni with things like the above, a bowl of worryingly addictive crisp fried chicken skins covered in something called zaep seasoning, involving turmeric and paprika amongst many other things.

I wasted a good few mouthfuls of "Clams and mussels in dipping sauces" attempting to dip the de-shelled seafood in the sauces before realising the best technique was to scoop up whichever one of the two sauces you preferred (one with soy and peanut, the other a fierce green chilli) with the beastie inside its shell, before drawing out the seasoned seafood with your teeth. Such a simple idea, but so much fun, and both sauce options were a great match for the seafood even if I did end up suffering from the effects of the chilli after a while.

No-one can do salads like the Thais, and pickled mustard greens with Chinese sausage was a lovely mix of colours, textures and punchy flavours. If I was going to be extremely critical I could say the Chinese sausage didn't have a lot of flavour in its own right, but whatever else was going on more than made up for it. Farrell grows his own Thai herbs and veg on a plot of land in Dorset, and you certainly couldn't tell they weren't authentic.

Possibly the only dish I didn't completely love was "Drunkard's Seafood & Beef Noodles" which didn't have nearly enough alcohol punch for me (in fact I couldn't detect any) and where the noodles were a bit mushy and claggy. Also the overall effect from a rather subdued set of flavours was of a high street Chinese dish, and there's nothing much wrong with that of course it just jarred next to all the fire and crunch going on elsewhere.

Much better was crispy pork and black pepper curry, with a lovely rich, complex sauce and containing healthy thick slices of pork with crunchy crackling. I can find things to enjoy in even the most ordinary Thai curry, but this was another level, speaking of a long, careful cooking process and masterful command of spices. I loved every bit of it.

So, another great, medium-budget Thai restaurant in London. I had a blast at Speedboat, and though it wasn't perhaps as astonishing as Plaza, or as authentic as Khun Pakin, or as cool as Kiln, it still clearly fills a need that London has for informal, intelligent Thai food and I thoroughly recommend it.


Tuesday 22 November 2022

40 Maltby Street, Bermondsey

40 Maltby Street sits alongside places like Quality Chop House and the French House in that special category of restaurants used as a kind of shorthand amongst food-obsessed types in order to prove they know what they're talking about. Like Quality Chop House and the French House, too, it's popular but not wildly so - it's never particularly difficult to get a table if you plan ahead properly, and as the first people through the door one Saturday lunchtime at midday, we didn't have any problem finding a couple of spaces at the bar - but I very much got the impression our fellow diners were the kind of people used to travelling - and waiting - for modern British small plates.

The menu - shown only on a blackboard so take a photo with your phone on the way in - is tasteful, reasonably-priced and full of the kind of ingredients (pheasant, salt cod, and so on) that only a confident kitchen can handle. And the confidence of the kitchen is all the more remarkable given its tininess - barely enough room for one person to manage deep-fryers, stoves, ovens and Lord knows what else, but seemingly more than able to cope with a medium-sized menu and about 40 or so covers with practised ease.

Bread is an excellent sourdough and salty, pleasingly darkly yellow butter, and is provided completely free of charge. 40MS don't even add service onto the bill at the end - clearly this is a place comfortable in its ability to guarantee a decent spend per head by virtue of just being good as opposed to forcing hidden extras.

Cheddar puffs came as a kind of cheese mousse nugget, golden brown and crisp on the outside and fluffy and salty inside, a winning combination of textures helped by being fried to order and piping hot. Plenty of them, too, for your £6.

Salt cod was very wet, almost the consistency of porridge but absolutely all the better for it, a kind of seafood sauce underpinning the grilled leeks. Walnuts added a bit of crunch, and a handful of wet herbs on the top finished it all off nicely.

White beans and turnips was an imaginative and colourful vegetarian dish, involving a fantastically punchy aioli and some incredibly moreish leaves of crunchy fried broccoli. The beans themselves were the star of the show though, buttery and richly flavoured and soaked in a light vegetable gravy of some kind.

Finally pheasant, a notoriously uncooperative bird, came cured of its worst tendencies to dryness by being poached in buttermilk then fried in batter. Raw cabbage was an interesting if not entirely successful accompaniment (I think braised or buttered would have worked better, but I can see they were sticking with the deconstructed chicken burger thing by using raw) but a little scoop of quince jam was very lovely indeed, and of course the pheasant itself was a beautiful texture inside and out, the batter being delicate and thin, and the meat inside having a nice bite.

The bill with plenty of booze (a bottle of fizzy natural red between two, and two extra glasses of white to start) still came to under £100, so £110 ish once we'd added on our own 12.5%. If you didn't go quite so mad on the wine you could easily get away with about £30pp, but of course the whole point of places like this is to settle in for a bit of a session, work your way slowly through the menu and wine list and eventually emerge back on to the streets of London wondering why, if you started at midday, is it already going dark.

40 Maltby Street is all of London's best restaurant instincts served in a professional, friendly package for a very reasonable amount of money. This is not my first visit, of course - I've been a happy customer for many years, and can report they're just as happy for you to have a glass of wine and some cheese and be back out of the door in 15 minutes as they are for you to commit to a full 6-course lunch with multiple glasses of wine. Flexibility is at the heart of their offering, and means there are, happily, multiple different ways to enjoy your time there. Find one that suits you, and make the most of it, is my advice.