Update October 2016: Big improvements in London Thai food since this write-up – see Som Saa, Kiln and Smoking Goat.
Thai food is woefully represented in London. It’s all just a bit unimpressive. Unambitious. Safe. Stale, even.
In one sense, this seems odd. For Thailand has surely been one of the food holiday destinations of the last twenty years (every Tom, Dick and Rupert has been on a cookery course somewhere near Bangkok, just moments after riding an elephant, stroking a tiger and watching ping pong balls fly around (and out) of dark places) and “I love Thai food” is a common proclamation and belief. Yet the real sum of our collective experience is a green curry, occasionally made from scratch but usually from a paste or a jar, or the infrequent order of Pad Thai, a massaman or red curry, just to mix things up a bit.
On the flip side, look at the constraints. Proper Thai ingredients and restaurants are less accessible than those of other Asian cultures; is there a concentration of Thai shops and independent restaurants in the same vein as Kingsland Road (Vietnamese), Chinatown, New Malden (Korean) etc? And have you seen David Thompson’s books? Them’s not recipes, them’s projects.
I reckon the time is ripe for us to be educated in quality, interesting, authentic and at least occasionally fiery Thai. Whilst we wait for such a revolution, or at least a Fuchsia Dunlop-Sichuan style uprising, where is there, in our little village of 8.3 million bodies, to serve us Thai food on a greater level than the Thai Taste and coconut milk based things we can cook up ourselves?
Well there’s a little mini chain in central London called Rosa’s, which is perfectly fine, but nothing more. Busaba Eathai is undoubtedly a stylish, quality but, again, safe option. Other chains and restaurants are all a bit Thai Square or square plate reliant, which I humbly suggest is not the right direction. That leaves us with the little fellas like the Begging Bowl (apparently the diamond of the lot), KaoSarn, the Heron, and Janetira. Those first three remain firmly on my ‘to do’ list, but Janetira’s seen a few visits from me.
There’s nothing spectacular or quirky about the setting of this little restaurant on Brewer Street in Soho. Functional and clean, rather than consciously styled, trend setting, following or otherwise. Service is good. In fact, often great: advice and concepts aren’t thrown at you, but very willingly given if you ask; food comes quickly (occasionally worryingly so).
Apparently they changed the menu a few months ago, switching from stereotypical to authentic. This means pink noodle soup with fish balls, garlic chicken with holy basil sauce and century egg, “kuay jaap” pork and offal in a five spice soup. Oh, and green chicken curry and prawn Pad Thai.
That menu is in two parts: “one course” and “multi course”. Which is fairly baffling for luddites like me looking for the standard delineation between starters or side dishes and mains. In fact, items on both sides are largely of the same price and not dissimilar bulk. The only difference, as far as I can tell, is that you need to order a side of rice with some of the multi course options. My suggestion would be that if you’re going to make meal out of it, just mix it up and order a couple of dishes from whichever side per person.
Highlights begin on a macro level, with the waitress on my first visit helping us to balance our selection between hot, fiery hot, sour and sweet. Thai food, we were told, was not just about taking a chilli hit, but enjoying that against the other sensations. That meant (we’re going micro now) enjoying stars like the rustic but beautifully balanced “khao soi” chicken curry alongside a plate of deep fried eggs and tamarind sauce. I would’ve loved the yolk to be softer, but this dish offered great textural variety and did indeed balance the heat of the khao soi and other dishes we tried. Speaking of heat, a mackerel curry was as sweat gland and colon affecting as our waitress warned, but, beyond the pain, also a strangely addictive mix of fire, sour, sweet and savoury. I’ve also enjoyed deep fried sea bass fillets, just steamed and flaking within in a thin batter and served with spicy herb salad, Tom Yum soup with prawns. There are a couple of other dishes I intend to return to try.
This is not the saviour of Thai food, though. In truth, it’s just a decent enough small restaurant with some interesting but fairly rough round the edges dishes. That’s fine – those dishes generally match their price point of around £7-9, a few as much as £12. Occasionally they’re disappointing. At one lunch, I spent some time wondering whether it was just me and my western taste not “getting” a shiny bowl of “raad naah” noodles with a sticky soy bean sauce and marinated pork. But, in the end, concluded it was actually just excessive amounts of pretty bland overly gloopy gravy of a nuclear (possibly nuked) temperature, with overcooked clumped noodles and fairly tasteless tough pork. I regressed to the safety of a Pad Thai. There should be more fresh, healthy and vibrant stuff on offer. The papaya salad as a side dish, for example, not just as an accompaniment for one thing. Everywhere’s allowed a glitch or two, though, particularly when there’s no pretension of grander things.
The search continues for that outstanding, game changing, low-mid level Thai restaurant. Please step forward Mr Andy Oliver.
Janetira in 3 words
Beyond green curry.
Cheap for central London. You’ll be out for a tenner if you want just one course. £25 pp if you try harder.
janetira.co.uk – 28 Brewer Street, W1F0SR – 020 7434 3777