The first three quarters of 2016 have been pretty unimpressive, as far as new London restaurants go. I count (generously) fifteen places of real interest and quality over those nine months, from well over ten times that number of openings. Mathematicians and iPhone users will note that makes, on average, 1.67 good’n’s per lunar cycle.
But then, whoa there, the end of October and November come along. Like all the delayed builds, concept tweaks and “oh crap it’s nearly Christmas” realisations are combining to create the perfect storm of shiny entrances, hyped-up customers, snapping phones and (most importantly) genuinely sated stomachs, palates and expectations.
There’s Honey & Smoke (Honey & Co does charcoal grill), Luca (The Clove Club does Italo-British), Anzu (Tonkotsu does flashy), Veneta (Salt Yard does Venice), L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele (Neapolitans do Neapolitan pizza), Smokestak (meat, slow, Shoreditch), Temper (meat, slow and fast, Soho), Perilla (quality supper club sets roots), Flat Iron Square (Borough food court) and God knows how many taquerias … all promising good things.
However, before each exciting opening takes place and is then promptly forgotten, we need to step back and talk about Kiln.
Kiln is Smoking Goat founder Ben Chapman’s second restaurant. As with the older sibling, it’s based on an impressive commitment to sourcing and using Thai flavours and the very best British produce.
But whereas Smoking Goat seems to me to be about reinterpreting authentic Thai spicing and flavour combinations by boldly applying them to barbecued meats and fish (sticky, sweet, spicy, lip-smacking, intense), Kiln is more about authentic Thai flavours full stop.
So whilst you get a sweat on and your mind blown at Smoking Goat thanks to fish sauce wings, bavette steaks, lamb rib and pork belly with sticky glazes, vibrant fresh herbs and spiky dressings, at Kiln you’re as likely to be wiping your brow and adding moments to the flavour bank because of a Northern Thai-style herbal pork curry — all subtle and watery like a road-side grandma might make — or a fire-cracker of a turmeric and chilli specked sausage, served with minimal flourish or condiments because the multitude of flavours within it are enough.
Perhaps the best description I’ve heard of Kiln is that it’s “like a Thai Barrafina”.
Which is not to say that there’s a bustle of Spaniards recreating Cal Pep for Londoners who can no longer afford to swap pounds for Euros.
Rather, that the small plates (mostly £4.50-£8.50) are gratifying, flavourful, thoughtful and transport your tastebuds to another place; that most of the action is along an open kitchen and bar counter top, at which you sit (though there are seats downstairs at Kiln too); and that you can just as easily stop by for two plates and a drink at lunch (get the clay pot glass noodles with crab and Tamworth belly, and a curry), as you could settle in for the night and a £60 per head spend fuelled by numerous outstanding dishes, and carefully curated beers and wine.
It’s tricky not to simply copy down the entire menu when noting the dishes that have stood out over three visits (to date). But lunch yesterday provided a number of particularly memorable moments: aged lamb and cumin skewers, where little cubes of sheep meat and fat, dusted in cumin, cause you to pause and eat slower than their more-ishness would normally prompt; a sweet, sour, and deceptively hot turmeric-based red mullet curry; and a Southern Thai style dry-fried pork mince and basil curry, with browned and caramelised spiced ground meat, and fierce yet fruity fresh chillies (plus the aforementioned sausage and crab and pork glass noodles).
Roast long pepper pork shoulder curry is not to be missed. Though the chilli dial sits at about eleven, there’s much more to it than fire. The long peppers provide a floral note, there’s real depth of flavour and layered spicing in the sauce, and the quality of the pork is notable. How many curries — South East Asian or otherwise — have you had where the flavour of the meat stands out? Just make sure you ask for a betel leaf and extra jasmine rice to dampen the flames in your mouth. Emergency fridge-cold yoghurt buckets would probably help too.
For something completely different, try langoustines with kefir lime and mint are fragrant, sweet, and cooling, and provide a change of rhythm from the heat and weight of the curries.
You can tell I like it, yes?
A great deal of effort has gone into making Kiln. Much of it is unseen and, on the face of it, irrelevant to the ultimate consumer: the recipes that have been gleaned during focused research trips; the in-house butcher tucked away downstairs; the chillis and herbs are either sourced from Thailand or grown to order in Cornwall; the kitchen, which only one third of diners will see, cooks, remarkably, only over charcoal-stoked ‘hobs’ (the charcoal having been created in the wood burning oven next to them).
Those little touches add up, though, even if you don’t know or care: chillis with different fruity flavours add more than just capsaicin to the dish; the roots and herbs make the food sing; the butcher means your meal costs less; the fire and smoke can’t be quantified, but you can be sure that gas and induction just wouldn’t be the same. It’s quality.
Now, where to go next?
Kiln in 3 words
A Thai Barrafina
A solo and out lunch with tap water can be done very satisfactorily for £15. But you’ll enjoy it more as a pair sharing dishes and spending around £25 to £30 per head on food. There’s a cracking wine list by the omnipresent and ever incisive Zeren Wilson which’ll turn things up a notch or two — skin contacts that are actually worth drinking, Rieslings, Chablis and Pinot Blanc that punctuate, light reds that surprise. Though I’ve got to say I’m partial to a beer to help quell the heat.
kilnsoho.com — 58 Brewer Street, W1F 9TL — reservations for 4+ only
Mon-Sat 12:00-14:30, 17-22:30, Sun 13:00-20:00