Thai food is popular in the UK, there is no denying. But is that because we genuinely crave its challenging flavours, or because we've got used to a sanitised version of the cuisine where a dash of curry paste from a pot and a glug of coconut milk makes us feel we've eaten something exotic? Well, whatever your thoughts on the popularity of Thai food, if you want to strip away the panderings to western palates of workaday pubs serving Thai food and supermarket jars of red and green curry sauce, this is the place.
Having visited Thailand and experimented at home regularly with making various dishes, I now feel that I have some idea for what tastes authentic and what does not. My own efforts don't always measure up, but then, when you are working from a Som Tam recipe (Spicy Papaya Salad) calling for 10 chillies to make the dressing, you might also balk at true authenticity!
Situated under the railway bridge in Brixton Village, this is a small restaurant which has gained quite a reputation. Not for being a showy place for fine dining, but rather an informal cafe style place with no frills but good food. Having been brought on a Gastronomic tour of Brixton by Food I Fancy blog's lead author and founder Tash, I was keen to investigate! (Tash's excellent Food I Fancy blog cab be found here http://www.foodifancy.com/)
Because Tash was such an easy going host, I was given the choice of eating outside or inside. Perhaps it is my age, but my circulation isn't what is used to be. I am cursed with cold, often numb, extremities. I love my fingers and toes, but often doubt if they are still connected. So given the choice, I plumped for inside. Other diners may want to note that the management kindly provide fleecy blanket wraps for those eating outside. It's a nice touch, and when I am more in touch with my inner granny than I currently am (we are in the semi-denial phase), then I perhaps would accept with greater willingness.
So, once inside it was time to check out the menu. Typed out on both sides of a single sheet of A4 and laminated, the menu is a small, select assortment of the most popular Thai dishes with a few additions. I found it hard to choose and there were several dishes, both starters and mains that I was in two minds about. If I'd had a bigger appetite, we would have liked to have sampled much more of the menu.
Moo Ping £4.90
Marinated grilled pork skewers with a tamarind, chilli and palm sugar sauce
One of the guiding principles of Thai food is that the main 4 flavours should all be in balance with one another. So the marinade, once cooked, takes on a caramel sweetness, with a touch of spice. The dipping sauce has a tangy flavour just on the sour cusp of the more familiar sweet and sour taste you'd find in standard shop bought Thai sweet chilli sauce and the chilli, although sparingly added packs enough punch to bring the whole dish together. This dish was a treat, and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.
Goong Tod £5.90
King Prawns in batter with dipping sauce
This was quite good, without going overboard. The prawns were a decent size. The dipping sauce was NOT a shop bought See Woo special, but a homemade blend with subtlety and sophistication. My criticism is that I had expected a lighter and fluffier batter. But then, if I had eaten this somewhere else, I would probably have been pleased with it. It's funny how elastic your expectations can be. Given how good the skewers were, this paled by comparison, and were just a little greasy.
Yum Woonsen £6.90
King Prawn, Minced pork and glass noodle salad
Glass noodles are thin noodles, less than 1mm in diameter which rather than being made out of rice or flour, are made of mung bean flour. As a result, when cooked they are practically transparent, hence their name. They have a somewhat springy texture which makes them more pleasing and less bland than plain rice noodles. The salad dressing was a mingling of fish sauce (nam pla), lime juice, palm sugar and, of course, chilli. On ordering I was asked how hot I wanted it, and given the option of hot or medium. Since I am obviously of Indian ethnic origin (being a cup of tea shade of brown all over), it is often assumed I have the chilli defences of a typical Indian person (lead lined mouth, asbestos lips and flameproof stomach). This was one of the many lessons of travelling around Asia which has stayed with me in particular. So I asked how hot the medium is. Our waitress (who I believe is the lovely Gisele) assured me 'hot enough'. It was; hot enough to give the dish kick but not overpower it. In other words, hot enough to send you swiftly to down a glass of water, but not so hot that your nose is streaming. This was a great dish, with herbs, red onion, cooked pork mince and king prawns combining in a wonderful yin-yang balance.
Massaman beef curry with steamed rice £6.90
Massaman curry originates from the southern region of Thailand. In the south, coconut milk is used for the curry gravy. In the cooler north, this is not the case. "Massaman" translates as 'Muslim' since the people of the south are generally of the Islamic faith. A good Massaman curry will have a deep, cooked-in spicy flavour, thick gravy and chunks of meat which are tender and gently cooked. This was a lovely example of the dish, which I have had both in the UK and in the Muslim south of Thailand. Served with steamed rice, this was a super lunchtime dish. A few wedges of perfectly cooked potato complemented the beef perfectly.
Many other diners elected for the Pad Thai, and few left any food on their plate. Perhaps the version here is a good one, but this may have to be investigated on a future visit. Sadly no-one ordered the Gai Yang, Khao Neau, Som Tam, the half chicken with sticky rice and papaya salad (£11.50) which we had thought about, but were not quite feeling hungry enough to tackle. We had wanted to see what the dish looked like, but were denied on this occasion.
Many dishes were served with 'Tai Dow'; a fried egg on the top. Cooked so it is "Just Done", the centre is soft, allowing the egg to be broken over the noodles or rice, providing eggy runny goodness. I am partially allergic to eggs, and so I passed on that, but it was good to see something very familiar from my travels brought to the UK. Him Indoors became particularly fond of 'Tai Dow' and surprised many street food stall holders in Thailand with his order.
Since we had met for a fairly early lunch, we did not have any alcohol, electing instead for the hot homemade ginger tea (£1.90) and hot homemade lemongrass tea (£1.90). They were warming and pleasant, although I admit I have had better fresh lemongrass infusions elsewhere. Both are available as cold teas if you would prefer.
Tap water is provided without having to ask by the glass. A much appreciated touch. Particularly when dealing with a goodly amount of birds eye chillis!
This is a very busy place. It is in demand throughout the day. Our staff were very competent, and kept on top of our orders and requests at all times. Other reviewers have made comment about the service received, and I have to say I have no complaints at all. Service was swift, effective and well judged. When glasses of (free) water ran dry, we only had to ask once to be refilled. They had no hope of remuneration in doing so, and I have found the task far more difficult in posher, more highly regarded restaurants.
The restaurant has a BYOB policy, so you can have a very pleasant meal with wine for an absolute song. Currently there is no corkage charge. Seriously! So fill your boots! I recommend a Gruner Veltliner, Gewurtztraminer or Orvieto Amabile. I have tried all of them with spicy and/or chilli adorned food and have found them to be great accompaniments.
My overall verdict is that this is a place to go for a highly enjoyable and authentic meal. You may need to prepare yourself for a small and intimate restaurant with basic surroundings. If it is luxurious surroundings you desire, go somewhere else. Obviously you will end up paying far more. However, for a special evening out (first date, anniversary, proposal), I would completely understand your choice.
Tash of FoodIFancy blog and I paid hard earned cash (of the folding variety) for our meal.
Brixton Village Market
Tel: 020 7095 8922