Smoky moody Tottenham Court Road dive bar
Updated 12/02/2016 – added back room private dining details
Updated 16/02/2015 – updated opening times
This review was originally published on 5/11/2014 and has since been updated
Thai food in London has been stuck in something of a rut, with the usual pad thais and green curries predominating. That’s slowly start to change and one of the new wave of Thai restaurants in the capital is Smoking Goat. You wouldn’t think it at first. Smoking Goat’s premises haven’t moved on a whole lot from its origins as a dive bar – candle lit, cramped, crowded and with hard bar stool seating that gradually becomes uncomfortable. Then there are the restrictive opening hours and the short menu which isn’t very traditional and concentrates almost exclusively on barbecued dishes. But by taking small steps, Smoking Goat is making a substantial contribution into changing our perceptions of Thai food.
First things first
Smoking Goat’s buzzy atmosphere and dim lighting make it seem ideal as a venue for a date. The messy hands-on nature of the food either confirms or refutes this though, depending on how mucky you like your food-based foreplay. For starters, there’s the chicken wings – crispy with a sticky glaze that had a gently sweet and salty umaminess that was very addictive.
Even messier was the crab. Although dismembered, you’ll still need a dab hand at extracting crab flesh from the curry sauce-coated carapace – and you will almost certainly end up with flecks of crab, meat juices and curry sauce dribbling off your chin as I did. It was all worth it though – the crab meat was taut and milky, while the musky, earthy, nutty spice of the sauce was ridiculously moreish.
Accompanying the crab, and indeed all the mains, is a clump of rice and a som tam salad of julienned green papaya, cherry tomatoes, French beans and nuts in a tart and sour fish sauce. Carbs and refreshing vegetables – exactly what’s needed in between mouthfuls of crab and globs of richly flavoured curry sauce.
Going back for seconds
Smoking Goat is no place for vegetarians. Apart from the som tam green papaya salad accompanying the mains, the only vegetable dish is an aubergine ‘salad’. The long strips of eggplant were fleshy with a strong initial hit of smokiness that subsided quickly, but was still noticeable. Most of the flavour came from the tart, tingly, lightly spicy fish sauce ladled over the aubergine and the mildly rich and runny egg. The aubergine salad was by no means bad and was actually quite good in its own right, but it’s definitely the poor cousin compared to the meaty mains such as the lamb ribs.
Ah, lamb ribs. I’d long been sceptical of their suitability for good eating, but Smoking Goat’s version changed my mind. The taut skin slid away to reveal an unctous layer of fat and earthy, mildly smoky meat complimented nicely by the tart, tingly and mildly spicy fish dipping sauce.
As Smoking Goat’s scallops seem to be perennially unavailable, I opted for the chicken wings a second time only to come away slightly disappointed. The differences in this second version were small, but had a noticeable cumulative effect. The skins weren’t nearly as crisp as they were before, while the thicker and sweeter sauce didn’t have the same depth and complexity of flavour as before. They’re still very good chicken wings, but the wobble in execution is a little worrying.
Paying £15 for three small-ish duck legs is a little galling, especially as the same amount gets you a whole roast duck in Chinatown (plus the grisly bits in a bin liner round the back if you ask nicely). At least they’re damn tasty duck legs – moist, meaty, tender and smoky with a tinge of sweetness enhanced by the fruity citrusness of the dipping sauce.
Smoking Goat private dining, take one
Since this review was first written back in November 2014, The Smoking Goat has added a private dining room that you can book (unlike the main dining area). Although it has a maximum capacity of around 25 people, you don’t need that many to snag a reservation – a group of six-to-eight-ish is enough if you’re willing to share the space with other similarly sized groups.
Although the private dining room has the now cliched exposed brick walls and communal bench seating, it still feels intimate and cosy – due in large part to the dim lighting. Thankfully, you don’t need to squint at the menu as everyone has to agree to a set menu beforehand. Vegetarians need not apply – this is a Thai barbecue restaurant after all.
I managed to round up a motley crew that included Templeton Peck, Vicious Alabaster, Socialist Worker, Gym Bunny, Pikmin and Musky Rider. Everyone seemed to enjoy the raw mullet. The meaty morsel of fish was accompanied by ginger and starfruit which were crisp and refreshing. The leaf wrapping added an odd but pleasing nuttiness, while a cumulative spiciness ended the little fish snack with a punchy finish.
A double batch of chicken wings were both a touch oilier than they had been during my very first visit. Even so, the fish sauce wings had a light umami-ness while the chilli wings had a musky, tingly and punchy heat. Musky Rider, who has a voracious appetite but a somewhat questionable diet, was especially taken with them.
Lightly earthy mushrooms arrived in a thin soy and chilli sauce that was moreish rather than spicy. The som tam green papaya salad saw julienned papaya with just the right amount of firmness dressed in a crisp, lightly sour dressing.
Musky Rider and Socialist Worker almost got into a tug of war over the barbecued pig carcass. The fatty, tender hunk of pork belly was topped with a pleasingly multilayered bark that was crisp – occasionally crunchy – and ranged from sweet to woody. Pork this good is almost worth fighting over.
Pikmin and Musky Rider were both bowled over by the sheer size of the goat shoulder – any worries I had that there wouldn’t be enough food to go around were quickly dispelled. Neither Vicious Alabaster nor Gym Bunny needed to use their considerable henchman-like strength, as the tender meat pulled off the bone with ease. Although its earthiness was muted, its beguiling musky sweetness more than made up for it. Seams of fat and connective tissue added an extra, visceral level of texture and unctuous flavour. Utterly splendid.
The only disappointment of the evening, and a partial one that, was the dessert of kaffir lime granita served in coconut halves. The bracingly cold and lightly sour granita was especially refreshing after all that fatty meat, but excavating the surprisingly hard and somewhat brittle coconut flesh required the combined strength of both Vicious Alabaster and Gym Bunny. Even then, it wasn’t really worth the effort.
Smoking Goat private dining, take two
My first private dining meal at The Smoking Goat was exemplary, but I rarely take anything as a given. I returned to the cosy back room for a second stab. Vicious Alabaster and Templeton Peck were once again in attendance, with Porn Master, Veal Smasher and Happy Buddha, among others, making up my crew this time around.
Although lacking in zing, the scallops were reasonably meaty and instead derived flavour from the tart, sharp and lightly sour dressing.
Crispy, chewy deep fried bits of pork belly tasted a bit like refugees from an inferior Chinese take away, but were made palatable by a lightly sour and spiced dressing as well the refreshing chunks of watermelon and bitter leaves.
The chicken wings are some of the most inconsistent dishes at The Smoking Goat. The fish sauce wings weren’t as crisp as the ones from my first group meal and were soggier this time around too. Despite this flaw, the deeply umami sauce was almost like a sour and savoury honey in its depth of flavour.
The chilli chicken wings had the same soggy consistency as the fish sauce wings, but with a lightly peppery and umami sauce that was only really spicy when I ingested some chilli slices. Even then it was a rather modest, cumulative effect.
Allegedly mackerel, the meaty, flaky fish tasted more like bream. No matter, it was delicately cooked just so. The subtly sweet and coconutty glaze on the skin didn’t penetrate very deep beneath the surface, but its taste lingered on my lips long after the fish had slid down my gullet.
While we could have had pork shoulder, we instead went for the goat shoulder once again. The hunk of goat meat was not only smaller than before, but also had far less depth of flavour. It was more conventionally moreish instead, but it was still tenderly yielding – whether we favoured slurping out the bone marrow like Vicious Alabaster or tearing out the seams of unctuous connective tissue and fat close to the bone like Veal Smasher.
Easily overlooked was the crisp and refreshing som tam salad. Julienned green papaya, green beans, tomatoes, peanuts and a tart fish sauce-based dressing made for an essential counterpoint to the meaty richness on offer.
The granita coconuts had been wisely dumped in favour of vanilla ice cream. It was surprisingly good – smooth and free of crunchy ice crystals with almost gelato-like levels of elasticity. Veal Smasher reckoned it had an almond marzipan-like flavour, whereas Porn Master thought it tasted more like the toasted wafers often found in ice cream parlours the world over. Regardless, it was a winner.
Smoking Goat limited number of covers and inconsistent execution are consistently frustrating flaws, but the big, bold flavours of its deceptively simple barbecued dishes make it a force to be reckoned with. It’s well worth snagging a table if you can.
What to order: Everything
Name: Smoking Goat
Address: 7 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LZ
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-15.00 and 17.00-midnight (last orders 30 minutes before closing). Sunday noon-21.00.
Reservations: only accepted for groups of six-to-eight or more, limited availability due to size of back room
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £27-35 approx.