Less of a sibling and more of a cousin
Second acts are hard, whether you’re switching careers, releasing a second album or opening a follow-up restaurant. With the latter, the easiest ways forward is to copy the same template as the original or dilute your idea for a wider audience. Sometimes, second restaurants feel like poorly-planned spill-over rooms for the original or are actively worse. The guys behind The Smoking Goat, one of my favourite restaurants of 2014, have taken a different tack with their follow-up Kiln.
Located a short walk away from the original in Soho, Kiln has taken over the premises of what was an old-school Soho Italian cafe and is thus only slightly less cramped than its forebear. It does at least shed the dive bar feel of The Smoking Goat, which was always part of the Goat’s charm while simultaneously holding it back.
Whereas the Goat had a short, focussed menu on Thai-esque barbecue along with a handful of other dishes such as curries, Kiln takes in a slightly wider swathe of other northern Thai dishes with occasional forays into neighboring countries. The end result is an experience that, while having echoes of the Goat, is also very different.
First things first
It would’ve been easy for the lamb skewer to have been little more than a weak kebab homage. Although the fat wasn’t as well rendered and rich as I would’ve liked, the meat was almost beef-like in its density. Although the dusting of cumin was only modest, this was still a subtly pleasing skewer of baby sheep – it’s worth having two.
The mackerel dry red curry wasn’t as visceral as the counterpart dish at the neighbouring Janetira, but it still had plenty of its own unique charms. Glossy flakes of fish had the unmistakable punchy taste of mackerel, while the mix of herbs and spices had a floral scent that started out sweet on the tongue and then crescendoed into a chilli heat intense enough to make my brow glisten with sweat.
Kiln’s kitchen clearly has a talent for fish – flaky, delicately glossy yet reassuringly meaty sheaves of brill were dressed in a thin yet lip-smacking sauce heavy with the bitter citrus of lemongrass and the light heat of galangal. It was so beautiful, you could frame it and mount it in a gallery.
No less superlative was the mushroom salad. Earthy shiitake and delicately sweet shimeji were made even better by a herby sweet, bright and gently acidic sauce.
The ‘curry soup’ is oddly named from a Western perspective – it’s a hearty dish, but very different from the Thai curries most of us are familiar with. It’s still a winner though, not because of the small and merely so-so if dense bits of pork but because of the soup itself. The herbal sweetness and fragrance of Thai basil transitions seamlessly to a musky moreishness. Sublimely seductive.
Going back for seconds
Chicken may be the meat of choice for the infirm and the beige of mind, but Kiln shows that it doesn’t have be a second-best choice. Dense, smoky morsels of chicken sheathed in a slightly chewy skin were made even better by the potent but not overpowering umami of the soy sauce glaze. It was a beautiful, deceptively simple combination that shows just how uncommonly good chicken can be.
Although the grilled pork loin didn’t quite reach the same heady porcine heights achieved by the admittedly very different kitchen at Pitt Cue, it was still a high-class piggy delight. Delightfully porky and tender meat, marbled with fat, was gently sweet and moreish. This was slightly unbalanced by the application of the dipping sauce, but it was a fine condiment in and of itself and well worth slurping up. A concoction of what I’m pretty sure was fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar and chilies (although I’ve been wrong before), it would’ve been better paired with a less accomplished meat that wasn’t already naturally delicious.
Tender and yieldingly soft medallions of beef short rib, off the bone, came in a musky sweet sauce that also had the gentle, cumulative heat of what I thought was galangal but was actually wild ginger. This meat-sauce duo was utterly seductive in its hot silkiness.
Even a simple side dish of stir-fried vegetables had been given due care and attention. Crisp, lightly bitter greens would have pleasing enough on their own, but were made even better by a thin brown-coloured soy-based sauce that was lip-smackingly moreish.
Coarse and lightly smoky sausage had an initial light maltiness that gave way to the gentle heat of turmeric. South East Asia isn’t well-known for its sausage making traditions, but it should be.
The delicately quivering body flesh of the langoustines combined with the milky, suckable head gunk was a textural triumph. The sharp, bright dressing with sweet undertones added to the langoustines, rather than detracting from them, making this starter worth killing for.
Belgo serves up mussels in a green-ish curry sauce, but the combination of limp, faded seafood and tame sauce is about as tempting as a ready meal past its use-by date. Kiln’s mussel dish was, unsurprisingly, far superior. Small but fleshy mussels had a taste and smell evocative of the salt and grit of the seaside. This was emphasized by the musky sweetness of the sauce that grew into a punchy, sweat-inducing heat.
Dense and earthy, yet moist bits of pork came bathed in a peppery sauce that also somehow managed to have sweet undertones. Its gentle tingly heat quickly grew into a lip-pursing hotness that nonetheless held onto its layered complexity. Top notch.
Go fourth and multiply
The coarse and smoky turmeric sausage was just as good as it was before, if not a little better with a more tingly, peppery but still gentle heat.
Light yet meaty flakes of plaice and a selection of crisp, clean greens would have been nothing without the bright, sharp sauce and its lip-tingling heat.
I’ve avoided glass noodles in the past, preferring the more immediately accessible charms of thicker and wider egg, wheat or rice noodles, but this wouldn’t have the case if all glass noodles were as good as Kiln’s. The thin, transparent noodles here had a gentle umami that slid into my affections as easily as it did down my throat.
Although the amount of pork belly and crab meat was relatively small, it punched well above its weight. The thinly sliced belly was suitably fatty, while the brown crab meat showed that it doesn’t necessarily have to be the poor relation to claw meat. Grainy and soft yet meaty with the tang of the sea, it was the perfect bedding for the glass noodles.
As my dining companions know, it takes a lot for a restaurant to truly impress me. There are plenty of mediocre eateries in the capital, a relatively small number of good to very good restaurants and an even smaller cadre of truly exceptional establishments. Kiln easily falls into the latter category – along with Som Saa, its stablemate The Smoking Goat and, to a lesser extent, the neighbouring Janetira, it sets the standard for Thai food in London – a very high bar of excellence that’s hard to meet.
I could nitpick about the relatively cramped bar seating on the ground floor or about the fact that the basement dining room only takes reservations for groups of four or more, but the bar stools are well-padded and the interior as a whole manages to escape the somewhat grungy feel of The Smoking Goat.
Plus, the almost flawless menu trumps all of these niggly problems. I can’t think of a single dish that I wouldn’t want to have again and again. The food at The Smoking Goat and Som Saa are akin to a riotous first date that repeatedly spanks you on the chaps and bites your lip hard, while occasionally forgetting the safety word.
Kiln, on the other hand, takes it more slowly and sensuously, caressing your tongue seductively before unleashing its unremitting yet complex potency leaving you disheveled and panting for more. Stop reading this and go. Go now. Don’t wait, don’t stop, don’t hesitate. Go.
What to order: Everything
What to skip: Nothing
Address: 58 Brewer Street, Soho, London W1F 9TL
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 17.00-22.30. Sunday 13.00-20.00.
Reservations: only taken for groups of four people or more
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £45 approx. (you’ll pay around £10 less if you’re not as ravenous as I am)