San Daniele takes on a new life
Update 26/3/18 – added details of feasting menu and updated formatting
Update 04/1/18 – Farang will now permanently reside at this address!
Update 17/7/17 – this residency will now run until at least January 2018.
As someone with a reasonably high tolerance for spiciness, I had never really understood why some people were so adverse to chilli-infused foods that they would purposely avoid restaurants specialising in it. That was until I witnessed someone attempting to down a bottle of highly potent, naga-infused chilli sauce in a masochistic fundraising attempt for charity. The subsequent squirting, from both ends of the body, was remarkably geyser-like in both frequency and quantity.
There’s no need to worry about any such volcanic side-effects when eating at Farang. While the kitchen at this six-month Thai residency is headed up by a veteran of The Smoking Goat, the food here is generally much milder than the fare at London’s other noteworthy Thai restaurants such as Kiln and Som Saa. That doesn’t mean Farang’s dishes are less accomplished – far from it.
First things first
Little morsels of diced shrimp and pomegranate served on edible betel leaves were crunchy, sweet, sour, tart and lightly spicy parcels of appetite-teasing pleasure. Not only that, they were far better than their counterparts at Busaba.
Punchy mackerel fillets came dressed in an equally zingy dressing, bursting with sour tartness and sharp ginger.
Although the pork belly and lobster lon was dominated more by pig than by crustacean, which is understandable when you’re only paying £12.50 for this dish, that didn’t make it any less sensual. There was still enough of the lobster to appreciate its springy plump freshness, while the minced pork was meaty thanks to its chunky grind. A thin yet sour, coconutty, jaggery-ish sauce bound the two together.
The moist and crunchy lettuce leaves used for scooping up the pork-lobster mix arguably got in the way of appreciating the taste and texture of this meaty combo, but the musky sweet and herby vegetable garnishes made up for this. And, of course, you could instead crunch on the leaves afterwards as a palate cleanser.
A far better accompaniment to the pork and lobster lon sauce was the turmeric roti. The moderately thick and fluffy bread not only had the lightly peppery and astringent notes of turmeric, but a pronounced butteriness too – an unusual, but highly pleasing combination. I could easily live on nothing but this roti.
Although the cashew nut praline ice cream was generously sized, the crunchy ice crystals were a notable structural flaw. It somewhat obscured the macademia-like sugary nuttiness of this dessert.
Going back for seconds
Slices of flat iron beef were expertly cooked – tender, vibrantly hued and moist with a seductive smoky woodiness. This flame-licked flavour profile was further enhanced by the sharp and sour dressing with its umami undertones. The sharpness of the Japanese-style pickled ginger didn’t really compliment the steak, but it could be safely ignored as it was served on the side.
A jungle curry made with fish instead of meat of the two- or four-legged variety is unusual, but it worked really well. Springy pearlescent dabs of white fish came bathed in a thin yet sharp, sour and umami sauce. It also packed a lip-tingling cumulative heat that stopped just short of slicking my brow with sweat – one of the very few dishes at Farang to do so. This dish wasn’t just fish and curry sauce though – more layers of taste and texture came from crisp spherical Thai baby aubergines, pepper corns, fragrant holy basil and sharp galangal.
The turmeric roti was just as good as it was before.
Like a besuited, Del Monte-style ‘expat’ in the tropics, the doughnut dessert stood out like a sore thumb. The English-style doughnut was inoffensive in its soft pudginess. The sharpness of the apple filling needed something to offset it and perhaps add another layer of flavour too – tasks which the lightly creamy, herby custard just wasn’t up to.
Plump mussels came in a green curry sauce, but this was as far removed from the tame, kiwi-hued Belgo chuff as it’s possible to get. Thin yet creamy, the curry sauce was also peppery, herby sweet and laced with sharp, zingy galangal. I slurped up every last drop of the stuff.
Chicken – cooked and served on the bone – may only have been a half rather than a whole bird, but it was still a substantial beast with my chook weighing in at roughly 300-350g. Supple skin slid off the light, moist and milky meat with ease. Unsurprisingly though, the red curry sauce was the star of the show here. While only mildly spiced, it was far from dull with its sourness and sweet herbiness further enhanced by an umami undertone courtesy of the minced mini-prawn balls. This dish may well have ruined all other chicken curries for me, at least in this city.
The turmeric roti was doughier and thicker than before, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as it was also more absorbent which made it ideal for mopping up curry sauce.
The cashew nut praline ice cream tasted just as good as it did before, helped along by a more refined mouthfeel compared to the first time around – it was noticeably smoother with fewer crunchy ice crystals.
Go fourth and multiply
Although I wasn’t a fan of the thick, crunchy and stodgy deep-fried wonton skins, I found the filling far more appetising. The mixture of pureed beans and crisp veg proved to be creamy, moreish and tangy. It was easily flavoursome enough to not need the chilli dipping sauce on the side, especially as the bright, tingly heat was arguably a distraction not matter how well made it was.
Even though the beef cheeks were large enough to outweigh a small moon, the kitchen somehow managed to hide them underneath a tidy heap of bean sprouts and other veg. Oddly for a curry, both generally and specifically when compared to Farang’s other curries, the centre of attention here was the meat rather than the sauce. While the sauce was pleasing in its creaminess, moreishness and gentle sweetness, it was nothing more than a chaperone for the exquisite beef cheeks – unctously tender and sinewy with the occasional seam of rich, squidgy connective tissue.
I’ll never get tired of the turmeric roti – not only because it’s so damn good, but also because it’s never quite the same. This iteration was thick and absorbent in places, yet also thin, lightly elastic and chewy in others. All while still maintaining its distinctively alluring flavour profile.
Although Farang’s pickles couldn’t quite touch traditional Japanese-style pickles in the range of flavours on display, they weren’t too far off. The various pickled vegetables ranged from vinegary to briney sweet and then gently funky with a beetroot-style earthiness.
The English-style, apple- and custard-filled doughnut was much the same as it was before, but with a touch more sugary sweetness and a little more herbiness in the custard. You’re still better off with the ice cream, in other words.
2018 feasting menu update
In a year when restaurants across London (and throughout the rest of the country) have been forced to close, it was heartening to see Thai residency Farang nab a permanent lease at their Highbury premises. This welcome news was also the perfect excuse for a revisit, this time with Porn Master, Happy Buddha, The Lensman and Veal Smasher in tow.
The menu has undergone a few changes, with dishes coming and going. The new ‘feasting’ menu, a tasting menu in all but name, takes in broad swathes of the a la carte options. At £45 per person (with a shorter option at £35), it’s remarkably well-priced if only for the sheer amount of food.
Of the dishes held over from its initial opening, it’s clear that many have been nipped and tucked for the better. The miang bites wrapped in betel leaves were far better than they been before with a refreshing, tongue-tingling sour zinginess paired with a nutty crunch.
Deep-fried wontons were unexpectedly sophisticated. The crisp, oil-free and almost weightless pastry contained a just-cooked ball of moist, meaty, ginger-flecked pork at its core. Each wonton was remarkably light, an unexpected feat for a deep-fried dish. The perfectly formed morsel of pork wouldn’t be out of place in a steamed dim sum dumpling. Masterful.
Crunchy fried chicken was fine, but it was merely a conveyor for the superlative hot sauce. Initially musky and nutty, it quickly crescendoed into a lip-scorching heat that managed to catch us all off-guard.
Cured salmon strips seems more British than Thai, but that hardly matters when the taut, meaty and subtly sweet strips came dressed in a bristlingly hot and zingy dressing. The julienned vegetables were no afterthought, with every slice sharp and crisp.
After all that relatively heavy meatiness and deep-fried batter, the som tam salad provided a welcome intermission with its refreshing strips of green papaya, umami zest and tingly chilli-derived warmth.
Tom yum soup will be familiar to anyone who’s been to a high-street Thai restaurant. Although the prawns were a bit too soft, there was no faulting the taut and slippery mushrooms or the moreishness and gentle creaminess of the soup itself.
If there was one dud dish of the evening, then it would have to be the somewhat stodgy curried chicken noodles. Although there was some joy to be had in the sweet, almost chip shop-style curry sauce, I just didn’t enjoy this dish anywhere as much as my dining companions did.
Veal Smasher couldn’t help but coo and moan at the unctuously tender and quivering hunk of meat in the beef cheek curry. While we all studiously ignored the guttural rumbles of pleasure coming from his end of the table, I was taken in by the slightly sweet and nutty curry sauce. The curls of pickled ginger dotting the curry, more sweet and warming than Japanese gari, also imparted a pricklish heat and tang that was surprisingly complimentary to the beef cheek. The cow was almost overshadowed by everything else which, for once, was a good thing. A very good thing indeed.
As beautiful as the beef cheek curry was, it was quickly superseded in my affections by the jungle curry. The prawns were, once again, a little too soft for my liking. The delicately flaky fish was cooked just right though, as were the sharp bamboo shoots. While the sauce was hot enough to give me a glisteningly sweaty glow, it didn’t just rely on heat for its charms. Citrusy with a musky sweet undertone and a hint of umami, I couldn’t help but slurp up every last drop.
Sorry folks, I forgot to take a photo of this one.
The turmeric roti, while far from bad, wasn’t quite as worthy of adulation and song as it once was. A little thicker and doughier than before, it didn’t quite have the same supple, tearable quality to it or the same ineffable lightness. Happy Buddha even mistook the once unmistakable taste of turmeric for bone marrow.
Happy Buddha was sceptical about the sticky rice dessert, but was soon won over. The nutty, sweet and hearty grains clung to each other tightly, while the caramelised bananas provided another sugar rush. There wasn’t quite enough of the taut and slippery jackfruit, but this comforting, hearty dessert was still a winner.
After that dizzyingly wonderful if somewhat heavy feast, the bracingly cold citrusy sharpness of the grapefruit and blood orange granita made for the perfect finish.
Despite the occasional wrinkle, most notably with the turmeric roti, Farang’s wonderfully accomplished feasting menu is a towering testament to the skill of its kitchen. I couldn’t be more pleased that it has now found a permanent home in Highbury.
Farang wasn’t quite as exemplary as either Som Saa or Kiln. Not because of any critical flaw in its cooking, but because the range of flavours at those other distinguished new-wave Thai restaurants tends to be broader. Farang’s fare tends to lean towards the sharp and sour side. That relatively minor proviso aside, Farang’s accomplished cooking makes it well worth seeking out – whether you’re a Highbury local, from farther afield and especially if you can’t get into its more centrally located competition.
Farang’s location might be a deal-killer for some. Although a mere five minute bus-ride from either Finsbury Park or Canonbury stations (or a 15 minute walk), this was enough to put off both The Euro Hedgie and Baron Greenback from joining me. Don’t be shallow enough to make the same mistake – Thai restaurants in London are rarely this good. Farang is currently occupying the premises of Italian restaurant San Daniele for at least the next six months – with any luck, this residency arrangement will become permanent. It simply has to – if all local neighbourhood restaurants were this good, there’d be far less reason to eat out in the West End and Shoreditch.
What to order: Pork belly and lobster lon; Mackerel; Flat iron steak; Jungle curry; Green curry mussels; Chicken and minced prawn curry; Beef cheek curry; Roti; Cashew nut praline ice cream; Feasting menu
What to skip: Perhaps the doughnut
Address: San Daniele, 72 Highbury Park, Highbury East, London N5 2XE
Phone: 0207 226 1609
Opening Hours: Wednesday-Saturday 17.30-22.30 and Sunday 13.00-17.00.
Reservations: highly recommended the closer you get to the weekend.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £37-46 approx.