San Daniele takes on a new life
Update 17/07/17 – 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.
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
What to skip: Perhaps the deep-fried wontons and 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.