Uncomfortable reading lies ahead
The trio of siblings behind Kin et Deum would doubtless prefer that I spend this introduction focussing on their Thai restaurant’s airy and tastefully decorated interior or that they’re building upon the legacy of their father’s Thai restaurant which used to occupy the same premises. Unfortunately for them, I can’t possibly review one of the first new Thai restaurants to open in London following the charitably-named ‘Som Saa shitshow’.
If you’re blissfully unaware of the scandal, then here’s the short version. Shaun Beagley was a chef at Som Saa, one of the best Thai restaurants in London, until it was discovered that he created a series of deeply bigoted videos on YouTube under the name ‘Boring Thai’. Each carefully edited video – ostensibly a recipe – contained appallingly racist jibes aimed at, depending on the video, Thais, other South East Asians and black people. Narrated in a stereotyped ‘Chinglish’ accent, the videos also made grotesquely misogynistic, homophobic and Islamophobic jokes. Beagley was eventually fired for making the Boring Thai series, but not before it was discovered that his boss at Som Saa – proprietor-chef Andy Oliver – as well as fellow Thai London superstars The Smoking Goat – were found to have lauded the videos on Twitter (which makes Oliver’s belated apology all the more suspect).
The reaction from most (but not all) of the people in London’s restaurant scene was of abject horror. For people from an ethnic minority, such as MiMi Aye and myself, the Beagley affair cuts much deeper. A chef was capable of unapologetically expressing virulent racial hatred – along with other forms of bigotry – not only without censure, but with the apparent approval of his superiors and peers. Crucially, this occurred while he was employed to cook Thai cuisine. He financially benefitted from an Asian culture, while vilifying, marginalising and stereotyping the people that originally produced it as inferior subhumans unworthy of respect, equality and dignity. If this could occur at a feted Thai restaurant in one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan, outwardly tolerant cities, then where else in the hospitality industry is this white male supremacy tolerated, encouraged and nurtured?
As one commenter rightfully put it, it shouldn’t matter *who* cooks my South East Asian food as long as that person isn’t a deplorable bigot. It shouldn’t matter that the recent clutch of astonishingly good new-wave Thai restaurants in London – from Som Saa to The Smoking Goat, Kiln and Farang – have white male chefs/proprietors. But then this begs awkward questions of myself. As a reviewer, I purposefully try to avoid knowing as much personal detail as possible about the people behind restaurants I review in an attempt to avoid bias as much as possible. And yet of the Thai restaurants I’ve reviewed recently, almost all have white male chefs/proprietors (as far as I can tell).
The reasons for this are, I suspect, deeply structural. In Western/Euro-American societies, if you’re white, male and affluent then you’re more likely than others to get the opportunities, knowledge, encouragement and funding necessary to travel, train and work abroad and then come back home to open and run a commercially successful restaurant. You’re more likely to mix in the social circles that give you access to other budding kitchen talent, willing financiers and industry veterans brimming with advice. You’ll probably be more able to take advantage of PR, social media and SEO. You’ll be cut more slack when you screw up. You’ll feel less tied to high street tradition and thus more able to take risks with menus, decor and marketing.
All that leads to greater buzz and visibility, elements which inevitably feed into a reviewer’s mind when deciding what and where to review. Being able to use white privilege doesn’t mean you haven’t worked hard. It just means everyone else, who can’t tap into it, has to work a lot harder for less in return.
Which finally brings us back to Kin et Deum (or Kin + Deum as it’s sometimes spelt). While the sibling proprietors have the advantage of building upon their father’s work and premises, the baggage of this is also plain to see in the somewhat conservative menu which hews closer to the high street than to Shoreditch. The use of seasonal British meat and fish in regional dishes that are little known in the West and based on tricky-to-source imported ingredients – characteristics of the aforementioned London Thai new wave – are less prominent here.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Kin et Deum is worth avoiding. The reality on the plate is knottier and less clean cut than that.
First things first
Kin et Deum’s menu may be quite conservative, but it does have a few quirky flourishes and flashes of character. There’s the tofu taco, for example. The crunchy taco shell has a whiff of an Old El Paso meal kit about it, but the filling was a different matter altogether. Fresh basil, a tartly piquant sauce and wrinkly, malty tofu made for a potently flavoursome trio.
Som tam salad packed a wallop with its tingly sour sauce building up to a fiery warmth that made my brow glisten with sweat. Although the runner beans were shrug inducing, the lightly sweet slices of green papaya were a joy and neatly complimented by crunchy peanuts and plump, sweet tomatoes.
After such a strong start, the prawn massaman curry was somewhat anticlimactic. From the reasonably firm prawns and gently tenderised potatoes to the lightly creamy sauce, occasionally lit up with a tamarind-like sourness, it was all ultimately unmemorable. It was far from bad, just cosseting and undemanding in its well-worn familiarity.
The best way to scoff the tamarind eggs is to take each halved ovum down your gullet in one go. That way, the chewy deep-fried batter neatly blends into the squidgy soft white and yolk underneath. Each layer was bound together by the lightly tangy tamarind sauce.
The clumpy texture and crunchy ice crystals of the coconut ice cream was deeply unimpressive. The tame coconut flavour was boosted by the toasted, lightly caramelised flakes of extant coconut, but that wasn’t enough in the end to rescue this flawed dessert.
Going back for seconds
Despite their resemblance to Cantonese siu mai, especially in the thick, supple and wrinkly skins, Kin et Deum’s dumplings were ultimately very much their own thing. The filling of moist, meaty chicken and crisp shards of water chestnut were subtly moreish with a clean aftertaste.
While the rice noodles in the pad thai were supple and not at all greasy, their mildly sweet and tangy undertone was too subtle for its own good with the dusting of mild chillies and crushed nuts having little impact. This did allow the spring plumpness of the expertly cooked prawns to shine through though. It wasn’t a bad pad thai, just a somewhat unbalanced one.
Thin slices of duck were occasionally smoky and earthy, but also a bit too dry and tough with not enough fat or skin to make up for it. The mildly tart and sweet dipping sauce was neither here nor there.
Ice cream was much smoother than the first time around, but it was still a tad too crunchy and lacking in creaminess. The Thai tea flavour was far superior to the coconut though, capturing the milky tannic sweetness of the drink well.
Minced pork doesn’t sound terribly exciting, but it is when the ground pig packs a moreish unctuousness. The pork was pepped up further by piquant bird’s eye chillies, sharp onions and runner beans cooked just-so.
Given the addictiveness of the fatty minced pork, the relative dryness of the pork larb melded into meatballs was something of a surprise. While the meatballs weren’t a complete loss with a coarse and dense texture, it was the salad accompanying them that really lit up my eyes. Sharp red onions and crisp coriander were the perfect mechanism for delivering the umami tingle of fish sauce into my gaping maw.
I’m not usually a fan of vermicelli, but the supple, umami noodles here had much to recommend them. Zingy prawns were only somewhat plump and firm, but the surprisingly complimentary combination of peppery celery and sharp ginger neatly papered over the minor textural deficiencies in the crustaceans.
The Thai milk tea ice cream was just as good as it was before.
Go fourth and multiply
Someone in Kin et Deum’s kitchen has a way with mincing and grinding meats. The ground bird in the ssam-style chicken mint larb salad may not look like much, but it proved to be surprisingly unctuous and moreish. The chicken was never cloying or outstayed its welcome though, especially with the mint and the tangy sourness, light sweetness and rich umami of the sauce – likely made with both chillies and fish sauce – cutting through it.
‘Coriander root broth’ sounds like GOOP-y wellness bollocks, but this vegetable-based soup was easily the equal of any other soup or consommé I’ve tried in this city. The gentle umami and peppery undertone were boosted by the bitter cabbage leaves and the crisp, sharp garnishes. Squidgy, milky cubes of tofu came lined with a chewy, bready crust, providing not only an extra layer of flavour but also a bit of ballast. The broth arguably didn’t need the tofu, but either way this was a deeply satisfying soup of rich complexity.
The pork belly curry, by comparison, was quotidian and unexemplary. There was some joy to be had in the creamy, nutty and lightly sour curry sauce, but it was all a bit too subtle for its own good. This should have allowed the pork to shine, but the cubes of meat were not only lacking in character but also too hard.
A side dish of morning glory was far more satisfying. The stalks and leaves didn’t just rely on their mild creaminess and gentle bitterness – the sauce of chilli, garlic and fermented soya beans had a vibrancy and life of its own that the curries would do well to emulate.
If you’re a teetotaller as I am, then don’t be tempted by the iced coffee which had all the charm of day-old Nescafé. The Thai milk tea was consistently pleasing and refreshing with its combination of tannins and malty sweetness. It wasn’t quite as potent as the brew sometimes available at Carrots & Daikon and the otherwise unremarkable SIAM Eatery, but it’s still infinitely preferable to a can of Pepsi any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
The smaller dishes at Kin et Deum were far better than the safe and uninteresting, or just plain underwhelming main courses. Graze amongst the starters and sides and you’ll be amply rewarded with skilful cooking good enough to rival London’s feted new wave Thai restaurants. It’s just a deep shame that the main courses and the amateurishly slow service couldn’t follow up on this initial promise. Privilege, expectations and tradition cast a long shadow at Kin et Deum. Perhaps competition from London’s other Thai eateries – both those that have and haven’t hired execrable racists – will push this restaurant out from under it.
What to order: Som tam salad; Ground pork; Clay pot prawn noodles; Chicken mint larb salad; Coriander root broth; Morning glory; Probably the Thai milk tea, both in drink and ice cream forms
What to skip: Honey coriander duck; Pork belly curry
Name: Kin et Deum
Address: 2 Crucifix Lane, London Bridge, London SE1 3JW
Phone: 0207 357 7995
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-22.30.
Reservations? probably a good idea on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £35-43 approx.