Leytonstone’s best kept secret
Singburi is a Thai restaurant in Leytonstone, but it’s hardly new as it was established back in the heady, halcyon days of 1999. While hardly unknown, it hasn’t garnered nearly as much fame as London’s new wave Thai restaurants, such as Kiln and Farang. The reasons why aren’t hard to fathom. It’s located on a sleepy, unassuming road in a part of town that, for the meekly adventurous forever wedded to zone 1, seem distant and tricky to reach. Its somewhat gloomy, stuffy premises are lined with faded tourism board-style posters of Thailand that would’ve been naff and kitsch when they were new. And, of course, there are other potential reasons that affect some restauranteurs and not others.
Look more closely though and there are clues that there’s more to Singburi than meets the eye. Its neighbours include a Lithuanian pub, a lavish South Asian events hall and well-stocked Turkish and Polish grocers. Singburi’s specials board is brimming with titillating items rarely seen in London’s Thai restaurants (new wave or otherwise) such as beef tongue salad, razor clams and beef short rib curry. While the bracingly efficient service can also be brusque, there’s clearly a seam of sentimentality running underneath their stony-faced demeanour. Regulars are warmly greeted by name, while one wall is plastered with countless photos of red-eyed, ruddy-faced patrons from evenings past.
The specials at Singburi (well, some of them)
Chunks of pork belly vaguely resembled pork scratchings, but the resemblance was superficial in the end as these porcine morsels were actually edible – and desirably so. Crunchy then unctous, rather than greasy or enamel-shatteringly hard, they were even better when dunked in the lightly spicy and tangy sour dipping sauce.
Although the sauteed razor clams were a tad too chewy, they still had enough of a firm and springy mouthfeel to be pleasing. The muscular molluscs were dressed in a thin yet sour and earthy sauce tingling with the taste of chillies, lemongrass, Thai peppercorns and fingerroot. It all made for a showstopping, conversation-silencing dish.
Plenty of restaurants cock up beef short rib, but Singburi did this cut of meat justice. Tender and expertly rendered right down to the pliable, scoffable connective tissue, the beef effortlessly pulled away from the bone in glossy strands. As I’d now come to expect, the sauce was no afterthought. Thin and oil-based, it was a sweet, sour and peppery affair laced with kaffir limes and crisp baby Thai aubergines. Genius. Sheer, unadulterated genius.
Mussels sounds like an unimaginative thing to order off a specials board, but not when the results are as superlative as this. Plump, briney little bivalves were enjoyably slurpable, especially when dipped in the sauce on the side so as to soak up its zesty, prickly heat. The cloudy soup almost upstaged the molluscs themselves with its deep lemongrass-derived moreishness.
One would be forgiven for thinking that Singburi’s kitchen would take the easy way out with the clams and give these little molluscs the same treatment as the mussels or the razor clams. Thankfully, they took no such shortcut. The sour, umami and moderately spicy soup was the perfect accompaniment for the small but salty little clams.
Although lemongrass, kaffir lime, Thai aubergines and green peppercorns were all correct and present in the jungle curry, the stage-grabbing attraction here was its cumulative but nonetheless bristlingly spicy heat. Cheap filler vegetables outnumbered actual snapper, which is obviously disappointing, but there was still enough of the meaty, earthy fish to pair with the sweat-inducing sauce to delicious effect.
Disappointingly, the dry fried minced pork wasn’t as accomplished as the equivalent dish at Kin + Deum. While far from bad the minced pork lacked the unctuous moreishness of its London Bridge counterpart, leaving it to the tingly heat of the chilli paste to pick up the slack.
Brawny seams of pork collar were uniformly, exquisitely tender despite their slab-like thickness. Whether rimmed with quivering ribbons of connective tissue or not, they were a delight to behold. The thin curry sauce came dotted with crispy and reduced shallots, as well as julienned ginger and hearty cloves of garlic. While subtly moreish, the primary sensation was one of mellow sweetness. While not anywhere as nuanced and complex as some of Singburi’s other curries, this dish still had plenty of charm all its own.
Pea shoots is one of my favourite East Asian vegetables. It was a distinct pleasure to see their subtly earthy leaves and gently toothsome stalks cooked just-so in a garlicky sauce.
Stir-fried prawns and squid sounds dreadfully ordinary, but this dish was far from quotidian in the hands of Singburi’s kitchen. The seafood duo were cooked just-so, neither too firm nor too soft. The lip-smackingly umami sauce arguably verged into excessive saltiness, but that was forgotten when its moreishness meshed with the distinctive flavour of the surprisingly chewy chives. Everything came together beautifully.
Noodle soups don’t fit preconceived Western notions of Thai food, but if Singburi’s efforts are any indication then Thai noodle soups should be more widely appreciated. Supple, thick and narrow rice noodles came in a boldly flavoured soup of chillies and garlic. It was as if the kitchen took a soy-based broth and then amped it up to 11 by tipping a whole jar’s worth of Chinese-style chiu chow chilli oil into it. Add in chunks of sinewy, tender brisket (or possibly chuck) and you have a front runner for my last meal on death row.
Squidgy, quivering cubes of almost gelatinous beef tongue won’t suit everyone, but I enjoyed their rich, uncompromising texture. It had been deftly combined with the sharp tang of fish sauce, red onions and herbs to delicious effect.
The main menu at Singburi (or part of it, at least)
Singburi’s som tam salad doesn’t look like much, but it was still a pleasing rendition of this Thai classic. The julienned melange of crisp, sharp and mellow veg included green papaya, while the fish sauce-based dressing was tart, sour and lightly sweet. I only wish the sauce was spicier, like the potent versions available at Kin + Deum and Farang.
While the selection of vegetables in the meatless pad thai were pedestrian at best, there was no faulting the soft and supple rice flour noodles. If the punchy umami wasn’t derived from tamarind pulp and prawn stock (possibly helped along by a cheeky dollop of tomato puree), then it’s certainly a very good imitation of such a combination.
Given the ever increasing cost of seafood, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the kitchen had cheaped out when choosing which swimmers to chuck into their red seafood curry. While the seafood used was hardly luxuriant, it was nonetheless highly effective. Squid cooked just-so, briney mussels and meaty, earthy fish were joined by crisp, moreish bamboo shoots. The curry sauce was nothing short of electrifying – thin, yet crackling with a sour, musky earthiness. Tinged with galangal and sweet Thai basil, everything came together beautifully.
A salad of lime leaves, lemongrass, ginger and shallots was suitably light and zingy sharp. Its refreshing qualities were enhanced by the tangy, zesty dressing based on fish sauce. The only disappointment here was the crisped tofu slices which managed to be surprisingly charmless. Even that wasn’t enough to detract from this salad’s mouthwatering charms. An appetiser in the truest sense of the word.
Chucking pineapple and grapes into a duck curry sounds about as appetising as a pineapple pizza. Don’t turn up your nose though. The sharpness of the pineapple and the sweetness of the grapes were highly effective counterpoints to the tamarind-like sourness and moderately spicy heat of the sauce. Although I could’ve done with less filler veg and more duck, the poultry present quacked and waddled its way into my affections with its meaty earthiness and supple bits of skin. It all made for a lip puckeringly delightful curry.
Bitter stalks and leaves of morning glory came in the same garlicky sauce as the pea shoots, the potent moreishness of the sauce neatly offsetting the strident tang of the greens.
Despite the odd hiccup here and there, Singburi’s cooking was still sensational, thrilling and utterly satisfying across all of my many visits. But this heady joy at basking in the warmth of a quality alternative to the morally suspect Som Saa is dampened by the cold realisation that Singburi could soon close forever. The only rational response to such sad news is not to rue oneself for not eating at Singburi before, but to eat here as many times as is humanly possible before that final day arrives. Your stomach, and one of London’s best Thai restaurants, deserve nothing less.
Address: 593 High Road, Leytonstone, London E11 4PA
Phone: 020 8281 4801
Opening Hours: Tuesday-Saturday 18.00-22.30. Sunday 18.30-22.00.
Reservations? essential. If you’re going to attempt arriving early without a reservation in the hope of snagging an empty table, be aware that ad hoc closures can occur at relatively short notice. Keep an eye on their Twitter feed.
Average cost for one person including rice and soft drinks: £30-35 approx. (expect to pay around £10 less if you’re not as ravenous as I was)