It was tonight in the brightly lit, garishly furnished basement of The Heron, an old man's pub near Paddington, that a dish consisting of minced duck (laab ped, opening photo) that almost did took me back to being 6 again. I managed to hold it together though and instead became light-headed and giddy, gently panicking within and sucking the air through gritted teeth like a woman in labour.
The Heron is like no other Thai restaurant I've experienced in London. It's situated opposite a ropey-looking estate, and upstairs serves an English menu of Thai food, while the basement has an entirely different menu only in Thai. Large plasma screens adorn the walls for their customers to do some karaoke pre, mid or after their meal. While eating if I'd shut my eyes it would've taken me right back to Bangkok street stalls; none of this dumbed-down guff that other London restaurants peddle.
Luckily for us, The Skinny Bib has been kind enough to translate the menu in full, though when we were there our lovely waitress was more than happy to take us through the menu. I went for things you don't often see in other Thai restaurants so with that caveat this is what we had.
Cashew nut salad, while we waited for our tardy friend. Tossed together and eaten with a spoon, I made sure to avoid the red birds eye chillis. They are mothers. It was still spicy, and tiny little pieces of lime were chopped with it to flavour every mouthful.
This was a special of the day, from the board in the restaurant. Pork hock tom yum soup; served bubbling in a pot, this was intensely flavoured with lemongrass and was pleasingly tangy. Wibbly wobbly bits of pork lent great depth to it.
Yum pla duk fuu - dry catfish salad. The catfish was almost dehydrated to a floss and once doused with the sweet-spicy-sour sauce it made a great mouthful to have a long chew on with celery leaves adding freshness.
Kaeng som goong cha om tod kai - orange curry with prawns and cha om omelette. This came out with squares of omelette made with cha om, a medicinal, slightly astringent-tasting herb inside. I've never had orange curry and it was thin and soup like, no coconut milk and was surprisingly mild and sweet.
Kai yiew mar kra pow krob - minced pork and century egg. This was one of my favourites; the black, gooey egg quarters were fried so that they had a crispy coating. Minced pork on top with stir-fried basil leaves were doused in a sweet sauce. One of only three mild dishes of the evening, this went really well with rice.
Som tam Thai + poo (stop sniggering at the back) - Papaya salad with peanuts and salted crab. The shredded green papaya is pounded with lime juice, chillis and peanuts. Salted crab is pounded with it for seasoning and a mild fishy flavour. This was fiery, as I'm accustomed to.
Tam taeng poo + pla rah - cucumber salad with fermented fish essence. I ordered a dish at Nahm in Bangkok which contained fermented fish and it was so funky I could barely even look at it. I'm pleased to report this was not in the same league and was actually cooling to our fiery tongues.
Yum nhaam - Northern sour sausage salad. The sausage was slightly lost in amongst the big flavours of the lime, chilli and red onion. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps we had ordered one too many salads.
Another special of the day, clams stir-fried in a soy-like sauce. These sweet little grit-free clams were a welcome respite to our heat-blasted faces and were extremely moreish, the sweet caramel flavours melding and not masking the seafood well. Finally, stir-fried broccoli with salted fish (kar nar pla kem). Cooked till tender but crunchy, another soothing, cooling dish.
The 5 of us have pretty strong constitutions and one by one, we were all hit slowly but surely with the chilli blindness. We went down like dominoes at the table; firstly, a hush would descend over that person, beads of sweat popping out. Breathing more laboured, hands would then flap to motion more beers toward them. But strangely you don't stop eating. Like an addiction, you just keep shovelling it in, perhaps more wary of rogue chillis hidden in your pile. It recedes eventually. But its not just about the spiciness; the flavours of each dish were pronounced and well balanced. Herbs used shone though the fire, complementing the meat or fish perfectly.
More than one of us wondered how many other of our friends would have been able to cope (the answer is none, I suspect) but they do ask you how hot you would like your meal and we enthusiastically replied "pretend we're proper Thais!" so you have some control over it.
4 boys and 1 girl stuffed themselves silly on the above with steamed rice, sticky rice and fire-extinguishing beers for £36 a head, with tip. We all wished each other luck and headed off home.
London W2 2DN