On a wet and blustering evening way back in October, I was made acutely aware of my once-infallible appetite failing me. It can only be blamed on age, and the dastardly thing has caught up with me; it has gripped me in its inescapable, vice-like clutches. You see, I ate two dinners, back to back, and it was really very difficult.
The evening was organised by the owners of both joints in mention to preview their openings and we started off at Smoking Goat on Denmark Street, a tiny shoebox of a place that serves Thai barbecue. It was dark and noisy, low-wattage bulbs swinging all over tha place, smoky and pungent. I ate the best damn crab I've ever had, crunching through the shell with utensils, viscera in my hair, curry sauce all over my manic grin as I mopped up the sauce. A record player spun vinyl, and the house water was flavoured with lime leaves. Cocktails were shaken, craft beers on tap, Riesling was poured; this was not your typical Thai restaurant. Huge chicken wings were in abundance, and what's that going past? Oh yes, slabs of lamb ribs, smoked and doused in a fermented shrimp paste and palm sugar, sweet and sticky and resplendent. My stomach pleaded leniency with me for what we had ahead of us, but my greed wouldn't listen. Onwards we went to Som Saa in Hackney (more on that later). Miraculously a second wind blew past me, and I ate another dinner, unable again to control the insatiable demand of my tastebuds.
The end wasn't pretty. Unable to cope with being in public any longer, finding it difficult to breathe, even, I rolled into a taxi home, groaning all the way, like the over-privileged turd I am.
I've been impatiently drumming my fingers, waiting to go back ever since. Since Smoking Goat is nearer my office, it's the easier one to visit and we went along at lunchtime, which is the only way you'd be able to get a decent photo without making your mates hold up an iPhone light like some sort of cringe-inducing wanker. They serve a small menu, both afternoon and evening, and between the four of us we were able to get almost the whole menu. Roasted scallops in the shell (opening photo) were in a sparky, spicy, lime-heavy dressing and were the perfect side of roasted. Creamy within and joy! With the coral still attached. One might think those ballsy flavours would overshadow, but they complement the sweetness of the shellfish and we slurped the remnants of the juice from the shells. Roasted aubergine salad, silken and smoky (above) with mint leaves and ground toasted rice for crunch, positively screams 'WOOD!' at you. In, er, the barbecue sense.
A little gift on the house of this pomelo salad set our world (and mouths) on fire. On the specials board at £3.50, it was a feisty little number; I loved the depth of the dried chillis versus the sharpness of the pomelo (essentially a giant grapefruit). We'd done two salads now, and both were completely different to each other - sometimes at The Begging Bowl (where head chef Seb Holmes used to work) I find that the salads can be a bit similar in their dressings, which I put down to my careless ordering, but here each has a defined and individual flavour.
Fish sauce chicken wings were giant - though, note there are three in a serving. Two of us had to share one. Humpf. But something magical has been done to these, as they have the crispest coating I've encountered on such a wing, and the sauce is almost on the verge of too salty, but saved by what can only be an incredible amount of sugar so they're actually beautifully balanced. Groans erupted from our table. They are that good.
If you're hoping for slow-cooked, fally-aparty pork belly that flops over at the prod of your fork then this is not the place for you. The meat, while tender, had bounce, the layers of fat making it incredibly juicy and a worthwhile mouthful. Teeth are a wonderful thing, and they should be utilised. The nam jim is a roasted chilli sauce, possessing that Thai alchemy of perfect hot, sour, sweet and salty balance. It was so good I mine-swept the table for any remaining sticky rice to mop up the remainder.
So, I think you can gather that I liked Smoking Goat a lot. My initial disappointment at discovering the crab curry wasn't on the menu - they're seasonal, the selfish buggers - was pacified by the brilliance of everything else. As for downsides? There are no desserts; I'm ok with that, but I know many who wouldn't be. If you're a vegetarian you'd go hungry, but then I imagine most Thai food, with its abundance of fish sauce and dried shrimp is off-limits. We noticed an acquired perfume amongst us, mostly of wood and smoke and meat which is mainly a downside because it makes the working afternoon slightly distracting. There's no reservations, so it's likely you'll have to queue, much is the trend in this part of town. But they do have a bookable private dining room. For the four of us, with a bottle of wine and efficient and unobtrusive service we paid around £23 a head which for the level of cooking and the quality of ingredients, is great value. The new year will see me back to drumming my fingers, till I get to visit again.
7 Denmark Street
London WC2H 8LZ
No reservations. Open midday - 3pm, 5pm - midnight, Monday to Saturday