The ins and outs of Thai food in London

Kolae grill

You've really got to be there to enjoy this cuisine; don't take it away. Above, the kitchen at Kolae.

It should have been a glorious weekend in Paris culminating in JR receiving her Lifetime Achievement Award from the Institute of Masters of Wine. One lunch was booked at the Japanese/French Le Servan in the 11th and two dinners, one at the Michel Bras restaurant in the Bourse de Commerce and a return trip to enjoy Romain Roudeau’s cooking at Juveniles, both in the first arrondissement.

But then double pneumonia intervened and all travel plans were off, as are all trips to restaurants at the moment while Jancis’s appetite stalled at just above the zero marker. There were a few requests from the sickbed – for freshly squeezed orange juice, for example – but very little of a more solid nature.

Then the first stirrings: ‘something Thai’, she murmured. With some enthusiasm when we realised that our favourite local Thai restaurant, Supawan on the Caledonian Road, was on Deliveroo. A reading of their menu on the internet brought a smile to her face and soon afterwards I placed an order: for meiang Phuket (pureed prawn and coconut topped with lime and palm sugar); the prawn pad thai pictured below (too expensive considering the prawns were the least exciting aspect, though it did reheat well); a gai yang gorlea (rather boring curried chicken skewers); and yum hoa plee (a well-dressed, piquant salad of banana flowers topped with prawns) – all of which came to £70 including tip.

takeaway pad thai

It arrived in four takeaway containers. As I opened them, I thought of an article written by the American food writer Paul Levy, who has lived in England for many years. Levy was prolific at one stage and with his colleague, the late Ann Barr, created the term ‘foodie’. Together in 1984 they wrote the hugely popular Official Foodie Handbook.

In this article Levy observed the British obsession with takeaway Chinese food, a style of cooking Levy enjoyed at first hand when he was one of the first Western food writers to tour China in the early 1980s. What annoyed Levy was this: that by ordering Chinese food as a takeaway we were bound to be disappointed since the cartons the food was delivered in did nothing to enhance either the aromas or its visual appeal. By being squashed into such anodyne packing, the food lost a great deal of its innate charm.

Thai is not Chinese but in general, in the 40 years that have elapsed since Levy wrote this article, little has improved in this respect. The packaging used may be a little smarter – it is usually of course entirely recyclable, which is a huge bonus – but it still reduces the available pleasure. Deliveroo, Just Eat and all the restaurants which supply them would stand to benefit from a huge improvement in their presentation of takeaway food. As would all their customers.

To really enjoy Thai food you have to eat it sur place – preferably on a Thai beach of course such as the Krabi one my nephew and his girlfriend have just returned from (see below).

Jamie and Larissa on a Thai beach

But today Londoners can choose from a growing number of exciting restaurants serving Thai food. The past decade has seen an explosion in the number of places serving exciting Thai food, led by Smoking Goat in Shoreditch, Kiln in Soho, Speedboat Bar round the corner in Rupert Street, Som Saa in Spitalfields and its new sibling, Kolae in Borough Market which the Som Saa founders, Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver, opened next door to Neal’s Yard Dairy in November 2023.

Thailand has acted like a magnet for many over the past couple of decades – a hotter, more exotic version of France, Italy and Spain to an older generation – whose initial attractions may be the sun and the sea but whose vast culinary range quickly becomes a major draw. The word kolae denotes a distinctive southern Thai cooking technique that involves coating the main ingredients in a coconut marinade and then grilling them over an open flame.

The interior of Kolae, originally a railway arch, has the open grill as the main feature. There is a bar immediately on the right with a counter and stools; tables down the left, with more upstairs, and then a large open kitchen beyond. The standard staff attire is a brown Kolae T-shirt, tattoos optional. I was sat with extremely good views of all the action as well as within easy distance of the principal source of some loud banging, the gas-fired woks being violently shaken across the open grill from which flames arose occasionally.

I was immediately presented with a bottle of water that was to prove invaluable. The menu and wine list, both headed February, were short, characterful and easy to read. There were three small plates, half a dozen larger ones and five listed as ‘on the side’. I was about to order the pepper curry of grilled chicken and Thai aubergines when I noticed the special, mackerel with an orange nahm jim, a common Thai dipping sauce of lime juice, coriander and lots of diced Thai peppers. I ordered this, a dish of kale-and-herb fritters with fermented chilli and cashew nuts and a dish of new-season Thai hom mali rice, aka jasmine rice.

While I waited, and watched, I also studied their wine, list which has obviously been put together with considerable thought: over 20 wines, all available by the glass, all fascinating. There were four sparkling, but no champagne; eight whites including a German and a Grüner Veltliner; three rosés; two skin-contact whites and half a dozen reds including a Pinot Noir from Australia’s Mornington Peninsula as well as a Domaine de Lastours from Corbières in France. In the end I chose a glass of the warming 2021 Kratošija from Tikveš in North Macedonia (£6.45).

Kolae fritter

My food began to arrive as I watched my mackerel being carefully turned on the grill opposite me. The chewy fritters spiced by fermented chilli and cashew nuts were excellent and original, topped with a generous helping of red chillis – seen above with the lone diner’s reading material. The rice was usefully soothing.

Then the mackerel arrived; its skin burnt and ridged by the grill, having been butterflied beforehand. This fish happens to be a distinct favourite of mine – I love its oily flesh and the thought that it may be benefiting my brain – and here it was expertly grilled and ready to be eaten with great pleasure, minus the tail.

Kolae mackerel

All of the dishes managed to convey that combination of sweetness and heat which I find a distinctive characteristic of Thai cooking.

I finished with pandan sticky rice (to which I am also addicted) with coconut sorbet, peanuts and slices of young coconut, their only dessert – an area that I believe the kitchen could develop. My bill of £45.86 included extremely friendly service.

I left the warmth of Thailand for a very London scene: Borough Market was teeming with people; it was raining; and the potholed streets were full of rainwater.

Kolae 6 Park Street, London SE1 9AB

Supawan 38 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DT; tel: +44 (0)20 7278 2888

Every Saturday, Nick writes about restaurants. To stay abreast of his reviews, sign up for our weekly newsletter