London is one of those European cities blessed with a diverse and authentic culinary scene. It somewhat offsets the poor — and often undeserved — reputation of English food, enabling the British capital to retain its position as a world-class city from a foodie’s point of view.
The city is already jammed with Chinese restaurants that serve equally good roast duck and dim sum and Japanese eateries offering menus that even the most season global traveler would approve of.
The arrival of authentic Thai food is a relatively new development over the last decade. These newcomers are serving dishes that were once deemed too challenging for Westerners to understand, or too spicy for them to appreciate, or that require fresh herbs and produce that are rarely available outside of Thailand.
Food critics already love the in-your-face, behind-the-counter cooking experience at Kiln Soho; the roaster of regional dishes offered at Som Saa in East London’s Spitalfields, and the humble yet heartwarming noodle soups at The Great Thai right next to the British Broadcasting Corp. headquarters near Oxford Circus.
Plaza Khao Gaeng on the mezzanine level of Arcade Center Point on top of the Tottenham Court Road tube station, and Speedboat Bar in the quieter part of Chinatown are two of the latest entrants in the rise of authentic Thai food in London.
Plaza Khao Gaeng, which means “curry over rice” in Thai, specializes in Southern Thai regional dishes and was awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand earlier this year. Speedboat Bar offers classic dishes from Bangkok’s Chinatown and occupies the former spot of Xu on Rupert Street, a well-received Taiwanese fine dining concept introduced by the founders of Bao.
Both of them were founded by Luke Farrell and backed by JKS Group, a restaurant group run by the Sethi siblings — Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina — that owns around 30 branded restaurants in London, including Bao, Kitchen Table, Gymkhana, Hoppers and Arcade Center Point. With JKS Group, Farrell also runs Bebek! Bebek!, a street food kitchen inspired by the night markets of Indonesia at Arcade Center Point.
Farrell says keeping the cuisine focused on a particular area is what makes Plaza stand out. Southern Thai food also happens to be the most challenging to prepare as it’s the most herb-intensive cuisine among the Thai repertoire and requires fresh coconut milk and coconut cream in the cooking.
“There is coastline on either side [of that area of the country]. There are rich jungles within. That’s why that cuisine hadn’t been represented in London before. And not only that, a lot of the Thai people in London are not from southern Thailand. They are mostly from the north or Bangkok. I think it’s safe to say that Plaza is the only southern Thai restaurant in London,” he says.
For example, you won’t see pad Thai on Plaza’s menu because it’s “quite a modern street food dish,” according to Farrell, but you might find Gaeng Gati Gai, a version of yellow curry made with herbs, vegetables, and paste from the south of Thailand.
It would taste vastly different from the store-bought paste, as the ingredients are mostly grown in Farrell’s tropical greenhouses in Ryewater, Dorset. His lepidopterist father owns a butterfly farm there.
The chef says he used to supply herbs and vegetables for some of London’s top Thai restaurants, but now all go to his two restaurants, as the output barely keeps up with the demand. Farrell adds that a new greenhouse is being built so that he can expand the menu with consistent and fresh new ingredients in the future.
Other must-haves on the Plaza menu include Khao Yam, puffed rice salad with fish sauce and vegetables; Gaeng Som, sour seafood curry; Khua Kling Gai, dry wok-fried chicken with chilis, long pepper and wild galangal, and Gung Pad Sator Sai Gapi, tiger prawns with stinky beans, shrimp paste and chilis. All of them pair well with a big bowl of new season jasmine rice with a fried egg on the side.
It’s obvious that Farrell, who used to spend a lot of time in Thailand and Malaysia eating his way and preserving seeds of local plants, isn’t a fan of fusion cuisine, a cooking concept that many Michelin-starred chefs adore.
“Replication is key, and I think it’s far more respectful to Thai cuisine and culture to deliver it exactly as it is in the country of origin. One of the most important things that the head chef and the teams are very well aware of is whether you would find that dish in Thailand. If the answer is no, that doesn’t go on the menu. Simple as that,” he says.
“I don’t have time for Western chefs putting their mark on Thai food. It would be disrespectful for me to start changing and meddling with dishes that I’ve learned from people in Thailand. The reason you find some chefs moving things around — this is through a Western lens obviously — is that it’s actually easier to do Thai food like that. Getting ingredients that are available here is easier than flying ingredients in from Thailand or indeed growing them, as I do,” he adds.
In fact, Farrell was speaking to WWD Weekend from the train station. He had been to the greenhouse in the morning picking herbs for the restaurants. He also hired a head gardener to take care of plants and manage the harvest and shipment every day.
He adds that all plants are grown in a special jungle soil mix that aims to replicate as closely as possible that found in tropical Thailand.
“We’re much closer to the true taste of Thailand from these ingredients than a lot of ingredients that are flown in, especially the herbs. They lose their punch and fragrance on the long journey,” Farrell says.
Speedboat Bar, on the other hand, is set up as a late-night destination with an extensive drinks menu, a central bar, and a pool table, as well as Chinese food-inspired Thai classics cooked in the traditional way one sees in the streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
One can find familiar dishes, such as sweetcorn and salted egg papaya salad; minced beef with holy basil, and drunkard’s seafood and beef noodles. The place also serves dishes that have less visibility outside of Thailand, such as tom yam mama noodles with squid, prawns, and thick slices of crispy pork belly, beef tongue and tendon curry, and soy-cured pork with chili and mint.
With the upsurge in authentic restaurants offering the cuisine, Luke believes that London now is the best place to have Thai food in Europe.
“I think we don’t have these hang-ups about our own cuisine that other countries may have. For a very long time the cuisine in the U.K. was pretty terrible, but there is a culture of experimenting with other cuisines and people are addicted to chili,” he says. “And if you go to places like France, Italy or Spain, where some restaurants have existed for over 100 years with very strong culinary traditions, bringing in something else to other countries is not as favored.”