My sister’s birthday is a joyous occasion for both her and my little bro. She gets to indulge in her three favourite things: planning, partying and hair colour anxiety. He, on the other hand, can give the student loan a rest and rely on a couple of meals courtesy of the incoming food tourist. As for me, I can look forward to a weekend of counselling, hangovers, heavy spending and excellent food. It’s the best.
As the only sibling living outside of the capital, I feel keenly the urge to fit as much into the little time I spend down there as possible. If this involves a one-and-a-half-hour round trip treasure hunt to taste a dumpling that we spied on Instagram, then so be it. A man must occasionally suffer (or, in this instance, travel to Hackney) for his art. I do, however, draw the line at joining the hours-long queue outside the temple of vegan fried chicken. Because that is utter madness.
The first of many hazy nights to come was spent at Quo Vadis. It was the usual, if particularly classy, affair; nothing out of the ordinary other than a charming Jeremy Lee thinking that I was staring at him and Jay Rayner not noticing me staring at him; and then back to the martinis.
Waking up the next morning, hangover firmly wedged between the temples, we decided to embark on our culinary adventures:
Carbs were always going to be required. Being the spoilt, pretend Italian native that I am, I habitually avoid Italian restaurants in England for fear of disappointment (or, maybe, enjoyment), but the simplicity of the offering at Padella struck a reassuring chord. Plus, the photos of the pici cacio e pepe wriggling around the foodieverse looked frickin delicious.
Buddying up the star performer with spaghetti with Dorset crab, and fettuccini with chicken livers, we had ourselves a modest lunch for two. The crab was pleasant, a soulless word that I overuse and, therefore, tells you everything you need to know about it. But the excessive lemon overwhelming the flavour of sweet shellfish was the meal’s only failing. The chicken livers were a success; delicate, meaty, and devoid of the metallic tang that can sometimes infiltrate offal. The cacio e pepe was, as expected, wonderful. If ever you need proof that simplicity executed to perfection is the highest form of cooking, it can be found here, in the thick, starchy, cheesy, peppery depths of this dish.
Being able to boast of pasta in cheese sauce as peak gastronomy brings me great joy. Paying £6.50 per portion for the pleasure makes the experience almost compulsory.
Is there anything better than a market? No. There isn’t. Post Padella, we took the opportunity to stroll around Borough Market and I finally understood the attraction of window shopping. To gaze upon rows of romantically wonky squashes and picture the endless possibilities they represent for more capable chefs than myself, only to then be drawn to a basket of tomatoes, or mushrooms, or artichokes and repeat the exercise is my idea of a good time. I imagine that I’m pretty poor company at a market.
Having had such a wild time at Borough Market, we took little persuading to go in search of another market the following morning. Cue the trip to Hackney. As you may know, dumplings are totally the hottest snack in town right now, so when Dumpling Shack posted an inviting snap of a Shengjian Bao on their Instagram feed, we took one look out of the window at the ongoing downpour and put on our coats.
Shengjian Bao have been popping up all over the place recently (I’ve seen at least two different places offering them). They’re basically the lovechild of a soup dumpling and a minced pork gyoza. The trick is to bite a hole in the skin, carefully drink the broth and then eat the dumpling. Naturally, I suffered horrendous burns.
Though the pain was nigh on unbearable, the beauty of the dumplings was undeniable. A crisp fried foundation, soft steamed walls, and an interior of fragrantly spiced mince swimming in a pool of molten lava. Top stuff.
Despite only ever having eaten at Smoking Goat once, about two years ago, the crispy fish sauce chicken wings left such an impression on me that it has retained its place on my restaurant recommendations list ever since. So when the same team opened Kiln as a new venture serving Thai small plates, I couldn’t very well pass up on the opportunity to visit.
I wish I could give you a detailed, dish by dish account of the meal but, unfortunately, Big Sis happened to pick out a marvellous Pinot Blanc for us; so good that we tried four bottles of it. While fine details may have been washed away, I do know that we ordered almost everything from the menu.
The table very quickly became a clay pot mosaic, strewn with lamb skewers, jungle curries, sliced Mangalitsa and spiced salads. This was not Thai food of the mild green curry variety. This was a street brawl, each course packing a concentrated burst of sour, sharp heat, each mouthful building on the last until you retreated sweating to your corner for a sip of water. The prize fighter comes in the form of the glass noodles with brown crab and Tamworth pork belly, a swirling mass of transparent strands, drenched in a salty, acidic liquor, soothed by the sweetness of the shell fish and pork; all served in exotic, ancestral earthenware. The rudimentary presentation and savagely bold foreign flavours brought to mind images of Heart of Darkness, despite the fact that I’ve never read the book and it’s set in a different continent.
Since our visit, Kiln has been named in The Dish Top 100 Restaurants, and it’s easy to see why. The downstairs dining room is small and bare, but the vibrancy of the food provides all the decoration for a party atmosphere. I’ve only been once, but I can see it sitting next to Smoking Goat on the recommendations list for a while to come.