My friend orders in perfect Thai… pity the waitress is a Filipina!
593 Leytonstone High Rd
I’m sitting at a small wooden table, in the fetid, stifling heat, utterly drenched in sweat. Seriously, it’s reached a point where jumping, fully clothed, into a swimming pool would actually dry me out. I try to stem the salty torrents with endless paper napkins, napkins with all the absorbency powers of a broken promise. They pile up before me in a white soggy mass. The air is so soupy you could slurp it with a spoon, yet it’s thick with happy chatter and the char of the wok. And that table is filled with food, a southern-style nam jim, Thai dipping sauce, heavy on the garlic and chilli. And crab, coated in a fierily paste. But this is no curry shop in the back streets of Nakhon Si Thammarat, rather Singburi in Leytonstone. I’m still a long, long way from home.
This is no curry shop in the back streets of Nakhon Si Thammarat, rather Singburi in Leytonstone
An hour and a half by Tube, then foot, to be precise, an epic trans-London adventure that takes us to the very eastern edge of town. But as Jonathan Gold, the late, great LA bard of serious eating once wrote: ‘The best choice is always the restaurant 15 minutes further than you are willing to go.’ As ever, he is right. Kay Plunkett-Hogge, born and raised in Bangkok, is already there with her husband Fred. We’d tried to get here once before but were waylaid by Quo Vadis and their £5 martini happy hour. And didn’t make it much further than Rambla, across the road.
This time, no such temptation. They’ve already nipped down to the offie for cold beers (Singburi is BYO), and I add a couple of bottles of wine. Kay, a true authority on Thai eating, has already ordered. ‘I was worried the dishes would run out,’ she smiles. I worry about such things too. If you’ve yet to buy Baan, her new cook book, you’re missing out on one of the great English language works on the subject, up there with David Thompson’s Thai Food. Anyway, she’s ordered everything in fluent Thai. Only to find out the lovely waitresses are Filipino and don’t understand a word. Hey-ho. She’ll disappear into the kitchen later, to talk shop and wok and nam and prik with the charming Thai owners.
But first, mangosteen with cucumber, mint and prawn floss. It’s a gentle dish, cool, clean and fresh, ‘a brilliant iteration of a yum/tum’, says Kay. Sure, a bit more chilli wouldn’t go amiss, but the Thai table is all about balance. Not just of the sweet, sour, hot and salty but of the fierce and mild too. Clams, a great bowlful for just over £8, have a touch more heat, and lots of garlic and basil. A quail jungle curry is decent, with fistfuls of peppercorns, and far superior to the usual ersatz slop. But this is Singburi, where standards are Thai-high. And it cries out for more salt. And the chilli’s roar.
Southern-style seafood curry is fragrant, the fresh-made paste singing of garlic, kapi (prawn paste) and galangal. Succour, of the very messiest kind
Then things get serious. Deep-fried sweetbreads with the most sensational nam jim jaew, a roasted chilli dipping sauce, thick with roasted rice powder. There’s heat and depth and fragrance and texture and pure, unbridled delight. Thai food in all its thrilling, brow-beading greatness. ‘A winner,’ says Fred. In every way. Just like the whole curried crab, a vast beast, and a steal at £16. It takes us straight back to Hua Hin. Southern-style seafood curry is equally fragrant, the fresh-made paste singing of garlic, kapi (prawn paste) and galangal. Succour, of the very messiest kind.
Even the simplest things are done with aplomb. Stir-fried morning glory with chunks of garlic and proper ‘wok breath’ is every bit the equal of those sweetbreads. And kai jeow, Thai omelette with shallots. It’s not on the menu. ‘But any decent Thai place will do it if you ask.’ They do, and it arrives wok fried and thin, the edges frazzled, a sop to any chilli excess. Singburi may not quite hit the heady heights of 101 Thai Kitchen. Kay and Fred agree. But it comes pretty damned close. Wherever you live, this is one journey well worth the hike.
About £20 per head