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I expected it to be hot behind the service counter at Kiln, of course I did. The restaurant is literally named after a furnace, after all. But I didn’t expect it to be quite so hot. Enormous buckets of charcoal merrily crackle not 30 centimetres from where Kiln’s fashionable young staff prepare the restaurant’s northern Thai cuisine. Chefs, dressed all in black, weave expertly along the galley-like, open kitchen, seemingly impervious to the threat of third-degree burns should they misstep and knock into one of the charcoal-filled taos [clay burners, imported from Thailand] sizzling in front of them. Facing them, at a long, steel-topped bar, sit the patrons, lined up on leather stools.
But Kiln’s staff don’t seem to mind. Or if they do, they’re not letting on. They’re a merry bunch, snacking on gingerbread men provided by a local coffee shop as they prepare for another busy evening’s service. Outside, the weather is foul. I sit down with Saad over a steaming bowl of Kiln’s bestseller. ‘We sell more clay pot noodles than anything else,’ he tells me. It’s easy to see why. With them priced at just £6.75, you’d be hard-pushed to find a better plate of food for less than a tenner anywhere in the capital.
We’re miles away from the rote pad thai of a thousand suburban Thai restaurants. Kiln’s dishes feature unfamiliar ingredients like krachi (wild ginger root), betel andmango leaves. Saad tells me about a dry jungle curry with wood pigeon he developed with Thai food master Hanuman Aspler in Doi Saket, near Chiang Mai. ‘We foraged all this stuff from his incredible garden, and created this jungle curry paste which uses the offal from the pigeon.’ To keep Kiln’s carbon footprint low, similar Thai herbs are grown for the restaurant on a farm in Dorset. The meat is also sourced from organic UK farms.
Chicken is cooked for 45 minutes on a grill above a charcoal pit until soft and gelatinous. Plump Tamworth sausages are garnished with fruity Laos chillies to cut through the richness of the meat. It’s unusual, imaginative cooking. As we chat, Saad’s team are preparing for service. In front of us, senior chef de partie Toshi Akama is tending to the glowing charcoal briquettes, repositioning them so they’ll be ready when needed. Akama is Kiln’s literal firestarter, and you can tell: his arms are covered in painful looking burns. (He catches me looking and hurriedly tells me that he doesn’t mind. ‘It’s part of the job!’ he says with a smile.)
We gather for the 4.30pm staff briefing, ahead of this evening’s service. ‘It’s rainy tonight,’ says assistant general manager Owen Davies, ‘so let’s have some space for umbrellas.’ Akama brings over the beef wing rib, finely sliced, the inner meat perfectly pink. Saad explains that there will be four wing ribs on the menu, each suitable for a party of four to share (or two people, if they’re really hungry). ‘Let’s taste some beef,’ he says. We pile in. Davies talks us through the wine pairings. ‘This is a trebbiano from Tuscany,’ he explains. ‘It’s a very high contact wine. It’s had three months’ skin contact.’ It’s deliciously crisp and dry. I could drink an entire bottle.
Feeding people well, making them feel at home. It sounds simple, but so many restaurants get it wrong. Kiln makes it look effortless.
As I’m leaving, a mother and daughter are arriving, shaking out their umbrellas. They look at the bar, quizzically. Is this it? Relax, I want to say. You’re in very good hands.