Kolae is the long-awaited sister restaurant to Som Saa, the cult east London Thai pop-up that broke the internet when chef owners Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver launched a fundraiser to find a permanent site back in 2015 (aiming to raise £550k, they had to stop taking donations after hitting £700k in three days).
Like Som Saa, Kolae serves Thai food and is based in an iconic London market (Borough, while Som Saa is in Spitalfields). Those headline points aside, Kolae is not Som Saa 2. The vibe is very different. In contrast to its cantina-like predecessor, the 80-cover Kolae is in a former coach house and has a sophisticated New York neighbourhood eatery air; all exposed brick and intimate seating, with bar seats and an open kitchen, stacked over three floors, with old time rock’n’roll playing at a tasteful background volume.
Red kabocha squash transcended its mortal trappings to be reborn as something velvety and chocolatey and minerally
Neither Dobbie nor Oliver are Thai, and there’s a lack of cultural appropriation-style kitsch here, just reverence for Thailand’s food. Even the name is purely prosaic: Kolae is the style of the cooking practised here, a form of southern Thai cuisine that revolves around marinating things in a coconut-based curry-style sauce and grilling. A running theme is slow cooking – many of the dishes are roasted for hours upon hours, including the signature dish, a grilled mussel skewer.
Imagine the best fudge you ever tasted was also the best shellfish you ever tasted, but served hot and peanutty and on a stick and only £6. Am I making that sound good? They were astonishing, but in a way so transcendent of the usual characteristics of the humble mussel it’s hard not to sound faintly mad talking about it. Remember when Gandalf comes back and he’s wearing white and riding a horse? It’s a bit like the bivalve version of that.
Almost as good: the red kabocha squash, which has similarly transcended its mortal trappings to be reborn as something velvety and chocolatey and minerally and so charged with flavour it seemed vaguely monstrous to eat more than a small morsel at a time.
If those two dishes were the clear highs, the compact but singular menu was largely a pure pleasure. Crunchy kale and herb fritters with fermented chilli and cashew nuts were a big hit, as was a pleasingly sharp, pleasingly dry sour mango salad with roasted coconut and dried fish. The only thing close to a misfire was the prawn, snake fruit and shrimp paste relish, which was so searingly hot that it effectively took my taste buds out of action while I was attempting to tackle the wild sea bass curry, which looked very nice, but honestly I’ll have to take it on faith that it tasted of anything.
Exemplifying the ‘small selection, but it’s all great’ approach, there’s literally only one dessert. Pandan sticky rice, young coconut sorbet, peanuts and jackfruit kind was hardly high concept but very effective, and a veritable playground of contrasting textures.
There’s also a compact wine list and dinky cocktail selection, again chosen with care – a coconut whiskey soda went some way to dousing the incendiary relish, while the tiny £5 pickled mango dirty martini was perfect if you’re just after a little bump of alcohol.
Happily, Kolae is certainly on the affordable side: you’ll get an interesting meal for two out of £50, and for £100 you can pretty much go nuts. It’s an immensely thoughtful restaurant, which may not bring esoteric southern Thai cookery to the actual masses, but certainly to anyone who might be interested. Opening restaurants at a rate of one every seven-and-a-half-years, a Dobbie-Oliver empire is probably not on the cards, but they’re both so good – and carve out such determined niches in the London scene – it’d be a crime if they weren’t both still around come 2030.
The vibe Feels like a hip Greenwich Village brunch establishment, but in Borough.
The food Probably the only restaurant in London with a menu dedicated to its titular southern Thai cuisine. There’s not a massive menu, but it’s pretty much all great.
The drink A compact, well-chosen list of European wines, and a small but fun cocktail list that puts Thai spins on Western classics.
Time Out tip Book downstairs if you want lively kitchen vibes, upstairs for peace and quiet.