Make It Nu
Just like that, I reserved a table for two at Smoking Goat Shoreditch. This should be your first indication that this can’t really qualify as a review of the place: I was only able to get hold of my two-top at late notice on a busy Saturday night because I knew someone who knew Ben Chapman. I did so with no expectation – or intention – of receiving special treatment, but within seconds of sitting down Chapman himself had introduced himself, and asked us whether he should start sending over some snacks. Well, you don’t say no, do you? OK, maybe you do. We didn’t.
Most of the snacks appeared under the “drinking foods” section of the regular menu: pork skewers (nice, though as with their Denmark Street cousins, quite fatty and low-acid for an opening gambit); chicken heart skewers (also nice, though once your dinner companion has observed that “they look like a row of bellends”, that does somewhat become the dominant sensory impression); steamed oysters with roasted chilli and Kra Tin leaf (also also nice, but again with the need for something to get your tastebuds going, I’d have preferred them raw to preserve their minerally kick). But alongside a brisket sausage that tasted like Boerewors on its Gap Year and smaller, less soggy (and therefore superior) versions of the Denmark Street chilli fish sauce wings, all pretty excellent examples of what your most wankerish friend will knowledgeably, insufferably describe as aahaan kap klaem.
After this opening salvo, we ordered some stuff – a lot of stuff, too much stuff – too. Some of it was genuinely, heart-stoppingly thrilling: the duck laab in particular was an extraordinary dish, the sort of balancing act – heat, sweetness, acidity, depth – that is the hallmark of a kitchen that absolutely knows what it’s doing. Also phenomenal, with its echoes of late-night saucer-eyed jet-lagged nasi goreng in Kuala Lumpur, was the lardo-fried rice, until we rendered it Dead-Sea-salty by drowning it in its accompanying dish of fish sauce (absolutely on us, despite the guilty party’s protest that the restaurant was to blame, and his actions weren’t the equivalent of covering your chips in two tablespoons of Saxo).
In a review filed fairly soon after the place opened, Fay Maschler outlined a couple of areas – teething problems – that the team might want to fix if the place were to really begin to swing. Most of them seem to have been ironed out: service was warm and attentive and impressively speedy – no minor consideration when that laab has you screaming out for another icy pilsner – and everything that should have been hot arrived so. But it’s hard to disagree with her lack of love for the goat shoulder massaman: the cut didn’t seem to have responded especially happy to its braise, with a fairly meh dried-out texture; the sauce – with its peanuts and fruity toasted chillies – spoke more of Oaxacan mole than the Muslim influence that (probably) gives it its name; this may be a deliberate / authentic Thai lots-of-different-flavours-and-textures-in-one-meal thing, but I also found it verging on bland. And at just £13.50, it’s also ridiculously big as a portion – enough to feed two on its own – which feels like an odd gripe and perhaps is one, but is the same complaint I’d make about a superlative dtom yam soup big enough to serve as a starter for four.
All of which would add up, in a normal review, to a positive but ultimately slightly mixed verdict: when it’s good (the laab, the fried rice, the dtom yam) it’s very good; when it’s less good (the curry in particular) it’s enough to make you dial things down from a rave to more considered praise.
Which is where I’d leave it, were it not for those freebie snacks, and two other little melamine plates that Chapman brought over. The first contained some slices of smoked pork jowl, wobbling with fat, and covered with a red nam jim. The Jim sitting opposite me – yes, restaurateur and famed soup-haver James Ramsden! – and I each took a bite. We instantly agreed it was too fatty, not for us. We then fell upon it, devouring the rest of the dish in gruesomely excessive, carnal fashion: a fantasy of licked fingers and cooling sips of beer and dripping chins (yes, very funny, what a pair of dripping chins in the first place). The nam jim was genuinely perfect – without its acidity and sweetness, all that pork fat would have been unpalatable. With it, it was lightened, became just one note among many rather than – as with those skewers first up – the dominant force.
The second dish was a crab that Chapman, after a cursory inquest as to whether we were OK with raw crab – not something I’ve been asked before; yes, I guess? – proceeded expertly to carve up – in the baller-est baller chef move possible, with a spoon – in front of us. It was a velvet crab, he told us – you get them off the coast here, but the pots most people use are too big, and the velvets just slip through the netting. So he’d gone down there and asked people to start catching them, because the flavour – the meat’s quite hard to get at, but if you just suck at it, just there – is incredible, packs this amazing sweetness; it’s why he wants to use them here instead of prawns, because they’re not native.
I mean, that’s a lot to process as you watch a dude break a dead crustacean down in front of you (wait: prawns aren’t native?). But he was right: the meat was incredibly sweet (quite like raw prawn, actually); the meat was pretty damn hard to get at, such that any decent mouthful necessarily involved spitting out microshards of shell like Ace Ventura eating sunflower seeds.
For me, these two dishes say everything about Smoking Goat, and Ben Chapman. At one end, the simple beauty of his projects when they’re at their peak: incredible produce, beautifully balanced flavours, the two working together to transport you to a higher plane of being. At the other, the sheer insanity of the man and his ambition and his belief. To go to fishermen and tell them that he wanted this specific type of crab – traditionally not caught at all, or discarded straight away – and to persuade them to catch them for him. To take it, and serve it basically still raw, with boyish enthusiasm and passion and interest in what you make of it. And for that thing to be amazing, but also kind of inaccessible, kind of difficult to appreciate in its fullness.
That’s what’s so exciting about Smoking Goat, and so frustrating, and so wonderful because it’s both: Chapman could knock out fish sauce wings and dtom yam without borderline inedible but supremely sweet velvet crab for the rest of his life and do very well out of it, thank you very much. But he wants more, and if in striving for more he introduces things that don’t quite work, that challenge you a little – well, then, that’s just the price you pay.
It’s deeply admirable. It’s also, arguably, an insane way to run a restaurant. But I’m very grateful that someone is doing it, is willing to push us as diners out of a comfort zone, and the truly heartening thing is that people seem to enjoy it (the place was buzzing, absolutely packed). Plenty has been written – some of it by me – about the ever-so-slightly problematic prospect of a farang cooking Thai food in the UK. Which, agree (especially the stuff I wrote!). But if you are going to do it – and be conscious of a privilege that means that, compared to an immigrant Thai chef / restaurateur, you probably have better access to investment capital and PR and all sorts of other helpful connections – then at least you should do it well, and with ambition, and with a desire to push the envelope.
And in that regard at least, Smoking Goat Shoreditch is an unqualified success.