The Begging Bowl in Peckham has just opened, on the site that was formerly a short-lived pizza place and before that, a fairly well regarded cafe. Tucked in the back streets of the 'posh' side of Peckham, Bellenden (stop sniggering), we visited as a group of nine to attempt to try most of the menu. No reservations taken, a small line snaked out of the restaurant; it was looking popular already, less than a week into service. Inside was packed and noisy and we squidged onto a bench to tackle the task of ordering. Happily, we managed to utter the words we all dream of - 'we'll have one of everything'. The menu is split into 'Slight Dishes £4.50', 'Light Dishes £7.50' and 'Robust Dishes £9.50', with sticky rice and steamed rice included.
Deep fried salmon with sour fruits and chilli (top picture) came from the light dishes, and for £7.50 seemed a little on the small side. Perhaps it is the plate they used, as a smaller plate might have made it seem better value. Nevertheless, it was pretty delicious - tender chunks of flaky salmon was mixed with shallots and lots of citrus and herbs, with a good chilli kick to it.
Betel leaves came 5 to a plate and was topped with nuts, palm sugar and pomelo. This was one of my favourites of the night, and I wondered whether the chap I saw buying £50's worth of betel leaves from the local Oriental supermarket last week was doing so for this dish. They were the perfect little mouthful of grassiness, sour, sweet and savoury. I had something very similar in Nahm in Bangkok except these were a little less weird.
Thai fishcakes were less favoured; their characteristic traditional bounciness that comes from pounding the fish until elastic was missing, and instead these were fluffier and with a more potatoey texture. Lime leaves were mixed in with each nugget giving them a nice fragrance though.
Coconut and galangal soup with chicken and mushrooms (so, tom kha gai?) came in a tureen and was beautifully fragrant and flavoursome, the galangal coming out strong. Tom Yum soup with prawns was less successful; it needed stronger flavours of that sour, savoury, spicy balance.
Of the robust dishes, the curry with pork shoulder and ginger impressed the most. The pork was juicy, the gravy heavily spiked with coconut. I wished for a little bit more chilli heat.
Green curry was made with rabbit instead of the ubiquitous chicken, but if I'm honest I probably wouldn't be able to tell the difference. The addition of both apple and pea aubergines were a nice touch though, and it had a pleasant nose-clearing kick. Another main I was impressed with was a grilled bream smeared with a red curry paste and served wrapped up in the banana leaves it was grilled in.
The only disappointing dish was the grilled sirloin steak served with chilli sauce, cucumber and some herbs. The beef wasn't particularly beefy and I was unsure of how to tackle it - a bite of steak and a bite of cucumber? A dunk in each sauce? Wrapped in basil? It seemed least balanced of the robust dishes and was lacking in something.
Otherwise, I was pretty impressed with The Begging Bowl. Although I could have done with some more chilli in most of the dishes, the balance of flavours so prized in Thai food was mostly there. I think they're pretty brave in eschewing the noodles of Thailand - everyone loves a pad Thai, no? - but maybe that is yet to come.
The waiting staff could have been overwhelmed by the amount of people eating but instead they were calm, sweet and friendly, and we had a good chat when they asked us for feedback on the dishes we'd had. Given it was the opening week I can only imagine it'll get better; I don't know anywhere locally that does decent Thai food so I'll definitely be back.
168 Bellenden Road