Wednesday 2 November 2011

The Heron - Fire in the Depths of London

One of my most distinct memories as a child was sitting in a beach hut on the island of Bohol, in the Philippines, slurping on a sour, broth-like soup. I came across what I thought was a green bean and carried on merrily munching away. There it was. That initial tingle that tells you its a chilli, the panic rising in your throat, and then the full force, lighting your very saliva into flames, rendering you speechless and spluttering. Or, like me, running around the restaurant screaming, much to the amusement of the restaurant staff. My dad, quite the chilli nut himself, scoffed and had a taste of the spat-out offender. He went a deep shade of crimson.

It was tonight in the brightly lit, garishly furnished basement of The Heron, an old man's pub near Paddington, that a dish consisting of minced duck (laab ped, opening photo) that almost did took me back to being 6 again. I managed to hold it together though and instead became light-headed and giddy, gently panicking within and sucking the air through gritted teeth like a woman in labour.

The Heron is like no other Thai restaurant I've experienced in London. It's situated opposite a ropey-looking estate, and upstairs serves an English menu of Thai food, while the basement has an entirely different menu only in Thai. Large plasma screens adorn the walls for their customers to do some karaoke pre, mid or after their meal. While eating if I'd shut my eyes it would've taken me right back to Bangkok street stalls; none of this dumbed-down guff that other London restaurants peddle.

Luckily for us, The Skinny Bib has been kind enough to translate the menu in full, though when we were there our lovely waitress was more than happy to take us through the menu. I went for things you don't often see in other Thai restaurants so with that caveat this is what we had.

Cashew nut salad, while we waited for our tardy friend. Tossed together and eaten with a spoon, I made sure to avoid the red birds eye chillis. They are mothers. It was still spicy, and tiny little pieces of lime were chopped with it to flavour every mouthful.

This was a special of the day, from the board in the restaurant. Pork hock tom yum soup; served bubbling in a pot, this was intensely flavoured with lemongrass and was pleasingly tangy. Wibbly wobbly bits of pork lent great depth to it.

Yum pla duk fuu - dry catfish salad. The catfish was almost dehydrated to a floss and once doused with the sweet-spicy-sour sauce it made a great mouthful to have a long chew on with celery leaves adding freshness.

Kaeng som goong cha om tod kai - orange curry with prawns and cha om omelette. This came out with squares of omelette made with cha om, a medicinal, slightly astringent-tasting herb inside. I've never had orange curry and it was thin and soup like, no coconut milk and was surprisingly mild and sweet.

Kai yiew mar kra pow krob - minced pork and century egg. This was one of my favourites; the black, gooey egg quarters were fried so that they had a crispy coating. Minced pork on top with stir-fried basil leaves were doused in a sweet sauce. One of only three mild dishes of the evening, this went really well with rice.

Som tam Thai + poo (stop sniggering at the back) - Papaya salad with peanuts and salted crab. The shredded green papaya is pounded with lime juice, chillis and peanuts. Salted crab is pounded with it for seasoning and a mild fishy flavour. This was fiery, as I'm accustomed to.

Tam taeng poo + pla rah - cucumber salad with fermented fish essence. I ordered a dish at Nahm in Bangkok which contained fermented fish and it was so funky I could barely even look at it. I'm pleased to report this was not in the same league and was actually cooling to our fiery tongues.

Yum nhaam - Northern sour sausage salad. The sausage was slightly lost in amongst the big flavours of the lime, chilli and red onion. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps we had ordered one too many salads.

Another special of the day, clams stir-fried in a soy-like sauce. These sweet little grit-free clams were a welcome respite to our heat-blasted faces and were extremely moreish, the sweet caramel flavours melding and not masking the seafood well. Finally, stir-fried broccoli with salted fish (kar nar pla kem). Cooked till tender but crunchy, another soothing, cooling dish.

The 5 of us have pretty strong constitutions and one by one, we were all hit slowly but surely with the chilli blindness. We went down like dominoes at the table; firstly, a hush would descend over that person, beads of sweat popping out. Breathing more laboured, hands would then flap to motion more beers toward them. But strangely you don't stop eating. Like an addiction, you just keep shovelling it in, perhaps more wary of rogue chillis hidden in your pile. It recedes eventually. But its not just about the spiciness; the flavours of each dish were pronounced and well balanced. Herbs used shone though the fire, complementing the meat or fish perfectly.

More than one of us wondered how many other of our friends would have been able to cope (the answer is none, I suspect) but they do ask you how hot you would like your meal and we enthusiastically replied "pretend we're proper Thais!" so you have some control over it.

4 boys and 1 girl stuffed themselves silly on the above with steamed rice, sticky rice and fire-extinguishing beers for £36 a head, with tip. We all wished each other luck and headed off home.

The Heron

Norfolk Crescent
London W2 2DN
020 7724 8463 (We didn't bother booking but by 8pm on a Wednesday it was packed, mainly full of young Thais.)


Ute@hungryinLondon said...

I love The Heron, reminds me to go back soon. beautiful write up that makes me crave chili at 6:30 in the morning.

Gin and Crumpets said...

That looks totally amazing.

Helen said...

I'm very sad I couldn't make it but, but hang on..what was that? Ah it was my guts doing a little grumble of smug.

PDH said...

Sounds delicious, not sure I could handle the aftermath if you lot were struggling!

Miss Cay said...

Bloody hell, this looks amazing. Terrifying, but amazing. I have a pretty strong constitution when it comes to chillies (I can happily munch away on a jar of pickled jalapenos with no ill effects whatsoever), and this is making me crave that sizzle and pop of spice on my tongue.

Sharmila said...

I love this place. Some of the best Thai food I've had in London, and yes, properly, properly spicy.

Sadly I didn't partake in any Thai karaoke. I was tempted though.

Tasting Pages said...

Would love a plate of the papaya and cucumber salads right about now. How are you feeling the day after?

SB said...

Hi Lizzie,

Thank you for linking me in and glad to hear that you embraced the heat. I usually can't go all THAT way Thai >_<

PS As you are not too far off from Heron, you might want to try their lunch menu, mainly usual Thai street dishes that are rare in the UK x

Hollow Legs said...

Ute - Thanks! I love a bit of breakfast chilli too.

G&C - it was. Oof.

helen - GURGLE! Sorry, that's just my guts.

Pavel - Yes, the aftermath was... a struggle.

Miss Cay - You should definitely go.

Tasting pages - They were delicious. The day after is best left forgotton...

SB - Gosh! I think perhaps I'll take your lead, as euphoric as it was.

The Grubworm said...

They do dried fish!? I haven't had that for years (it was a Thai beach-side restaurant and the dish was so hot that merely sniffing it brought me out in a sweat).

The Heron sounds ace - I love the fact that they don't dumb down the flavours - even if they are at hallucination-inducing strength. It is, as you rightly point out, all part of the fun. That gritting of the teeth, the heavy breathing the downing of beer ... and the continued scoffing of scud-power peppers.

I wonder if they do Thai style curry breakfasts...

Hollow Legs said...

Grubworm - strangely the dried fish was one of the milder dishes. You must visit, I think you'd love it.

mycookinghut said...

Looks yummy!!

Greedy Diva said...

Sounds fantastic - these sorts of places are far too rare in London.

Gina (gi_nav) said...

OMG, this looks and sounds amazing! I must try, though I'd certainly need Perm to guide me through the menu ;-)