It was particularly rainy last Friday night. The damp observation really shouldn’t have come as a surprise since it seems like it has rained every day since I arrived to this town as an exchange student a month ago. Except this night really was different. Good food doesn’t always accompany rainy nights.
Wet on the street just after having just attended a Shabbat service at one of London’s largest synagogues just off of Oxford Street, a friend and I yearned for somewhere dry. Our rain-soaked clothes scoured the streets both parallel and perpendicular. Each street seemed lined with shops and restaurants, kabob places and hookah bars. As the downpour became more torrential, however, we yearned for something warmer, something to make our stomachs forget about the misery of the outdoors.
And then we saw it. Tucked away on a side street, two words, “The Heron” flashed in the blowing rain. We walked closer, only to find it was seemingly just another pub, merely a mirage of a quintessential London street corner. Next to the broad wooden door, however, was a chalkboard sign with “Thai food downstairs” scribbled on it. We walked inside.
A single door stood at the bottom of a staircase. Inside, was what appeared to be a perfectly encapsulated relic of a restaurant. A dozen or so tables jam-packed before a modest, half-open kitchen. A karaoke machine stood in the corner. A tv framed the far wall – naturally playing the subtitled, 80s music video hits I’ve come to expect from classic Thai restaurants – especially Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”. We took our seats just as the restaurant slowly started to near full-capacity. Were we really in a pub? The walls were modern and clean, accented with subtle reds, and lit dimly which dancing flicks of flame on each table.
Our waiter came over after a bit of a delay, notifying us in broken English that the kitchen was very busy, and that we should expect to stay awhile. These were welcome words as the pitter-patter of raindrops audibly echoed from up above.
I opened the menu to see innumerable characters of the Thai alphabet dancing over multicolored paneling. Fortunately, each unrecognizable string of letters was accompanied by short English descriptions. Chef’s selections started it off, followed by appetizers, and then endless combinations of noodle and rice dishes.
An exotic and unafraid eater, I was sinisterly tempted by the deep fried pig intestines or the marinated fried duck tongues. Yet, I resolved to stave off these yearnings, and choose a seemingly heartier, more classic dish – fried century egg with pork and crispy basil. In case you’re not familiar, a century egg is a common dish to Asian – especially Chinese cuisine – whereby an egg is traditionally encased in clay, salt, and a host of other elements for many weeks or months at a time. Once removed from its encasement, the egg takes on a unique color and texture – leaving it to sometimes be referred to as a “hundred year egg”. The yolk, creamy, takes on a hue of dark greens and blacks while the whites turn to an amber agar-agar, akin to jello. It can be seen in the following image which I tried to show in the dim lighting:
The egg was both creamy and dense, with light breading around the outside from the frying process. It had a hint of a fermented and sulfuric taste, but mostly served as a luscious texture and vehicle for the sauce, a sweet and savory broth which had a depth and complexity to it. The pork, chopped small and cooked well, added to the savor. Various vegetables and greens from beans to red pepper to the crisped, charred basil provided a complimentary crunch, and a noticeable spice provided a much needed kick to the backend of the chew. The mouthfeel of the century egg itself, though, was enough for me to want this dish many times over.
Admittedly, the service was almost painfully slow, but that could be expected for a restaurant of that size during perhaps its busiest time of the week. Also the two pounds fifty for a side of sticky rice was not ideal, but it added much needed starch to the dish.
The delight in eating the aforementioned dish, however, was enough to quell any other concerns. The food and atmosphere was truly authentic, and I actually think it is among the more tasteful Thai I’ve had in quite some time.
When near Paddington and Oxford Street, especially on a rainy night, you certainly can’t go wrong in finding solace and safe haven in delectable Thai cuisine hidden in the guise of a pub basement.
Price: £10-15 per dish + side of rice.Location: Norfolk Crescent, London, W2 2DN, Paddington Matthew