london 1020


Borough, SE1

Navigating Borough Market on a weekend requires the agility of an Olympic gymnast and the patience of a saint. In dreary February, surrounded by the puffer-coated masses, and the collective despondency that the damp winter months bring, it takes more than divine intervention to lure me away from the comforting arms of Barrafina or Ginger Pig. However, Kolae is a new opening from the founders of Som Saa, hoping to fill a gap in the market; apart from a few exceptions, Thai places in London have so far either offered questionable street food with a disappointing Anglo-spin or are high-end establishments with overly complex menus at sky-high prices. And if not for this, then at least as an antidote to the places next door that charge £19 for a glass of wine, or have the architectural charm of a catacomb (Borough Yards, I’m looking at you), Kolae should absolutely stand a chance.

Having arrived eerily on time, we were neither greeted nor offered the table that had been booked. Instead, we were advised to sit outside in the cold and have a drink. Just as we had done so, we were invited back in and ensconced ourselves at our designated table. The dimmed lights, exposed brickwork, high ceiling and music played at a courteous volume – it was all there. One could have mistaken this décor for a snazzy restaurant in the middle of Manhattan; this in no way should stand in the way of showcasing the authenticity of the cuisine, so we eagerly waited (and waited) for someone to take our order.

Now, I am all for the benefit of the doubt. Maybe their service is just experiencing teething problems, and I sincerely wish them a speedy recovery. Perhaps they were just too busy with all the other diners who were pleasantly shocked by the incredibly clever selection of wines, and each of them wished to exchange words with the sommelier?

Even with Vinoteca and Bedales of Borough right next to Kolae, nowhere would I find a good, succinct list featuring a smoky Malagousia from Greece, a zippy Vinho Verde from Portugal and then an Austrian, reliably fresh Grüner Veltliner. So just like I tend to choose my getaway options, we attempted to get a bottle of those. But like many things in life, this idea was simply too good to be true. None of these were available, which really should not happen considering the brevity of the wine list, but I was quickly pacified with a £5 prickly mango martini, and then accepted a passable bottle of Macabeo.

Considering Kolae is the style of cooking where marinating ingredients in a coconut-based paste is followed by grilling, the chicken skewers surprisingly seemed as if they had been marinated for 15 minutes as suggested by a Buzzfeed recipe. The skewers were enormous (though the bamboo stick did a good job of withstanding the sheer weight of the meat), and seemed more like a compensatory gesture for a lazy marinade that barely had time to exchange pleasantries with the chicken. The portion size did not quite make up for this lack of flavours, making one question the very purpose of skewers. If I wanted a gargantuan portion of poultry on a stick, I’d have popped next door to The Real Greek.

Fried prawn heads with turmeric and garlic were neat, puffy and delicate, delivering the desired texture. Bathing the plump prawns in a golden hue, turmeric imparted a subtle earthiness and softened the alliaceous sharpness.

Kale and herb fritters with fermented chilli and cashew nuts presented as billowy, blustery leaves, freshly defeated in a fryer, sitting on a bed of chilli and cashew nuts. It truly was one of the dishes I will remember for a very, very long time. Tangy, rich and nutty, the heat cut through the fat brilliantly.

Next was the Kua kling curry of minced venison, cumin leaf and lemongrass, which, in contrast, was the most searing, scathing food that has ever gone past my lips and kept my palate taut for a good minute, though again, this is nothing that could not have been corrected with a 1 in 10 serial dilution with Greek yoghurt. However, even if I had been threatened with another skewer, I could not have vouched for any discernible taste in this dish. Abandoned in the crossfire of these vicissitudes of inviting scent, sizzling ingredients, and off-putting heat is the question as to why such an extreme dish had to be on the menu at all. This clearly observable reaction to the dish invited the swift arrival of pickled vegetables: the rainbow of onions, red cabbage and cucumbers was a lovely touch. It was a much-needed recalibration of our tastebuds, a bit like Balkan cuisine meets Southeast Asia, and it reminded me of my limited understanding of what spice levels truly mean (for example, ‘medium’ often stands for inedible).

Is Kolae a bit clever? Yes. For a market that is so hungry for innovation and ‘showcasing’ (which is often the excuse for using a single weird, expensive ingredient to conceal the other sub-par components of the dish), but also more recently ‘comfort’, Kolae attempts to combine several things into one. Sadly, it comes together as less than the sum of its parts. So was anything worth the hype? Not really. Much like a half-hearted Aperol Spritz on a tepid summer’s day — its fizz falling ever so slightly flat, the warm colour more a suggestion than a commitment — I sipped through the martini only to find myself pondering if I believed in second chances. Kolae had opened to a chorus of accolades that, upon our arrival, only echoed a lingering sentiment of a passable yet (save for the kale and herb fritters) relatively ordinary encounter.

Food & Drink36
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6 Park Street

March 2024


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