I do not know what to think of eating food at a bar. I have done so before in BAO Soho and the newer one in Fitzrovia, both in the latter’s upstairs and down in their basement, and it takes more from the overall dining experience than it gives. It is what’s in fashion, ‘all the noise’ as they say, and the foodies are eating it up, stuffing their faces in fact, cameras out Instagrammers a-gramming, passing judgement long before they place an order or select a suitable filter.
While I understand the desire to deviate from tradition, assuage the now easily identifiable preferences of contemporary gourmets, and waft their aromatics into the media vents that connect the world, there are certain things I would like to hold onto.
I just want to eat some good food, in my own space where I can think clearly, so I can appreciate and write something evocative about my experience when all is consolidated. I honestly do not care how long I have to wait in line, I just do not want to have to look forward to tucking my elbows in while I eat or be glared at by people pining for my seat. When I first walked up to Kiln, a restaurant almost everyone identifies as Smoking Goat’s younger sister, and saw through its windows from the corner of Brewer street, I could not help but sigh at the sight of hunched backs, over and along yet another silvery stainless-steel bar.
The restaurant is much longer than it is wide, and tight, offering just enough space for one to shimmy towards the back in single file. You’ve got glass jars of indiscernible contents lining the tops of shelves, wine bottles that do the same behind the bar, and a record player by the cash machine, spinning to affect novelty through kitsch vintage, beguiling the attention of nearly everyone sitting within eyeshot.
If, however, you are not near the stack of vinyls by the entrance then you’re probably watching with requisite awe, the workings of an open kitchen that cooks solely with primordially nurtured fire. The actual kiln after which the restaurant is named, is used to warm-up archaic looking earthen cookware, ash-festooned and with burning embers afloat. This is not something you see every day, worn woks included, but it’s probably what your grandmother from the third world knows how to use with youthful dexterity.
The Kiln servers are chirpy and relaxed despite the lunchtime busy-ness. I have seen them get ever so slightly frantic during dinner time, but it is only to be expected. Still thawing from the cold and wet walk from the Underground, I settled down by the entrance where the light of day died and the crepuscular inner lighting began, and let the lady left by the record-player tell me about how I’d probably want to order three to four dishes if I was looking for a proper meal. I thanked her for her advice and ordered five just to be sure.
What I do appreciate about Kiln is that they seem to rotate the abortive dishes off the menu. What with there being not too many items to choose from, and the prices being relatively low, customers are more likely to try more dishes and thus find that the stuff people do not tend to order ordinarily, are avoided for a reason. The skate-wing salad, a plate I’ve not seen on the menu since my last visit, was one such option. Before getting to the actual fish, that I might add, was rather well-seasoned and crisply breaded, you had to make your way through spicy lemongrass and kafir lime leaf foliage like some Thai forager, drying out your mouth and at the same time setting it on fire. It was an absolute disaster. Needless to say, you will probably never see it on the menu again.
The rest of the meal, however, was tremendous. Despite the economy of the laughably small portion of skewered lamb, the meat chewed just right, with savoury juices seeping onto your hunger-moistened palate, releasing the reminiscently satisfying aroma of cumin hitting a softened mirepoix at the bottom of a veteran stew pot. Though common, these flavours are those you live for, ones that demand pause and force reverie. The slow grilled, sliced soy chicken thighs, much less complex, celebrated the tenderness of perfectly cooked chicken subtly sweetened by its marinade. I always say: if you do not want to bugger a chicken dish, cook with the thighs, for you are almost assured palatal pleasure even if slightly overdone.
In any case, the pièces de résistance were indubitably the two dishes that came after. The Burmese beef cheek curry, a product of deft spice alchemy, garam masala redolent, involved a pulsating iteration of very Indian masala that caressed cuts of meat that were so wonderfully yielding that all I needed was to press my spoon upon them to watch them ribbon and melt with lascivious elegance. The curry, be forewarned, keeps to Burmese tradition and is quite oily, but this I contribute only as a side note for it plays it part in the symphony.
The dish of glass noodles that takes over just much real estate on your bar space as it does on its menu allotment, proposes an intriguing selection of components that I’d not previously experienced combined. Baked and served in a clay pot, a silken nest of glass noodles, unctuously glistening, rests atop a soft bedding of brown crab meat and slices of tonkotsu thin Tamworth pork belly. A sweet sauce meant to provide another facet to the already delicious conglomerate, is added atop before you stir, toss and mix everything together, as instructed, to have all the goodies appropriately integrated. It is a marvelous pot of food, steaming hot when the lid is uncovered, and settles nicely in the belly as a sort of parting gift.
Kiln walloped me in the head with some great cookery. I was a happy, happy man with wallet still with change by the end. Nothing could get the smile of satisfaction off my face for a good few hours after I left, but, when I settled down to write this review, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed by the environment in which I was fed. It could have been so much more if it was allowed to, but unfortunately it is not the kind of place you go for intimacy, whether with your food or with someone else. I will say that if you think of Kiln as a popular, busy pub, one you normally do not mind waiting to get into with your mates, then the food is spectacular enough to bond over and give you a reputation of good taste.
As I walked towards the cooking station to take some pictures before I shot off, the walkway had cleared enough for me to see a group of people move past a threshold I assumed lead to the toilets. A suspicious number, that looked absent the requisite dishevelment of a group sexual encounter. So, I decided to go down to placate my curiosity, only to discover that Kiln did have a dining room, a cosy one, in their basement clogged with people. The feeling reminded me of the many times I’ve misplaced my phone unbeknownst to me, only to find it under a pile of laundry. Hmm…fancy that.
Location: 58 Brewer St, Soho, London W1F 9TL