I was hoping on my visit to Kin et Deum that by some cleverness of seasoning, some added culinary eccentricity, that the vegetarian dishes we wished to order would be somehow charmingly elevated, and that by some good fortune we would finally find a place that did things better and a little differently. It is so easy to fall into the trap of simply serving tofu and miscellaneous vegetables as vegetarian alternatives to meat in South East Asian cuisine. Keen restaurants are wary of this, and decide to leave the dishes out altogether. They do not cook vegetarian food just for the sake of doing so.
I made the mistake of not examining the Kin et Deum menu before suggesting the place to Maddy. I liked the sound of the name, the idea of Thai food that week, and the promise of vegan-friendly food for a dining partner who often has to settle for whatever she can get. At least they were not seitanists or soy protein worshippers; at least I was spared all of that. While they sometimes taste good, these culinary innovations, my digestive system does not respond well in the aftermath.
Much of why this review is negative is because of my own incorrect assumptions. The restaurant does not deserve any final condemnation because they have only just gotten started, and are still finding their feet.
In any case, I find it a good opportunity to be slightly more critical of Kin et Deum than I would be of other restaurants I visit. It is at the beginning that establishments are most receptive to feedback. After a while, despite their best intentions, they get stuck in their ways and become satisfied with simply getting by, if they are not already associated with excellence or striving for it. Such places are numbed by the blithering and reproachful masses on public review sites, and even learn to take praise from them with more than a pinch of salt. The latter, I maintain, should be advised from the onset.
Kin et Deum is set up in a respectably sized space on Crucifix Lane. Its simple signage, white typography on a dark greenish blue façade, is stark and compelling. The interiors are contrastingly effulgent and sprightly, punctuated by potted plants, walls painted white and light green, smooth veneered wooden furniture and hanging lights encased in woven cane. In the afternoon, the place is filled with natural brightness, but at night the mood is set by warm spotlights and golden bulbs. There is a bar up front as you enter, stools and benches as well, behind which lies the entrance into the kitchen.
The restaurant was packed when we arrived. I was glad that I had the presence of mind to book ahead. We were sat by a central column at a table for two, on chairs that were too slippery and frictionless to be comfortable. I was quickly reminded how new everything was.
With the restaurant being so surprisingly saturated the waitresses running around seemed a little out of their depth. It was a while before our first order was taken. A few dishes went to the wrong tables, plates were left uncleared on others, and servers sometimes paused for a moment, in the middle of service, to recollect themselves. We felt for them. Maddy and I have both worked under similar circumstances and know what it is like to be run off our feet. When our time finally came to be served we waved off their apologies empathetically.
When I see a dish on a menu, and immediately under it there is a list of all the possible proteins that can be utilised, it tells me that the dish does not account for the specific contributions of each ingredient and thus elides the kind of specialisation I seek to appreciate in restaurants. In addition, the dishes that provide for such possibilities are often hackneyed and trite. Yes, they allow for more flexibility and agency on the side of the diner but they do betray a lack of focus and a tendency to hide behind mundane variety. There are enough generic Thai restaurants in London to visit if you want the popular massamans, penangs and pad thais.
I gave them the benefit of the doubt, nevertheless, ordering a decent assortment of dishes to get a feel for the place. Most of them vegetarian admittedly, but that was the feature that most intrigued me about Kin et Deum: a place that both Maddy and I could equally relish.
Maddy’s shiitake mushroom spring rolls were crisp and flaky. The mushroom filling was chopped a little too fine, taking away the springy texture that these mushrooms ordinarily contribute to a dish. Still tasty though, a dish that one orders with certain assurances, one that very few respectable places misfire. Kin et Deum executed the dish as well as anybody.
I was impressed with the breading on the Siam’s Aubergine. Nicely adhering, crunchy breadcrumbs encapsulate pulpy segments of a large slice of aubergine cut lengthwise. Its accompanying sauce tasted much like regular ketchup with a spicy tint, largely incongruent with the sweetness of the aubergine, and was garnished with an inconsequential sprinkle of sesame seeds.
The pork larb balls, however, were poor. I cannot count how many larb or laab balls I’ve had in my time, some a mix of chicken and pork, of turkey too, the best are rich and delicious, intricately spiced, some breaded and some not. If you’re using pork as your sole mincemeat, make sure that it isn’t lean and it is not overcooked, or you end up with the kind of exhausting dryness that I experienced at Kin et Deum. It wasn’t pleasant. It was like eating dark, kaffir lime and galangal saturated pieces of meat that you forgot you had at the back of your fridge.
The long wait for our mains made by displeasure fester, so when I did eventually eat again the dishes came as a pleasant surprise. My hunger coloured my appraisal of the dishes that followed, but in retrospect, they were deemed unremarkable and easily forgettable.
Countryside pork belly, a dish of tender cubes of belly pork doused in chilli oil that is sweetened by coconut milk, is wreathed with green beans and peppers – ingredients that seem a prominent feature in most dishes at the restaurant. The pork was juicy, the vegetables crunchy, all well-seasoned and radiantly spicy.
We asked for a vegetarian version of the himmaparn which traditionally includes stir-fried chicken or pork. Which I should have guessed would mean more tofu, more green beans, peppers and onions. I will concede, however, that the simple addition of cashew nuts revitalised the average texture of the meal. We didn’t mind the dish by the end, despite our prevailing ennui.
A vegetarian green curry came with some jasmine rice, followed in quickly by a kao pad nam prik pao (a Thai fried rice). The curry was mediocre, an attempt that does not really get off the ground, that misses the savour of shrimp paste and falls short of my reasonably high standards. The green curry paste that was used lacked the intensity that I have grown familiar with, that I have experimented with in my own kitchen, so I could not help but feel more than a little underwhelmed.
We preferred the kao pad: the vibrant pungency of Thai chillis, hints of garlic, the subtle tang of tamarind, with the sweetness of brown sugar that ordinarily constitutes a nam prik pao paste. Eggs, peppers and onions contribute added textural vigour and we were resigned to having tofu with everything by then.
The highlight of my meal was actually a drink they serve at Kin et Deum. A blue pea ice tea. A drink that comes the colour of deep violet, and is garnished with a butterfly pea flower. Its taste is subtle and takes a moment to be realised, a blushing sweetness that is light and floral and fascinating. I’ve known cooks to use blue pea as food colouring and in warm teas, but I’ve never had it cold before. Maddy was not too impressed, but I enjoyed it – I had two over the course of the evening.
While each dish had its redeeming qualities, a flavourful foundation that is more to do with the nature of the cuisine than the quality of its execution, the presentation of each dish was all rather clumsy and hungover, something that may be charming at a street food stall but came across as negligent and rushed in a restaurant. There was no consistency to the chop of vegetables, everything seemed indiscriminately strewn: a cluttered, muddled approach to cooking that smacked of immaturity.
I do feel that Kin et Deum has the potential to be more than it currently is. Their staff is positive, amiable and charismatic, and their menu only requires finesse and a little attention to detail to rise in my current estimation. But nothing really new is happening here, nothing out of the ordinary that beguiles me south of the Thames for Thai food again. Unfortunately for Kin et Deum, I do not think their package competes with the likes of Smoking Goat, Kiln, Farang, Patara and Som Saa. They have still much to learn.
Only time will tell where they go from here. I wish them well.
Location: 2 Crucifix Ln, London SE1 3JW