A little while back London food blogger The Skinny Bib posted a rather interesting and comprehensive (even including a full Thai to English menu translation) blog post on the Heron in Paddington. I was intrigued; between somewhere between my Dad's stints as a teacher, freight forwarder and tour guide on the buses in Windsor (yes, really), he owned a Thai restaurant. Well, two really, but that's a whole 'nother story....
As a consequence me and my sister spent our later teenage years with a steady stream of curry, sticky rice, noodles and spicy fish cakes filling up our fridge. The menu, although cooked by Thai chefs, was mostly comprised of the usual crowd pleasers, with a few exotic dishes thrown in for good measure. My favourites were the duck curry (gang phed ped yang) and the sea food stir fry (pad talay), and maybe a yellow curry with beef and potato if I was lucky.
Although it was all very well prepared and tasty, I did miss the simplicity, freshness and pungency of the street food I had eaten on our family trips to South East Asia. Salty, fishy, sour flavours; flavours that really challenge your tastebuds (and usually make Westerners recoil a little), that are sadly absent from most British interpretations of Thai food.
Luckily the Heron promised all that and more. An anonymous looking estate pub just off the Edgeware Road, it's the kind of place you normally might hurry past. The clientele in the English pub upstairs comprised of half locals bantering with the landlord from their favourite bar stool, and half hipsters drinking Singha and wondering if they were actually in the right place, when we arrived for dinner last Thursday evening.
After enjoying a couple of cold beers at the bar, while waiting for our friends Beth and Ellen, we made our way down to the small basement restaurant. It's a fascinating space, decked out with a few mismatched formica tables and dominated by two big screens playing Thai karaoke videos, but the first thing that hit you is the humidity of the room and a deliciously deep funk of fermented fish and exotic herbs. It is the smell of a tropical adventure, bringing the memories of travelling to far flung places flooding back.
To prove I'm not the only one who orders crazy things on a menu the Ewing picked these duck tongues to kick off our meal. They were strangely addictive, crispy and spicy, with a sweet dipping sauce alongside. Unfortunately I didn't realise they was a central bone in the centre, that was probably best removed before eating, until I had crunched my way through the first few. Crispy bits aside, we all really rather enjoyed them anyway.
Fermented sour sausages. I've eaten these before, and loved them, and that love was not diminished by this plate of these plump, bronzed beauties. They are intensely succulent, garlicky and salty, the side dish of peanuts, ginger and chilli allowing you to customise each forkful.
The only criticism, if I really had to find one, was they were slightly too big to elegantly eat in one fell swoop, yet my cack-handed attempts at hacking through them with my spoon and fork covered everything in a fine spray of meaty juices. Nice.
Larb ped, or minced duck salad with ground rice and chillies. An incredible plate exemplifying the central tenets of Thai cuisine; sour, sweet, salty and spicy. Rich meat, citrus, fish sauce, fresh herbs, and just the right amount of chilli heat (they will tailor it to suit your tolerance level). This was served slightly warm, and was a explosion of funky flavours that we just couldn't stop eating.
The cucumber salad with salted black crab; this turned out to be a hidden danger. Normally an innocuous, cooling plate of vegetables would be a good foil for all the heat that had come before, but this one possessed dangerous strips of red chillies in its depths, catching me unaware. It took Ellen returning to the table to notice my predicament - both my wife and best friend had carried on chatting, oblivious to my choking and streaming eyes - and help dose me up with ice cubes and sticky rice.
The black crab was also a bit of 'aquired taste' and one we were obviously yet to develop. The pieces of leg and shell scattered through the dish seemed too thick to crunch through, and were, unsurprisingly, also very salty. Were you supposed to eat it was it just for seasoning? Who knows, but it did produce much hilarity trying to find out. Having said that, the dish possessed a sort of morishness that made it hard to stop eating, no matter how much gastric discomfort was brewing.
The fried catfish, a recommendation from our waiter as we attempted to order yet another salad. Sadly Beth, Ellen and the Ewing were not as enamoured with this dish, happily I thought it was really great. All the more for me then.
It was a very interesting dish, featuring a mass of fluffy, crispy catfish flakes, strewn with crunchy chunks of cucumber, green papaya and red onions, finished off with fresh herbs and peanuts. Each mouthful was a pleasing mix of crunchy, crispy, salty, nutty and spicy, especially when doctored with liberal amounts of the chilli dipping sauce served alongside.
We also ordered some slightly more 'normal' choices, with good skewers of springy prawn balls and a beef dish that (I think) was stir fried with Thai basil and onion. Although simple, the beef was intensely savoury, the herby juices were lovely poured over a mound of fragrant sticky rice.
Sadly we didn't get to witness any Thai karaoke, although Beth and Ellen seemed to have a worryingly comprehensive knowledge of South East Asian pop music, but the atmosphere was lively and the staff very accommodating, suggesting dishes for us to try and tailoring the heat to a 'Western' level. While it's not quite as cheap as it basement location may suggest, a full feed for the four of us, with beers and soft drinks, came to £25 quid a head, so decent value for some exciting and delicious food.
All in all a great meal and a wonderful evening, topped off half way through all the staff came out the kitchen to cheer, along with the rest of us, Jonny Peacock winning a 100m Paralympic gold on the small TV in the corner. A perfect British-Thai fusion, just like the Heron.