Supawan Thai, London: ‘Takes your mouth on the ride of its life’ – restaurant review

<span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Supawan, 38 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DT (020 7278 2888). Small plates £9-£11.50, mains £15.50-£24.50, desserts £5.50-£9.50, wines from £26.50

My late father, Des, had many talents. Early on he was an actor, part of Anthony Quayle’s original company at Stratford, the precursor to the RSC. He also worked on the very first TV series of Hancock’s Half Hour. He was a gifted artist who was exhibited in all the good places and he was blessed with the sharpest of commercial brains. He was a natty dresser. But boy, was he a lousy cook. Ingredients would beg to be taken to a place of safety when he approached. Vegetables would audibly start praying. I don’t think it was a lack of ability. He simply wasn’t interested. If he was left to feed us kids, his default dish – I use the term loosely – was worsht and eggs: a bouncy, dry, draught excluder of an omelette alongside slices of a blunt, salty kosher beef salami, dyed a worrying shade of red, which stained everything it touched pink including, I imagine, the lower intestine. It was the taste of parental abandonment, at least where dinner time was concerned.

Chef Wichet Khongphoon of Supawan, in London’s King’s Cross, was differently blessed. For in the middle of his menu headed “Southern Thai Food”, is a dish entitled Dad’s Beef Curry. I really would not have traded my old man for anyone, but perhaps I can be forgiven for fantasising about a little light fostering by Khongphoon’s father, if it meant I would have been treated occasionally to this thrillingly intense stew of long-braised meat in a thick coconut sauce the colour of newly turned London clay. It both soothes and playfully slaps. There is heat, emphasised by vivid slices of fresh red chilli, but all of it is tempered by sweet caramel tones. There is the depth and fragrance of roasted spice. It is all kinds of fabulous. I can see why the recipe, a loving call back to the domestic, made the cut.

‘Tempered by sweet caramel tones’: Dad’s Beef Curry.
‘Tempered by sweet caramel tones’: Dad’s Beef Curry. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

The interior of Supawan is a bright, candy-coloured space, its walls hung with cheery slabs of contemporary art. There’s no stage-set of ornate Thai wood carvings here. They let the cooking tell you where you are. From the outside, however, it’s an unassuming-looking spot; the sort an innocent traveller might tumble into fresh off the train, when hunting for something to eat, only to have their mouth taken on the ride of its life. It was recommended to me by a reader. They said it served Thai dishes they had not encountered before and that I might like it. With train strikes making out-of-London travel tricky, I decided to follow my reader’s advice. My reader was wise. They often are.

We have a bowl of sweet, sticky cashew nuts crusted with chilli and black pepper and served still warm, to pick at while we study the relatively short menu. Yes, it includes a familiar pad Thai and a green curry. Order instead the things you have not stumbled across before. If you’re a meat eater, start with the chicken wings. Blink at what is laid before you. They are battered and crispy in the southern-fried style and seriously chunky. Bite in to discover they are boned out and stuffed with a briskly spiced forcemeat of minced chicken, prawns, mushrooms and, for texture, glass noodles. Drag them through the lake of the lip-spanking tamarind and chilli sauce that lies beneath. If you’re with a friend, mourn the fact that good manners demand you let them have the other one. Or weigh up whether the friendship really means that much to you. Conclude it doesn’t in the face of this chicken wing, and nick it.

‘A knotty lawn-green tangle’: stir-fried morning glory.
‘A knotty lawn-green tangle’: stir-fried morning glory. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

From the non-meat side of the ledger, order the laab aubergine, a huge multilayered extravaganza of texture, and of sweet and sour and hot and salty. It’s a dish not merely to be eaten, but to be explored. The aubergine has been roasted until soft and almost creamy. It has then been piled under drifts of fresh mint, ground crunchy rice, dried chillies and shallots, both fresh and crispy. All of this is dressed with a tamarind and palm sugar sauce. Freshen up after that boom and clash with a knotty tangle of lawn-green morning glory stir-fried with chillies and garlic.

To one side of the menu there’s the offer of “side salads”. These are side salads, much as Barbra Streisand is a backing singer; in the way Laurence Olivier was a spear carrier. Our Yum Hoa Plee banana flower salad tap dances out into the limelight. The ingredients are stacked into the canoe embrace of a purple and white petal. We never quite get to it, enthralled as we are by the tumbled filling of prawns, roasted coconut, shallots, cashew nuts and mint dressed with coconut milk and more tamarind. They do like their tamarind here.

‘Intense, seafood sweet and restorative’: seafood stir-fry.
‘Intense, seafood sweet and restorative’: seafood stir-fry. Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Our table is completed by a stir-fry of prawns, squid and mussels, with wild ginger, green peppercorns, chillies, green beans and Thai holy basil. After we’ve sucked the last mussels from the last shells, we take to spooning away the broth, which is intense and seafood sweet and restorative. A word of advice: take note of the menu’s dot system for chilli heat. Nothing is as fierce and uncompromising as Thai food when it’s got its big boots on. The “three dot” dishes here really will make the sweat pool beneath your eyes and your tongue vibrate. Both this seafood stir-fry and the beef curry carry three dots. It’s good to be warned. Soothe all that with a scoop of their salted coconut caramel ice-cream with peanut brittle or perhaps their citrus-sharp makrut lime sorbet (listed on the menu as Kaffir lime, a term which, for good reason, is increasingly frowned upon).

Supawan feels to me like a find, though on this Friday evening it has definitely very much been found. In a city where the pursuit of the next new dining experience can feel overheated and performative, it was joyous to be in a noisy room full of people just, y’know, having dinner with their mates, perhaps at the shiny communal table to one side, because that’s a nice way to end the week. With almost all dishes topping out in the mid-teens they know it will not ruin them. Start with a cocktail of galangal-infused gin, lemongrass syrup, Cointreau and bird’s eye chillies, accordingly marked by three heat dots. Finish with a Thai iced milk tea, which really isn’t. Raise either glass to Chef Wichet Khongphoon. And, of course, to his old dad.

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