Restaurant Review: Plaza Khao Gaeng, Arcade Food Hall, London
It would be hard to arrive at Plaza Khao Gaeng by accident, nestled on the mezzanine level of the Arcade Food Hall in New Oxford Street. That might be the point though – this Thai restaurant’s design by Luke Farrell is inspired by casual “khao gaeng” (“curry over rice”) eateries, which can blossom seemingly out of nowhere into word-of-mouth success.
Plaza is particularly inspired by such a place khao gaeng occupying a former cinema in Bangkok. Everything about the interior here is pleasantly laid-back, from the canteen-style cutlery and bright lighting to the gleaming Buddha statuette and garish promotion that covers the kitchen counter.
There are also slatted blinds above the floor-to-ceiling windows, which aim to screen the place from Arcade’s gleaming ground floor, but they’re mainly for show – the discordant aromas and music from the restaurants below still bleed through the interstices in this otherwise idiosyncratic, vivid space. And, despite the gray skies and gusty winds outside, it was unusually hot and humid inside the day I visited – the scorching food only adding to the heat.
The Plaza’s USP is its uncompromising menu. British audiences may be more familiar with the delicate flavors of Thai menus, but Farrell’s vision is to bring dishes exclusively from the southern region of the country to London. This is backed by a bespoke supply of ingredients from small growers in Thailand and his Dorset-based nursery, Ryewater, in which he collects and grows hundreds of esoteric Southeast Asian plants in what he calls it a “living library”.
While questions can and should be asked about the appropriation of the kitchen for profit – and some may perceive echoes of the magpie tendencies of colonial botanists in Ryewater itself – Farrell is keen to emphasize his knowledge of and respect for the thai food culture. “We cook in accordance with the way they do in Thailand,” he said. london eater. “We strive to make sure it’s respectful.”
To its credit, Plaza Khao Gaeng is clearly a labor of love. This menu is confident and explosive, where the flavors are always intense – even in the drinks, many of which are flavored with fragrant Ryewater herbs. Not to mention the sheer heat of some dishes: the klua kling muu, a ground pork dish, is reputed to be the MVP of that department, but the nearly melted shrimp paste that accompanies my nam chub (an otherwise delicate side salad of vegetables and herbs) must be a close competitor.
Elsewhere, the flavors I tasted were fresher, but no less potent. The muu hong pork belly pieces are dipped in a beautiful honeyed nectar; the gaeng massaman neua shines with its apparent simplicity, its humble shallots and potatoes in a deep and spicy sauce enriched with pieces of lean beef shoulder; and the pad phed pla krapong’s sea bass fillets crumble beautifully at the touch of a fork, bathed in a hearty chili sauce enhanced with wild ginger and makrut lime leaves.
Even the khai dow (fried egg) is a special treat, dressed in a neat ring of oil-puffed bubbles, perfectly runny yolk and served with optional chilli. Best of all, these are just £1 a pop.
Personally, I found the gung pad sator prik gaeng tai annoying: the spicy tiger prawns in this curry come with a half shell still in place, leaving you to use either an impractical fork-spoon combo or your bare hands to unpack them, with the nearest handwashing facilities two flights of stairs away. And some of the portions are on the small side, considering it’s largely a sharing menu; at least the generous servings of jasmine rice (khao hom mali mai) are more than enough to go with an order of several curries.
It should be noted, by the way, that vegetables and vegans are not welcome here at all. There isn’t just one starter or main course that they can eat.
In my view, the crystal clear vision behind Plaza is diluted by its premises, sitting as it does in a shiny new food hall on London’s flagship shopping street, where the prices are necessarily high and the atmosphere relatively low. There are undoubtedly better places in London to make the laid-back “khao gaeng” schtick feel really good. That said, the respect for the cuisine remains palpable here, and in its menu it offers something really different; it’s not hard to believe that it will gain a devoted following for this reason alone.
Plaza Khao Gaeng, Arcade Food Hall, 103-105 New Oxford Street, London, WC1A 1DB; plazakhaogaeng.com