Plaza Khao Gaeng review: intense flavours from southern Thailand
Luke Farrell’s uncompromising menu outshines its food hall pigeonhole
It’d be hard to arrive at Plaza Khao Gaeng by accident, tucked away on the mezzanine level of New Oxford Street’s Arcade Food Hall. That could be the point though – the design of this Thai restaurant by Luke Farrell is inspired by relaxed “khao gaeng” (“curry over rice”) eateries, which can bloom seemingly out of nowhere into word-of-mouth hits.
Plaza takes particular inspiration from one such khao gaeng place occupying an old cinema in Bangkok. Everything about the interior here is enjoyably casual, from the canteen-style cutlery and harsh lighting to the gleaming Buddha statuette and garish promo plastering the kitchen counter.
There are also slatted blinds over the glass windows, which aim to screen the place from the glossy ground floor of Arcade, but they’re mostly for show – jarring aromas and music from the restaurants below still bleeds through the gaps into this otherwise idiosyncratic, vivid space. And, despite the grey skies and gusty winds outside, it’s unseasonably warm and humid inside on the day I visit – with the fiery food only adding further heat.
Plaza’s USP is its uncompromising menu. British audiences may be most familiar with delicate flavours on Thai menus, but Farrell’s vision is to bring dishes exclusively from the country’s southern region to London. This is supported by a bespoke supply of ingredients from small producers in Thailand and his Dorset-based nursery, Ryewater, in which he collects and grows hundreds of esoteric Southeast Asian plants in what he calls a “living library”.
While questions can and should be asked about the appropriation of cuisine for profit – and some may perceive echoes of colonial botanists’ magpie tendencies in Ryewater itself – Farrell is keen to emphasise his knowledge of and respect for Thai food culture. “We are cooking in accordance to how they do so in Thailand,” he told Eater London. “We’re at pains to make sure that it’s respectful.”
To his credit, Plaza Khao Gaeng is clearly a labour of love. This menu is confident and bombastic, where the flavours are always intense – even in the drinks, many of which are perfumed with Ryewater’s fragrant herbs. That’s not to mention the sheer heat of some dishes: the klua kling muu, a minced pork dish, is reputedly the MVP in this department, but the near-molten shrimp paste relish accompanying my nam chub (an otherwise dainty side-salad of fresh veg and herbs) must be a close competitor.
Elsewhere the flavours I sampled were cooler, but no less potent. The muu hong’s pork belly chunks sit steeped in a beautiful, honeyed nectar; the gaeng massaman neua shines in its seeming simplicity, its humble shallots and potatoes in a deep, spiced sauce enriched with chunks of lean beef shoulder; and the pad phed pla krapong’s sea bass fillets flake beautifully at the touch of a fork tine, coming bathed in a hearty chilli sauce bolstered by wild ginger and makrut lime leaves.
Even the khai dow (fried egg) is a special treat, coming robed in a neat ring of oil-puffed bubbles, yolk perfectly runny, and served with optional chilli. Better yet, these come for just £1 a pop.
Personally I found the gung pad sator prik gaeng tai annoyingly fiddly: the spiced tiger prawns in this curry come with half a shell still on, leaving you to use either an impractical fork-and-spoon combo or your bare hands to unwrap them, with the nearest hand-washing facilities two flights of stairs away. And some of the portions are rather petite, considering this is largely a sharing menu; at least the generous servings of jasmine rice (khao hom mali mai) are more than enough to accompany an order of several curry dishes.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that veggies and vegans aren’t at all welcome here. There’s not a single starter or main course that they’ll be able to eat.
In my view, the crystal-clear vision behind Plaza is diluted by its premises, sitting as it does within a shiny new food hall on London’s flagship shopping street, where prices are necessarily steep and the atmosphere relatively weak. There are undoubtedly better spots in London for the casual “khao gaeng” schtick to really feel right. That said, the respect here for the cuisine remains palpable, and in its menu it offers something genuinely different; it’s not hard to believe that it will gain a devoted following for that reason alone.
Plaza Khao Gaeng, Arcade Food Hall, 103-105 New Oxford Street, London, WC1A 1DB; plazakhaogaeng.com