The Begging Bowl was one of the first really high-quality Thai restaurants in London, since joined by places like Som Saa, Kiln and The Smoking Goat, which have brought some of the flavours of Thailand’s north alongside the curries and bright, fresh salads most of us are more familiar with. These northern flavours often centre on pla ra, a fermented fish sauce that can have an off-putting rotten smell, but makes up for it with a richly savoury taste that can stand up to the other flavours that usually dominate Thai cooking.
After a major renovation last year, the Begging Bowl is bright and airy, and sits in a cluster of shops of restaurants that feel more like an English country town than a Peckham backstreet. The menu is geared towards fish and vegetarian dishes, with unlimited rice for £3 per person.
Dishes come out in the order they’re made in, so our first was the parlow, a braise of shiitake, oyster and enoki mushrooms served in a five spice broth. The broth was exceptionally tasty, mixing five spice sweetness with the incredibly rich umami flavours of the mushrooms, and with a transluscent egg along the lines of a bowl of ramen. Although the dish itself was quite small for its £13 price tag, the broth was flavoursome enough to bear a whole bowl’s worth of sticky rice being dipped in.
Next up were the green papaya fritters (£7). These had the texture of onion bhajis, and came with a dipping sauce made with peanuts, lime juice, fish sauce and chilli – a deconstructed som tam. The portion was generous and fun to pick apart and eat with your hands. I’m not sure it fully worked compared to a straightforward som tam, but I appreciated the fact that they were experimenting.
The isaan style pork and papaya soup with dill (£8) was more like a curry in consistency, and used the fermented fish flavouring to create an earthy, salty sauce that the dill offset nicely. Again, the unlimited rice was great for soakage, and the fishy sediment in the sauce gave it an enjoyably gritty texture.
The Northern Thai sausage (£10) was the lowlight of the meal. It wasn’t terrible, but served by itself (with some herbs and sliced ginger) it was just boring. It felt like it might have been a nice ingredient in a bigger dish, with some warmth from the chilli, and roughly ground mince and streaks of fat inside, but on its own it wasn’t impressive at all.
Perhaps my favourite dish anywhere is Som Saa’s deep fried sea bass, which they serve with a jaew-like sauce of lime juice, fish sauce, chilli and coriander. It’s a joy to pick off the crispy bits of skin and flesh and soak up the sauce. The Begging Bowl’s answer to this (£18) is quite different: instead of lime juice and coriander, the sea bass is served in a tangy and spicy tamarind sauce, with a mango salad. The sweetness from the mango balanced the tamarind’s sourness well, although if I was nitpicking I thought these flavours overpowered the fish somewhat. The fish itself was fresh and fleshy, sacrificing some level of crispiness for a more moist interior.
Finally, and unnecessarily given how full we already were, we had nam prik long rua (£10), a relish made from fermented shrimp and crisp pieces of pork belly, served with vegetables and a grilled sardine for dipping. We’d been warned that this was quite an intense dish, and I enjoyed the overpowering salty fishiness of it with the sardine, but coming at the end of the meal when we were already full up it didn’t really stand out. It might have made more sense to serve this kind of raw vegetable-based dish near the beginning of the meal.
At £105 including drinks and an affogato for dessert, our meal was good value and generously portioned, and we could easily have done without one of the dishes. The pricing seemed quite random: the sausage and nam prik long rua both seemed overpriced at £10, and the pork and papaya soup was cheap at £8. Despite a few misfires, the best dishes – the sea bass, the soup, and the mushroom braise – were outstanding, and a match for almost anything any other good Thai place can do.
Rating: One medal.