I remember the first time I met Gareth Ward. Not the initial lunch – a steal at £55 back then – or the lengthy tasting dinner that same night he upsold us to. It was the bit after, that after service twilight where the counters are cleaned down whilst bills are settled and hazy friendships formed. We sat briefly in the bar, thumbing through record collections and discussing 90’s hip hop. Rum was involved, I think, though it could easily have been more wine. What struck me about him most was the single-mindedness of him even back then when the house was still white, the bedrooms like something out of Downtown Abbey and they had a clock with the age of the wagyu in the dining room. Yes, really. It must have been a countdown to its birthday or something. Even then, years before the second star and endless number one list positions, he knew he was a great chef. He also knew that the cooking wouldn’t translate to everyone. Why should he cook vegetarian or vegan food when the best experience there is built around protein and fats? You either deal with Gareth’s way of cooking or you don’t go. It’s that simple.

So, with pearls of sweat weaving off my widows peak and on to the two-toned wirey brow, I can say that Kolae gives a similar sense of that first time I ate in that now famous spot in mid-Wales. Not with the same level of lofty ambition, but certainly that same sense of this is our house, our food, our rules. Can’t stand the heat? Quite literally get of the open kitchen.

It’s southern Thai, not my usual level of expertise (that falls on Radiohead and WWE 1989-1995), and there’s stuff that I still don’t fully understand despite reading up on. What’s important is that from the second the food arrives I’m in love. Stone cold, head over heels shit. The heat, the acidity, the purpose, the arrogance. It all speaks to me.

Start with the sour mango salad, maybe the best thing we ate, muddled with loads of fresh lime, coconut shavings, birds eye chillies, and lemongrass. Everything big hitting and in sync; hot, sour, medicinal. Have it with skewers of chicken thigh cooked over the charcoal, the marinade vaguely massaman in that polite, comforting way. Insanely delicious in the way that the katsu skewers made me feel at Ynyshir back when they cooked them in the Tandoor. Oh there I go again. And rice crackers drenched in a kind-of nahm jim that whacks of chilli, ginger and I want to say curry leaf. Regardless of what is in it it’s one of London’s great snacks, which makes it one of the UK’s great snacks.

The black pepper chicken curry is one of those dishes that straddles the pain and pleasure barrier. It’s too hot for Sophie and if you’re wondering how hot she likes it, just look at my delicious face. A chilli base with loads of black pepper, grilled chicken, pea aubergines, and lime leaf to soften it a touch. It’s a culinary sauna, an edible rollercoaster on the seat of your pants. I want another. I will get another. By contrast the sweetish korma-like dance of the prawn turmeric curry is a breeze. It’s the much needed Yang to the shear heat. I would also like another.

The sour mango baby martini is delicious, we don’t care for either of the reds we drink, and the £106 bill feels like real value. I was going to finish this by saying that every city needs a Kolae, but, having given it some thought, I don’t think it does. Certainly not here in Birmingham where our last genuinely exciting restaurant to open was Soi 1268 (Stu going into Laghi’s doesn’t count) and where the new influxes appear to be mostly mediocre churn-it-out-for-the-masses and pretend it’s great bollocks from other cities. Kolae is brash and in-your-face, a ‘fuck you’ in a city where the boundaries are stretched out just far enough for them to get away with it. Sorry Gareth and Aktar, I think I have a new favourite restaurant.


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