The growing trend of no-booking restaurants in London makes me panic. The threat of having to wait 15 minutes – or heaven forbid, longer - in the cold for a table is not something in which anyone delights, especially when the London restaurant scene is burgeoning and there are a hundred other places to try. When my dining companion and I plotted to target Smoking Goat in Soho on Friday we had to come up with a strategy: if we didn’t get a table at x, we would try y, and if not y, then z, and if we couldn’t get z, then we’d have to fall back on our booked failing-all-else standby. Crazy, yes, but these means are absolutely required to deal with the current restaurant scene, especially if you are as anxious about the location of your next meal as I am.
Fortunately, Smoking Goat had a table - a wooden barrel surrounded by stools. My dining companion arrived early, before I did. Having surveyed the situation, he deemed the standard tables squeezed around the edge of the cramped room too tiny. The tables are so tightly packed together that it’s hazardous to one’s meal, as exemplified when a couple rose to leave. There were a few clangs (audible even above the tinnitus-provoking music) and the entire meal of the adjacent table was knocked to the floor. The couple edged their way out of the restaurant whilst murmuring apologies continuously. I vicariously experienced their relief upon escaping the restaurant.
Indeed, the whole thing felt like a farce: the service is haphazard with no recognisable system - our menus, for example, were handed to us only to be whisked away a few minutes later when we were mistaken for having already ordered. I had read during my research that the author of a well-respected restaurant review website had come up with the cocktail list. The restaurant itself apparently hadn’t been informed of this: our very friendly waitress said that the Old Fashioned was the only cocktail they were doing that evening. This piece of information was rather at odds with the spirit-stocked bar area which dominates the room (possibly due to the severe overcrowding, rather than the bar’s actual size). We decided to push the restaurant to its very limits and order a Whisky Sour. Were the spirit bottles just a tease? Apparently so. We waited 10 minutes and, with no sign, my dining companion asked the waiter who had taken his order for an update on the status of his drink. “We are currently looking for an egg” was the reply. We nodded in understanding of this conundrum. At this point, another waiter forced his way through the crowd to our table and, standing between me and my dining companion, raised his elbows up in a stretching motion to assert his presence, and paused for a moment as if about to say something. I stopped talking to allow him to speak, but he looked away dreamily, and scuttled off. He had a benevolent, dazed air, and seemed only just ‘with it’ enough to interpret orders and deliver food. This was possibly the only state one could be in to work in such a restaurant which, despite my fears over its no-bookings policy, didn’t seem to turn anyone away. Rather, they adhered rigidly to the same rulebook as the Tokyo railway station passenger arrangement staff i.e. pushers. Jostled and squeezed past, sorry-d and excuse me-d throughout the meal, I was reminded of this constantly.
After regaining our stolen menus, we ordered the dish for which the restaurant has become famed: fish wings. They arrived piled up on a plate encased in a sticky, glinting crust speckled with sesame seeds – the kind you would expect to find as a coating on Chinese banana fritters. The crust looked golden but the restaurant is so dimly lit that the candles’ glow lent everything the Midas touch. With cutlery eschewed, we raised the blazing hot crisp sticky wings to our mouths. Their fame is well-deserved – crunchy, sticky, salty and addictively sweet, with meat sliding form the bone before even touching the lips. Clearly, the success of the restaurant hinges entirely on the competence of the chef.
Before our second round of dishes arrived the first waitress came over to inform us that they now had two cocktails: some punch-like thing, and something with pineapple. This cocktail list was intriguing in its ability to expand and contract at will. Still intent on that Whisky Sour, my dining companion asked for an egg status update. Our waitress diligently dived through the throng back off-stage, and another emerged with our main. Apart from the fact that it wasn’t. We and the couple seated at the other side of our wooden barrel shouted a few things at each other - enough to glean that the dish that had landed on our side was in fact theirs. Our own arrived subsequently. From the meat-orientated and solely savoury menu (i.e. no dessert), we had plumped for the slow roasted duck legs marinated with galangal, lemongrass and kaffir, basted with ketjap manis and white pepper. Somehow, the chaos spewed forth this plate of tangy, sweet, zesty succulence. A drizzle of the light vinegary jaew sauce improved it further.
Mesmerised by the tenderness of the duck legs, I had failed to notice the little plate with two clear plastic bags of rice. I squeezed the rather solid bolus of glutinous rice on to my plate, and there it remained, untouched and rather redundant amidst the delights of the other dishes.
The Som Tam which accompanied the duck was another hit: strips of green papaya with peanuts and chilli – refreshing, slightly sweet and punchy, this was a much more understandable accompaniment to the duck.
The menu is limited to six dishes, further limited to two if you are vegetarian. However, I’m not complaining as its condensed nature seemed to allow for a greater focus on flavour. It also meant from a simply mathematical point of view that amidst all the chaos there is, in theory, a higher chance of the waiters getting the dish to the right customer – the odds were not in our favour on Friday. The vegetarian dish I tried was the roast aubergine salad. It was so smoky I could almost taste the coals. Once again the chef displayed his virtuosity by balancing this with fresh coriander and a soft boiled egg, just molten and creamy enough to play against the coriander and add a different form of savoury to the dish. It was simple but very effective.
The very friendly waitress chose this moment to inform us of her own accord as to the Whisky Sour status. She raised her hands in a ‘what can I do’ manner, and said she was sorry but that they had run out of eggs. Would my friend like an Old-Fashioned instead? I couldn’t be bothered to go to the effort of telling her that she needs to work on the creativity of her lies: there were definitely eggs about, given that two out of the four dishes had contained egg, the latter in its most explicit form. The barman was clearly either inept or lazy.
With the bill paid, we battled our way through the hoards to escape the slapstick farce that is Smoking Goat. What did you think? my dining companion asked me, slightly hoarse from shouting the entire evening. Delicious chaos, we agreed. I turned and saw one of the waitresses smoking a solitary cigarette, evidently her way of dealing with the bedlam inside. She even chimed in and agreed with our description. The issue, she claimed, was that people were coming in groups of five and six - the illogic of Smoking Goat summarised perfectly.
Suitable for: drinks, friends, late night food, bar food, carnivores, casual dining