I found myself back in JLT the other night, and I continue to be encouraged by the quality of small independent restaurants that keep popping up in the seemingly subterranean corridors of the JLT buildings.
50 mismatched chairs, ten tables, and a compact little kitchen make up Café Isan, JLT’s latest Thai restaurant.
Located in Cluster M on the lower level, there has been little consideration for how the place looks – I strongly believe that Café Isan was furnished by the entire ‘as is’ section of IKEA. Upturned wooden pallets masqueraded as urban space dividers and the heavy, fabric Chesterfield couches are too big for the tables. Or is it the other way round – such is my confusion, I can’t figure it out. There are two breeze block walls that I think have been put there on purpose. Sitting above them is a hanging garden of plastic ferns and flowers that loom above you like some mystical garden from Stranger Things.
They saved their fancy lights for the Karaoke “room” which can be reserved for private parties. I think a karaoke party in Café Isan might just be the most wonderfully surreal experience of my life!
The single lone waitress wears a red Aloha shirt and a hair net and throws a big smile at you as you walk in.
The kitchen is a small, open plan space where two chefs, including the owner, Chef New, cook and prepare your food and watch over you during your meal.
We quickly realized that we were expected to sit ourselves, and chose a table towards the back. The tables settings are a wonderfully eclectic collection of tissue boxes, children’s plastic cups from IKEA, electric table fans and empty, never used condiment jars. The Aloha server arrived, dropped some menus in front of us, and with that same big smile, told us to find her when we were ready.
Yes, it’s that kind of place.
Now, to explain what Isan food is. This is where us food critics do a three-minute Google search and then pretend we are the authority on little-known cuisines, trying to re-word Wiki to make it sound like we are natives of the said region, and local chefs come to us for advice and guidance.
So here goes.
The Isan region can be found in the North East of the country and is the lush rural heartland of Thailand. There is less influence from the French and Vietnamese in this region’s cooking, and subsequently, the food is somewhat lighter in its composition compared to down south. Isan cooking uses a lot of sticky rice and less coconut milk, meaning more spice, more punch, and more heat.
What I can tell from the menu is that it looks remarkably like a regular Thai menu. As with most Thai menus, there are a lot of Yums and Toms and Soms to choose from, some familiar and some more exotic. I noticed there were a few dishes with coconut milk, so that’s taboo if you are an Isan-arian.
We got our heads down and decided on what to order. The Poh Piaa Pak and the Lab Gai Tod were ordered to start. That’s the crispy spring rolls and fried chicken patties to you and me.
We then followed up with Panang Gai, Som Tum Thai the Pad Mee Isan Gai. I’ll explain what they are once they arrive.
While we were waiting for the food to arrive, The Serb pulled out a ten-year financial plan that she had put together for us and wanted to review with me. Apparently, in 14 months’ time, my salary has to increase by 62%. I was worried that the Lab Gai Tod cakes might be too spicy for me, and she’s worried about our long-term investment vehicles. I might move to Isan.
The spring rolls and chicken cakes arrived. Despite the menu saying otherwise, they were both served with the same dipping sauce. The spring rolls were absolutely fine – good flavour and well-cooked, but unremarkable. Exactly like every other spring roll I’ve had in the last ten years. As I write this, I don’t know why I always order them, they are the same everywhere you go.
The Lab Gai Tod cakes did much better. Although their construction was unsophisticated and visually they would have embarrassed my Instagram account if it wasn’t embarrassing enough already. However, they tasted great. I’m a big fan of lemongrass, lime, and coriander, and these cakes had all those flavours mixed in with roughly minced chicken and hints of mint, onion and chili. My only gripe is that I think they held back on the spice. Chef New is known to make executive decisions on how much spice she thinks you can handle. I think she bases it on how you walk in and what table you choose. I know I probably look like I cry if a chili looks at me menacingly, but I do like a certain amount of heat.
Som Tum Thai is a papaya salad that originated from the Isan region of Thailand. It is served with tomatoes, a few green beans and a handful of crushed peanuts. The dressing is a tangy combination of fish sauce, Kaffir lime juice, garlic and palm sugar. It is sweet and sharp and classic Thai. Café Isan’s version is spot on – the shredded papaya was fresh and clean, and the peanuts brought an umami-esque flavour to the dish.
I ordered the Panang Gai, which is a creamy chicken curry, where the meat is slow cooked in a base of red chili paste and coconut milk. It is a delicate and subtle curry served with Isan’s famous sticky rice. However, it lacked heat, both spice-wise and temperature wise. I got very little indication of the chili paste, despite the overall dish being a wonderful representation of how diverse Thai cooking can be.
The Serb is very visual and chose her meal based on what photo she recognized. Que the Pad Mee Isan Gai, an Isan version of the Pad Thai – Thailand’s most famous food export. Café Isan’s version arrives in an omelet case and is served with crunchy vegetables. It was a good Pad Thai, the saltiness of the fish sauce blending well with the sweetness of the limes and sugar.
For the more adventurous of you out there, the menu has some dishes that sound great – the Laab Gai for example, a famous Isan salad with minced chicken, mint, coriander and lime leaves tossed in a chili lemon dressing. Or the Tom Yum Goong, a clear spicy prawn soup with galangal, lemon grass and tomatoes.
Café Isan is an honest, unpretentious little diner that serves authentic, great tasting Thai food. It is a place to go for a quick mid week meal and Chef New certainly knows how to serve up some tasty food. I just wish she would let the heat fly a little more and she shouldn’t be scared to unleash the power of Isan cooking on us foreigners. The overall experience is genuine, low key and slightly bonkers. The bill arrived in a random mini shopping trolley and is of course hand written on carbon paper. Anywhere else, that would have been an ironic gesture, here in Café Isan, I don’t know what it means.
Go there with the right expectations, a sense of adventure and a good appetite. You won’t go far wrong.