The Heron, W2. It’ll give you wings.
I had tried, half-heartedly to get in once before, but the combination of a massive queue and ear-splitting karaoke screeching from the wall-mounted televisions was enough to see me off. It was Biker Barry who got me here in the end. I owed him for cat-sitting favours. Choose anywhere, I say. The Heron, he says, I saw an article in The Telegraph, it looks really good. Barry is old-school and thus brings me the cut-out article. I am not entirely convinced, but I say nothing.
I pass The Heron every day on my way into work. It’s the sort of pub I never want to go into. The sort that has swirly-patterned carpets, the sort my Dad used to sell for £2.99 a square yard, the sort guaranteed to hide all stains as it already looks like someone has had an accident over it.
Owned by a brewery (Taylor Walker) and resolutely un-trendy and not in a good way, The Heron is the last place I’d expect to find decent food, Thai or otherwise. I’m rather suspicious of Thai food in pubs, the trend that started in the late 1980s and is for the most part executed badly, as if the height of Thai cuisine was Pad Thai or a red or green curry with your choice of beef, chicken or prawn. For people who knew no better (including me), it wasn’t often cooked by actual Thais and it was, for the most part Thai food for dummies, pissed people wanting something more adventurous than a traditional Indian or Chinese and for pubs with a spare room, looking to monetise the space.
The restaurant is in the basement under the pub. There are no windows. The walls are painted old-lady salmon pink and there is a blue neon light above the picture rail, the purpose of which is unclear, other than to make you look like the living dead. There are three televisions, each playing a loud mixture of Europap and karaoke. There is a small bar in the corner but you cannot sit at it. Notwithstanding that we have booked, they are not ready and we are diverted to the waiting area which has two chairs which face the toilets. I can see the urinals from my seat. I forego an aperitif whilst we wait.
But we are ushered in fairly quickly. We are seated cheek-by-jowl with our neighbours and it is noisy and the table is tiny but my brain is diverted by the sight of the food on an adjoining table. I have no idea what they are eating but I know that I want it. I wonder what it is and try and work it out from the vast menu, which is somewhat overwhelming. Not only is there a huge selection, but the descriptions leave you playing a game of Thai roulette. I quite like the element of surprise, although it is the one time I would welcome a touristy laminated menu with pictures.
How spicy you want food? I pride myself on my chili ability and say that medium will be fine. They advise us that this will be a five chili meal. You start at three, apparently and dial up to seven. Tip: start with mild. Having been more than once, it is clear that “medium” is somewhat fluid and much depends on who’s wielding the chilis that evening. No-one enjoys a ring of fire.
We play safe with sour and spicy glass vermicelli salad, with prawn. We also have a salad of green beans, beansprouts, shredded carrot, peanuts and chilies, both of which have the holy trinity of salt, sweet and sour. There is also hot vermicelli with soy, topped with fresh spring onion, under which sit more fat prawns, umami-rich and satisfying, and we struggle to finish this, together with the deep-fried crispy soft-shell crab, topped with deep-fried leaves which I cannot identify. Thai basil maybe. Green beans and those tiny fragrant green peppercorns add extra depth of flavour to the crab. We fail to make a proper dent in it because, shocker, we have ordered too much food.
I am worried by the sea bass, served whole, in an aluminium contraption you can’t buy in John Lewis, cooking in fragrant stock, which is spilling over the edges of its fish-shaped dish. Two burners underneath keep it bubbling furiously throughout the meal. Chopped garlic, whole red chilies, coriander and lime are scattered over the fish which, fresh and firm, falls away from the bone. It’s a simple yet perfect dish, exciting, vibrant and clean.
Other visits have included larb, pronounced lawb, a spicy salad made with either beef, pork or chicken and shallots, spring onions, chili, roasted rice powder, lime juice and fish sauce. This has paled into insignificance when compared with the dish described, rather off-puttingly, as “crumbled crispy fried glutinous rice balls, minced pork, chili and onion.” This is my favourite dish to date, £8 of pure pleasure, with its crispy fried rice balls, a sort of Thai arancini, scattered over a spicy minced pork salad,a larb with attitude.
There are, should you need, desserts of the ice-cream variety. I choose durian fruit and taro as well as dull old coconut. To those of you unfamiliar with durian, it is also known as stinkfruit and with good reason. With a smell redolent of decaying spring onions and gas, this is indeed an acquired taste and one which I can’t see myself developing. The more I eat, the more unpleasant it seems. The taro, much better, is made from a corm and has a slightly nutty flavour, like a mild hazelnut ice-cream. Stick with that.
The Verdict :Worth a visit. It’s not as cheap as the décor might suggest but it is good value for what you get. I’m very glad I managed to brave the decor and the music-type noise to get to the food beneath. I would recommend going in a group and working through the vast menu. Thai food, cooked by Thais without compromise and not pandering to Western palates it’s well worth a visit for when you want to recreate that trip to Thailand and get yourself a hit of those vibrant flavours.