Top Tables

Speedboat Bar, review: Fast, furious and not for the faint of heart

The latest chapter in Luke Farrell’s edible travelogue of Southeast Asia is hotter and more hedonistic than ever before, and just what Hannah Twiggs needed after a big night out

Thursday 29 December 2022 14:03 GMT
Anyone who’s spent time in the Thai capital will appreciate the accuracy of the decor
Anyone who’s spent time in the Thai capital will appreciate the accuracy of the decor (Speedboat Bar)

On my way to Speedboat Bar, a relatively new Thai “party canteen” in between Leicester Square and Shaftesbury Avenue, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve made a mistake. I am extremely hungover, and while something hot and spicy seemed like the perfect antidote when I left home, the smog of the Picadilly line is quickly convincing me otherwise.

But in the spirit of being a Yes Woman (a 2022 resolution I’m not sure I’ll be reviving), I push on and by the time I’m sat at a high table upstairs with an ice cold King Kushti pilsner and a bowl of deep fried chicken skins doused in zaep seasoning – which in this moment tastes like some kind of salty, sweet and sour crack – the hangxiety begins to dissipate.

When my guest arrives, incredulous that I’ve made it, she describes me as “a legend”. You heard it here first.

Though when I said I was craving something spicy, I perhaps didn’t mean the sinus-searing, lava-hot food they serve at Speedboat Bar. If you were hoping Luke Farrell might have toned it down for a meeker Western audience, think again.

He’s been burning London’s gullets since he started opening restaurants with JKS in autumn 2021. Food elite favourites Viet Populaire, Plaza Khao Gaeng and Bebek!Bebek! are as spicy as the real thing as you’re probably going to get in London.

In fact, this is his fourth opening in a year. Fast, furious and not for the faint of heart is the name of the game for Farrell, who shows no signs of slowing down – just like the river boat drag racers from Bangkok’s klongs (canals) after which this new spot is named. Speedboat Bar is another chapter in his edible travelogue of Southeast Asia, this time bringing the unique cuisine of Bangkok’s Chinatown – and the wok-flamed food of the speedboat skippers – to a central London spot where there’s nothing else quite like it.

Chicken skins in zaep seasoning hit all the right notes (Hannah Twiggs)

Anyone who’s spent time in the Thai capital will appreciate the accuracy of the decor: a clashing but oddly harmonious patchwork of different colours, materials and neon lighting, no space left unfilled, a cacophony of pop, rock and traditional Thai music constantly humming in the background. And yet, it’s careful not to cross the line from informed homage to flagrant gimmick.

In other words, it’s great fun. The menu is concise and simple enough that you don’t need to spend hours googling and deciding, but there’s enough variation to give you a taste of the complexities of Thai-Chinese cuisine in just one sitting. Fair warning, though: they are as liberal with portion sizes as they are with spice. We optimistically order the £40 set menu, plus a special that had caught my eye, on the assurance of our waiter that this would be appropriate for two hungry – one slightly hungover – women prepared to try everything.

The gargantuan amount of food that comes out borders on embarrassing. A constant and comical reshuffling of plates to fit on our tiny two-person table – “put that empty one under there, combine these two dishes here, you eat this, I’ll eat that” – ensues. Despite the pressure to eat as quickly as possible so that yet another plate can be squeezed in (speed is in the name, I suppose), it’s a strangely enjoyable experience.

Of the revolving door of dishes that come and go, some stand out. The minced beef with holy basil – otherwise known as pad krapow, one of the most popular Thai a la carte dishes – is undeniably hot AF but not to the point that its signature flavours don’t shine through: peppery basil, plenty of garlic and briny-sweet fish sauce. Topped, of course, with a Thai fried egg, oily and crisped at the edges to perfection.

Clockwise from top right: pad krapow, pickled mustard greens and Chinese sausage, steamed vegetables in soy bean sauce, and chicken noodles in red roast pork sauce (Hannah Twiggs)

The chicken noodles in red roast pork sauce are a sort of delicious cross between pad Thai and Chinese char siu – you’ll be fighting over the little cubes of crispy pork lard scattered over the top. The special I couldn’t resist, whole fried mackerel with makrut lime, is red hot with a big citrus punch that cuts through the meaty fish, but tools with which to mop up the sauce are decidedly lacking on the menu.

It’s somewhere at this point we begin to struggle – emotionally as well as physically – but tell ourselves to power through like some sort of masochistic performance art.

I desperately want to eat the pickled mustard greens and Chinese sausage – the sausage is smoky and fragrant, the confit tomatoes delicious pops of sweetness – but the dressing is unbearably spicy, because it’s the end of the batch and it’s been marinating for longer than usual, the waiter tells us. I seem to suffer from periodic amnesia of this information and go back time and again, believing “I must have just had a spicy bit”, always followed swiftly by a coughing fit and a swig of beer.

The vegetables in soy bean sauce and the ash melon and eggplant curry, meanwhile, feel meek in comparison, overpowered by the boldness of everything else, but also not enough to soothe our burning tongues. My favourite thing on the menu? The 7-11-inspired pineapple pie for dessert. If you know, you know.

The fried mackerel with makrut lime could do with a mopping tool for the red Thai curry sauce (Hannah Twiggs)

All this is powered by an eclectic drinks menu featuring cocktails anyone who went on a gap yah will recognise, such as beer slushies and whiskey sodas, £4 chasers, Asian beer favourites and even wine – mostly French, a bit of Australian, with some skin contact bottles that will temper the spice. It’s as much a drinking establishment as it is a restaurant, open later than some bars in the area at the weekend, but this doesn’t detract from the food. Elevated munchies, if you will.

A white man being applauded for championing Southeast Asian cuisine in London – not once, but four times – certainly poses some difficult questions, but ones Farrell is happy to address. In an interview with The Independent, he said: “I’ve specialised in this, and this is my experience of it. I’m not pretending I was born in Thailand or that I grew up there. I’ve got an aunt who is French but can’t cook a soufflé to save her life.” It’s a difficult one but even my Asian friends have good things to say about Speedboat Bar, such as: “the flavours are quite authentic” but “£23 for the Mama noodles kills me” (the dish costs around £6 from Jeh Oh, the Thai restaurant that inspired the bar).

Farrell gets ticks in other boxes, though. For example he grows much of the specialist Thai produce they use in the restaurant in his greenhouses in Dorset and works with heritage British suppliers to create quid pro quo alternatives, such as the Chinese sausage. Clearly efforts have been made to keep things authentic, from the Chinese bullet oven in the kitchen to well trained staff with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Thailand and its many dishes and ingredients.

What can’t be denied is at Speedboat Bar, Farrell has built on what he started in 2021, but with bolder flavours that pack bigger punches. Couple that with good vibes and great cocktails, and you’ve got a great night out…. or, indeed, a hangover remedy.

30 Rupert St, London, W1D 6DL | |

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