Kapao, Unit 420, St James Quarter, Edinburgh EH1 3AE (0131 385 1040). Snacks and small plates £3.50 to £10.50, large plates £7.50 to £14.50, desserts £4.50 to £6, wines from £25
Can you enjoy a good meal in a bad building? Especially if you know the building has been nicknamed “the dog turd” by many in the city? It’s not exactly a digestive aid, is it? Let’s be specific. Can you enjoy a meal at Ka Pao, a boldly eclectic Southeast Asian bistro where they will delight you with great flavors and delight you again, when located in a mall like this Edinburgh Saint-Jacques district?
The lovely dog turd soubriquet is attached to the tan coil rising to a peak, on top of the new W Hotel, which is part of the £1 billion business development. It is true that the Scottish capital, which still applies the word “new” to neighborhoods that began to be built more than two centuries ago, is not massively fond of major architectural changes. But there’s no denying the impact of this aspect of St James’s on the skyline. Once you are told that the bronze coil looks like the poo emoji it’s really very difficult to see anything else. A petition to add googly eyes to complete the emoji look received unsurprising support. They could still do it.
In reality, the serious issues with the development lie not with the tan poop reel, which you can always point and laugh at, but with everything else at street level. There’s no doubting the effort and expense that went into creating the new limestone-clad buildings: the huge, curved shopping arcades with their vaulted glass roofs, home to H&M and Peloton and a new space for John Lewis, Everyman cinema. and the bonnie and savage food market.
It is intended to be a joyful and elegant urban retail “experience”, similar to Roppongi Hills in Tokyo. In truth, it’s just a big soulless mall, designed to make you think long and hard about your life choices. When I was 10 years old Brent Cross shopping center opened in Neasden, a manageable 182m bus ride from my home. I thought there was nothing cooler than sitting by the central fountains and eating cheesecake from Lindy’s concession. The problem is that I am no longer 10 years old. I don’t think malls are cool anymore. I’ve been to Westfield. It didn’t make me love myself.
Still, these places are full of units to fill and not just stores. Then come the restaurants under preferential leases: branches of Pho, Wingstop, Five Guys and Itsu. And nestled on the fourth floor which, thanks to Edinburgh’s hills and a delicate tear in space and time, also manages to be at street level, is Ka Pao. The first Ka Pao, which means holy basil in Thai, was opened in Glasgow in 2020 by the team behind the Middle Eastern and Mediterranean accents. Beef and finch. This first Ka Pao occupies a dreamy art deco building, which is so magnificent that it was saved from demolition by a feverish local campaign. The interiors of both feature beams, ducts and cabins, but where the Glasgow version looks like a response to the building’s heritage, in Edinburgh all sharp edges seem to be the only option. Thank goodness for the leather-wrapped bench seats which sweeten things up.
I realize it sounds a bit mean to talk about the environment when the borderless cuisine here is a real slap on the chops. It’s bold and exciting, each dish is an explosion of flavor and intention. You are experienced people of the world, so you will know that they serve sharing plates delivered in no particular order. Raging at that is like yelling at the wind to stop blowing the trees, à la Elton John. I am not that man yet. Give me time.
I ordered eight plates to share, if you include the sticky chili and the cashews and the lime leaf peanuts, which you should. I could easily have ordered eight entirely different dishes. The most entertaining, for £6, are corn on the cob quartered lengthwise, then grilled and smothered in a sweet and savory coconut, prawn and lime sauce. Eat them like ribs. Protect your shirt. The long-roasted pork belly appears multiple times. In a fresh, peppery and sour salad of watercress and sorrel, the pieces are lightly breaded and fried. In a monkfish cheek curry, it is meaty cubes, and comes in a broth with an uncompromising kick of spice reminiscent of the best dishes from northern Thailand.
Ground venison and pork sautéed with lime leaves and lemongrass, much like this great Lao minced meat salad larb, is threaded with red chili peppers and what I consider handfuls of their siblings greens. I search my way around them, fearing the burn. Finally I try one. It’s the best of chewy green beans. I dig. Cauliflower florets are roasted and presented in a deeply spiced broth, then topped with a nest of fried shredded potatoes for texture. There’s a roughly chopped salad of cucumber, chilli, lime and peanuts with just the right amount of acidity.
That’s what I tried. I could have tried the fried chicken with spicy caramel, or the grilled whole sea bream with a salad of herbs and nam jim vert, or the hispi cabbage with cashew butter and sriracha, or the oyster mushroom with sichuan salt and pepper . Tables of four can order a sharing menu of a dozen dishes for £27.50 per person, and there is a lunch menu for £17.50. The cocktails, mostly £8.50, include lime leaves and palm sugar, coconut and chilli and cassia bark. I’m sticking with a lemongrass-lime soda because I have a long train journey and I don’t want to be the snoring, drooling drunk in the L car.
We finish with a light cardamom and almond sponge cake with a tangy basil and lime curd, and a soothing palm sugar panna cotta with pineapple, papaya and mango. Then at the end I pay the very reasonable bill and find myself once again in a brightly lit mall, lured by the promise of Calvin Klein briefs that don’t fit and Miele ovens that I just can’t offer me. During the day, it’s a pretty somber way to end a good lunch. After dinner, when I picture the whole space as a desolate wasteland echoing only the crunch of metal on stone provided by grateful skateboarders for the new addition to the built environment, that would have, I I’m afraid, sour what should otherwise be a spellbinding live.
The non-profit Burnt Chef Project, which provides support for people suffering from stress in the hospitality industry, has launched an NHS-approved wellness app in partnership with mental health service provider Thrive. The app, available to businesses with a monthly subscription of £3 per employee, includes over 100 hours of content covering meditation and relaxation, as well as mood tracking and a built-in chat function, allowing users to talk to trained therapists in times of crisis (theburntchefproject.com).
Chef and restaurateur Peter Sanchez-Iglesias has announced the August closure of his Michelin-starred restaurant in Bristol, Casamia. The restaurant reopened after the pandemic with a new approach under chef Zac Hitchman, combining food with “a bespoke approach to music, lighting and art to guide diners through the menu” . Sanchez-Iglesias admits the restaurant is no longer financially viable. It will be replaced by something “a bit more accessible” later in 2022 (casamiarestaurant.co.uk).
Tickets are now on sale for the Soho Food Feast, organized annually by the local community, with proceeds going to the Soho Parish School. One-day tickets for the event, which takes place on June 18 and 19, cost £15 with food tokens once inside at £2.50. Restaurants that hold food stalls throughout the weekend include Norma, Kricket, Bao, Gunpowder, St John and Gauthier (sohofoodfeast.co.uk).