The Begging Bowl
168 Bellenden Road, Peckham, SE15 4BW (map)
There are VERY few restaurants which have impressed me so much that I returned the following day. The Begging Bowl in Peckham is one of the few. I’m not Thai, but anyone can tell you this isn’t “traditional” Thai cuisine. However, I’m more interested on whether the food tastes good. I can safely say, it does.
- “Papaya salad with Sticky Pork”
Modern take on a Thai classic, with nice pork and (unusually) served with steamed and sticky rice.
- “Watermelon Granita with lemongrass perfumed syrup, rambutan & green mango”
Excellent refreshing summer dessert.
I associate Peckham with two things. Desmonds, The Channel Four Comedy about a Peckham Barber Shop, and a bottled water called Peckham Spring from the BBC1 Comedy Only Fools and Horses. Fortunately The Begging Bowl is not a comedic affair. The venue is set on a surprisingly leafy area of Peckham, a very different vibe from the nearby Peckham Rye locale which is lined with fishmongers, butchers and hairdressers.
Head Chef (and co-owner), Jane Alty, previously worked at David Thompson‘s Thai restaurant Nahm, the first Thai restaurant to gain a Michelin Star in Europe. Unfortuantely Nahm closed after reports that David felt he had to “compromise Nahm’s cooking because of lack of availability of ingredients” (Source: smh.com.au). The two other owners are Jenny Evans and Jamie Younger (ex-Head Chef of Bibendum and co-owner of The Palmerston and The Herne)
The menu is colour coded with prices associated with the colour of the font which evoked images of ‘conveyer belt sushi’. Neat idea, however if you’re mildly colour blind (like me) it can take a few seconds to decipher how much you’re spending.
For a venue with approx 65 covers (c. 40 inside and 25 outside), there were a healthy number of staff on the restaurant floor. I counted 5 of them at the dinner setting. I suspect they have a “must have huge smiles” hiring policy for women as most were permanently beaming… (less so for the men). Everyone I interacted with had a great knowledge of the menu. On the one and only occasion where they were stumped, the waitress ran back to the kitchen to ask… before another, who overheard, stepped in to enlighten me.
My main server for my dinner visit, “Betsy”, told me that many of the staff had been working at The Begging Bowl since it opened. She told me “Jane, the Head Chef, is very keen on us [the staff] knowing all the food”. Great ethos, and great to see it working.
TRUE STORY: Last year I visited a London BBQ meat where the waitress said “I can’t help you, I’m a vegetarian”… then blinked at me vacantly.
On my dinner visit I wanted to try the Papaya Salad (Som Tam) but was told by Betsy that they only serve it at lunch. She handled my disappointment well, suggesting several alternatives and smoothly answering my questions. I ordered the special; “Rice Cakes with Satay Sauce”; the “Fish cakes with sweet chilli sauce” marked in purple font (£5.75); and “Deep fried free range Blythborough Farm pork belly with sour chilli dip and gravy” in green font (£9.75).
The rice cakes were plentiful, looked quite ‘rustic’ and hewn into rough disks. They are served with a nice wide bowl of satay dipping sauce. Maybe the rice cakes are a lighter, vegetarian substitute for the traditional meat skewers. Interesting experimental skew on the popular dish (no pun intended). Nice to try, but I still prefer traditional chicken or beef chunks instead with satay.
The fish cakes were served as four impressively large flattened balls (like mini smash burgers). Unlike some other venues these are not the anemic pitiful “Jaffa-Cake-sized” thin discs. These monsters have short chunks of string beans embedded inside along with some kaffir leaves half buried in each cake. They had a good springy bite and are unlike any I’ve had recently. Thoroughly enjoyed these – highly recommended, especially as they are available both at lunch and dinner sittings.
“Deep fried free range Blythborough Farm pork belly with sour chilli dip and gravy” was an interesting cross dish. [See the picture at the top of this page] The deep frying imparted a nice crispiness to the pork rind which I associate with Oriental style roasted pork belly, while the meat had a soft texture approaching that of pulled pork. Gravy isn’t something I expect in Thai dishes. However, this was not a thick sunday roast gravy but more of a lovely jus which but gave a nice hint of a English style roast.
I opted for the popular Thai dessert of ‘Mango and Sticky Rice’ (“Khao Niaow Ma Muang”). As I’m not really a sweet-toothed-dessert-fiend, I’ve not sampled enough of these these to perform a comparison. However, I loved the texture of the rice contrasting against the smoothness of the mangos. The dish wasn’t oversweet, unlike many I’ve had in the past, and was topped with some interesting crisp seeds of mung bean.
On my lunch visit the next day I ordered the recommended “Green papaya salad with sticky pork”, “Uncle Att’s Pork Noodle Soup with vermicelli” and the “Watermelon Granita with lemongrass perfumed syrup, rambutan & green mango”
“Green papaya salad with sticky pork” is an interesting combo. I’ve only encountered the classic Thai Som Tam (papaya salad) as a stand-alone plate. However, the addition of the soft belly pork was very welcome. Just like other dishes, it was served with steamed and sticky rice. Unusual for a Som Tam style dish but it turned out to be an added bonus as it provided something to soak up all the lovely spicy juices. The pork held a thick (but tasty) layer of fat and is coated in a glaze giving sweet orange honey flavours. It was almost like biting into a pork belly infused with low-sugar marmalade. This dish reminded me a little of the excellent pork belly from the Barrafina-Koya collaboration in Soho. (Click here for a photo of their “Sam Smiths Chocolate Stout and Honey Braised Pork Belly with Valencia Orange”) If you liked their sweet pork this is one to try and the closest I’ve had to this dish. Fortunately the papaya salad had a great balance of peanuts, dried shrimp and tomatoes. Unlike many restaurants, they didn’t go overboard with the peanuts. The salad was covered in a thicker sauce than I expected but very tasty. I did ask for “hot, Thai style” which was delivered quite spicy by Western standards, but nowhere near proper Thai levels.
TRUE STORY: The only place I’ve had ‘Thai levels’ of spice in a som tam (outside Thailand) is the excellent Chaopraya Eat Thai in St Christopher’s Place, W1. However… I think that was an exception as I was dining with a Thai actress, who was recognised by the starstruck chef who tried to impress her with the most insanely hot dish I’ve ever encountered!
“Uncle Att’s pork noodle soup with vermicelli” is great for those who like sweet soups. Nice slices of pork dressed with scallions, garlic flakes and the usual herbs with sweet and sour elements. My extra smiley waitress for the day, Claire, explained that “Uncle Att” is the “Chef’s half Thai husband’s uncle” and this is his recipe!
“Watermelon Granita with lemongrass perfumed syrup, rambutan & green mango” was fantastic for an unusually hot day in London. This dessert was presented in a martini glass the top half displaying an impressive mound of pink watermelon granita on a creamy base of rambutan pieces & green mango strips. The mango strips provided a nice crunch and rambutan (similar to lychee) provided a nice cool fruit which complemented the refreshing granita. Fantastic summer dessert!
The Begging Bowl is a solid example of how to run a local restaurant. Staff are friendly and seem to know a lot of regulars. On my first visit, the Head Chef had her parents visiting and held a prize table for them in their ‘no booking’ venue. All the walk-ins jealously eyeing the space seemed to be impressed with the explanation!
The owners and staff seemed keen to know what’s happening in their community and unsurprisingly I bumped into Jamie Younger again on Friday night with his family enjoying the debut night of the KERB streetfood collective in Peckham that evening.
The restaurant seems to have approx 42 covers inside and a whopping 24 covers outside. Fantastic for summer when diners want to eat al-fresco. One side of the venue fully opens to give that experience to those sitting outside. The venue is clearly extremely popular with the locals. Many of the walk ins appeared to be repeat customers, and why not? The staff are very friendly and (unlike some other places), seem to know their menu inside and out and look genuinely pleased to be working there.
It was very difficult to find any ‘real’ faults about The Begging Bowl. However, don’t bother if you’re looking for hard-core bona fide genuine ‘Thai-like-you’ll-find-in-Thailand’. The only minor negative was the flies having a rave above some of the outside tables, including mine, but no other diners seemed to be be bothered.
- Those looking for a great Thai/West fusion – I’ve seen all sorts of weird attempts to ‘fuse’ Thai food with some disastrous results. The Begging Bowl balances this very well and their menu shows a great willingness to experiment.
- Anyone who likes local restaurants – If I lived nearby I would probably eat my body-weight in fishcakes every week. (Un)fortunately I live a safe distance away to prevent me drifting in every few days.
NOT SO GOOD FOR…
- Food ‘Purists’ – Don’t even bother taking Thai friends/relatives who will jump up and down about the cuisine not being “authentic”. The food is great, but clearly tailored for the local clientele. (Which is a good trait). A word of warning. Never dine with “authenticity Nazi’s” with their home cuisine. These people are just as bad as the British who holiday in the Med and complain about the Fish & Chips being “not as good as home”)… they also need a hard slap…
- Anyone sensitive to flies – I spent a noticeable bit of time batting away the b*stards from my table near the open doors, I have no idea where they came from, I couldn’t see anything that would obviously attract them. In fact the staff were very diligent in wiping down tables, collecting plates and spills. Maybe I’m just a little oversensitive. I saw other diners swatting, but it didn’t bother them enough to mention it to the wait staff. A family nearby with kids just seemed to take it in their stride.
- Anyone that won’t eat in an Oriental Restaurant because the Head Chef isn’t Oriental – The old adage of “Only eat in an Chinese Restaurant if the place is full of Chinese” is not longer a fail-safe indicator of quality. There are many Caucasian chefs who specialise in Oriental cuisine. Take a look at Ian Pengelly (Exec Chef of Gilgamesh), Ross Shonan (Bone Daddies, ex-Head Chef of Zuma London and Nobu Dallas), or Tim Anderson (Nanban and youngest ever winner of Masterchef UK) for non-native experts. “Wong Kei’s” in Chinatown is always full of a significant number of Chinese, and although it has its fans, I’m pretty sure many of them would argue it isn’t be ‘best food’ in Chinatown.