Words: Rachael Ellenger
Thai food is big, but few bring the country’s homecooked flavours to Britain quite like Yaay Yaay – a great Thai restaurant London. We check out their pop-up night at the Newman Arms before their opening at Chalton Street Market.
Despite the glowing neon restaurant signs that light up Charlotte Street, the ashen brickwork and dark interconnecting alleys of Fitzrovia hark back to ye-olde London. Entering the Newman Arms pub, the time-warp continues with Victorian gas-lamp style wall lights and dark wood panelling soaked with the scent of historic hops.
In a former life the first floor of this one-up, one-down pub was a pie room, and the tight staircase has been polished over the years by the weighty soles of hungry Londoners winding themselves up and down it since the early 1700’s. It may seem an incongruous choice for a Thai restaurant to pop up in the kitchen for a one-night-only dinner, but Yaay Yaay’s choice of venue serves to confirm that the family behind the name are serious about food.
The Newman Arms serves up astonishingly good Cornish-inspired grub from Wednesday to Sunday under the mantle of Matt Chatfield’s The Cornwall Project; a man who loves good food. Fortunately that means this fine Tuesday evening the kitchen is free for Chefs, Paula and Gotti to takeover.
We are welcomed into the upstairs dining room by a Berocca-hued cocktail and a giggling little girl running between the chairs of a long table set for fourteen. This really is a family affair.
In Thai, the word Yaay means grandmother, and the two-sister team behind this endeavour affectionately called theirs “Yaay Yaay”. The food they serve is inspired not only by the food they remember eating at their grandmother’s, but equally inspired by their mother, who is the “Yaay Yaay” to the little girl now playing a coy hide-and-seek with the guests who begin to fill the room.
Based Wednesday to Friday behind the British Museum, Yaay Yaay have also secured a pitch in the new and as-yet-unsung Chalton Street Market. It’s a great spot for people looking for great food and restaurants near Kings Cross Station – it’s certainly worth the short walk to avoid the generic Kings Cross station food. Here they can be found serving up a changeable two dish menu. Tonight we are lucky enough to be sampling five of their pivotal dishes. To maximise the distance their menu can reach they have recently joined Uber Eats and are cooking to order on Eat Cuckoo.
The family gained confidence witnessing the explosive popularity of Thai restaurant Som Saa. But rather than mimicking Som Saa’s old-style Thai cuisine, Yaay Yaay concentrates on bringing everyday Thai food to both homesick Thai’s and inquisitive diners of London alike. Yaay Yaay’s menu is their own “clash of tradition and innovation in Thai cuisine”. This is not about replicating the street food of Thailand – the oily Pad-Thai’s or jars of green curry well-known on the UK market – but the healthy and conveniently-cooked food made and shared in homes of family and friends in Thailand.
While we contemplate the feast that awaits us, mingle with our fellow diners, and mull over the origins of Yaay Yaay we find our cocktail glasses soon empty. The easy-drinking cocktail recipe is on entrusted loan for the evening from TOT Teens of Thailand – this year voted in the top 50 bars in Asia – a previous workplace of the one of the Yaay Yaay sisters.
The infusion of Thai tea leaves gives the gin its neon orange hue and an aromatic, herbaceous edge that is cut through by mint leaves and lemon juice, then softened by orange zest and warming cinnamon. When a gin and tonic tastes like an iced tea, it quenches your thirst as quick as one – but the gin catches you unaware. The first course arrives just before things get silly.
I’m still not entirely sure what pickled greens are, and I generally like to know what I’m eating, but the Soup Pak Kard Dong is a light, silky, salty broth of generic greens, that my mouth decides is a spinach-y cabbage. Very popular in Thai cuisine, the veg here have been cooked up with garlic and braised pork. Yaay Yaay’s twist is the addition of rice noodles to the dish, which gives body to the broth, and further weight and texture that would happily satisfy a cold mid-week hunger.
We are advised to sit for the main event, which consists of four main courses brought to the table in a sharing style that works so well with the fresh, surprisingly balanced cacophony of Thai flavours.
Wonderful stir-fried soy sauce chicken with basil, fine bean, bell pepper and garlic is the Kar Pao Kai. The Pla Salmon Lard Prik’s crispy grilled salmon fillet with pineapple, plum and chilli sauce is perfectly cooked, tangy, and as forgettable as the best health-food often is.
I like my flavours bold and often salty so I was much more satisfied by the almost cheesy smell of the Larb Hed. A dish of assorted mushrooms mixed with shallot, mint, and lime smells almost cheesy but on the palette has tantalising spice and tang, of which I immediately want more.
Side servings of pleasing-purple Riceberry rice, its dye-like colour pertaining to the mix of brown and jasmine grains used, and a briskly fried duck egg with a gloriously gooey yolk and homely pan-browned white. Fittingly, the duck egg takes centre stage as Yaay Yaay’s logo as Thailand’s most common cooking ingredient.
The stand out dish is the Stew Kai Palo. Rich pieces of chicken and two halves of a hard boiled egg sit in another silky, salty broth that has the most remarkable flavour. Hard to put a finger on, it dances between notes of barbecue sauce, hoisin, molasses, cinnamon and miso. Chef Gotti, who is husband & brother-in-law to the Yaay Yaay sisterhood reveals it is cooked overnight in anise, cinnamon, dark soy, and chicken stock to soak up a sweetly tangy, umami flavour and then fried before serving in the broth.
Once plates are cleared we have a moment to pass around the very youngest member of the Yaay Yaay clan, our hide-and-seek hosts’ baby sister, a beautiful dumpling-cheeked baby girl, before our own Thai dumplings are placed in front of us, delicately speckled with sesame seeds.
The Kanom Pia Yaay Yaay dessert is a mung bean pastry. This sweet, claggy pastry ball serves as a comfort sweetener which I can imagine at times to be longed for by far-from-home Thai’s, but after hungrily devouring the five previous dishes it sits heavy and doughy in my mouth, which is briskly and hospitably remedied by a Thai Tea cocktail refill.
Yaay Yaay know what they’re doing with flavours. Their food fulfils its promise of being healthy, everyday Thai food. It is your mum’s Sunday roast you would pine for, whether as an ex-pat in Chiang Mai or back-packer in Bangkok. They cook accessible, satiating flavours and I would highly recommend seeking them out while they’re in one place. They might even have imported some sticky buns by the time you get to their stall on Chalton Street Market, but I suggest you save it for a mid-afternoon snack.
Yaay Yaay Instagram (Thai restaurant London)
Chalton Street Market (restaurants near Kings Cross Station)
Euston Road/Chalton Street