After receiving a coveted Bib Gourmand award for their Glasgow restaurant, Ka Pao has opened its doors in Scotland’s capital city. Rosie Morton heads to Edinburgh’s St James Quarter to find out what it’s all about…
‘If you had to choose, which cuisine would you live on for the rest of your life?’
There are times when my colleague Morag Bootland and I like to ponder topics of universal import – politics, religion, matters of the heart. But this time, as we headed for Edinburgh’s Ka Pao restaurant, based on level four of the city’s St James Quarter, the pressing matter of culinary (and cocktail) preferences were the hot topic of conversation.
As far as I’m concerned, South East Asia’s vibrant flavours and punchy ingredients will always be the runaway winners in this hypothetical conundrum. And so, as we walked through the doors of Ka Pao – which has built a reputation for bold Asian-inspired sharing plates – I readied myself for a meal that could satisfy the hunger pangs forever more. No pressure.
Prior to our visit, Ka Pao Glasgow – which is located in the heart of the West End on Vinicombe Street – had been awarded a coveted Bib Gourmand award, recognising it as a venue that offers great quality food and good value for money. Could Auld Reekie’s new joint be hot on their Glasgow counterpart’s heels?
As we were ushered to our table, the 92-cover restaurant was buzzing with excitement, and already a steady stream of plates with fragrant aromas were emerging from the restaurant’s beating heart – the open kitchen. The minimalist, industrial-style interiors (designed by Stuart Black, head of interior design at Mosaic) direct all attention towards the kitchen which, in my humble opinion, is what dining out is all about.
The team behind Ka Pao, who are also the owners of Glasgow’s famed Ox & Finch restaurant, have designed a menu that is eclectic enough to bring a smile to the faces of carnivores (think green curry of lamb shoulder and grilled pork and bone marrow sausage) and pescatarians alike (did someone say whole grilled sea bream?) The vegetarian and vegan options are also far from apologetic, with salt and Szechuan pepper oyster mushrooms with pickled mooli, vegan corn ribs with salted coconut, soy and lime, and hispi cabbage, cashew nut butter and sriracha centre stage.
So, what can diners expect? The menu promises to unite the very best of UK produce with ingredients, flavour combinations and cooking techniques gleaned from the core team’s travels and experiences working in Northern Thailand and Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, and sampling the uniquely knit Asian influences found in Australia’s modern cuisine.
Provenance is key in my books, so I was pleased to discover that Scottish produce plays its part. Scottish seafood from John Vallance, and Scottish lamb and featherblade from John Gilmour are used. Instead of using air-freighted Asian vegetables, they also use in-season rhubarb along with celeriac and carrots, as opposed to the young green papaya you’d typically find in som tam. Additionally, they source local leeks and Jerusalem artichokes which are used in some of their curries. So far, so good.
Both Morag and I had been told by varying parties that the corn ribs with salted coconut, shrimp and lime (£6) were unmissable. They were salty and sweet, and despite not being the most elegant eat (you’ve been warned) they more than lived up to the hype. Another recommendation from fellow gluttons was the fried chicken with spicy caramel (£7.50). Hearty, flavourful and sticky, these battered chicken bites had just enough spice to get the taste buds tingling. Frankly, if we had ordered multiple portions of these two dishes, we’d have left very happy customers.
However, the shared plates kept coming thick and fast as we delved deeper into the menu, ordering grilled beef skewers (£6) and grilled aubergine and chilli dip with pork skins and crudités (£4). These were very simple, pleasing dishes, but lacked the punch of flavour of the aforementioned corn and chicken. Our server recommended that we try the salt and Szechuan pepper oyster mushrooms next time for a touch more fragrance.
Then came the mains. Morag was taken by the sound of the red curry of sea trout, coley and langoustine with burnt tomato and lime leaf (£14), while I was intrigued by stir-fried minced venison and pork with chilli, lime leaf and lemongrass. (£9.50) Having never had an Asian-inspired venison dish, I was pleasantly surprised. Although the pork came through more than the game meat, the dish was incredibly moreish. That said, the red curry was the favourite with its generous morsels of fish running through a silky, rich, spice-infused sauce. The side of cucumber salad with chilli, lime and peanuts (£5) was the perfect accompaniment, so much so that I’ve already tried (and sadly failed) to recreate it at home.
‘The vibe at Ka Pao is pretty fun and relaxed,’ said Head Chef Sandy Browning, who has been at Ka Pao’s helm since its inception as a pop-up residency in Glasgow’s SWG3 and now leads the Edinburgh kitchen. ‘It’s really welcoming and there’s something for everyone.
‘If travel and money were no object, my ideal night out would be at a night market, struggling with the humidity and inhaling intoxicating scents, and eating whatever I’m offered. The setting here might be starkly different but the idea of sharing food with people you like, surrounded by noise and buzz is something pretty universal. The opening menu at Ka Pao will be on-the-whole in keeping with what we offer in Glasgow. It’s a collection of dishes we love to cook and eat. We’re not trying to replicate any particular regional cuisine but I think it’s clear where our influences have shaped the food we cook.
‘Our inspiration really comes from the ingredients we’re using,’ continues Sandy. ‘Scottish and Southeast Asian food both have their own distinct vocabularies and what’s most fun for me is finding where they cross over. Figuring out how a familiar dish comes apart and applying its technique and seasoning to something readily available to us like lamb, venison or even neeps and sprouts.’
St James Quarter is the perfect base for Ka Pao Edinburgh. As a wonderful family-friendly joint, it is ideal for a pre-bowling dinner, or a treat with friends before sauntering next door to The Alchemist for a cocktail. If South East Asian food is indeed what I eat de por vida, you can be certain those corn ribs will feature heavily in my diet.
To find out more about Ka Pao, visit their website HERE, or follow them on Instagram: @kapaofeeds
Booking can be made online. Walk-ins are also welcome. Ka Pao is open from noon until late, seven days a week.