Ka Pao: When fusion goes right

Simone Waters reviews the Edinburgh branch of Ka Pao, the Glasgow fusion food pioneer.

SITUATED in Edinburgh’s St James Quarter shopping centre, Ka Pao brings a plethora of flavours together into a South-East Asian fusion. We are met by friendly staff when entering this industrial and funky establishment and, while the mood lighting may be dimmed, the kitchen shines brightly.

Ka Pao has opted for an open kitchen design, similar to its older sister in Glasgow. The interior and name are not the only things in common between the two – they both use UK produce to recreate flavours influenced by the founder’s travels and time working across Asia.

The restaurants combine inspiration from Northern Thailand and Vietnam, alongside Singapore and Malaysia. So, when you are sitting down at one of Ka Pao’s booths or tables, you are in for a variety of cuisines.

Known for its sharing plates, bespoke cocktails, and – of course – its ever-popular corn ribs, myself and a fellow foodie friend go into the ordering process asking what the server recommends? “The curries are a highlight,” she replies.

For our starters, she raves about the salt and Szechuan pepper oyster mushrooms with pickled mooli (£7). We order them alongside the infamous corn ribs, with salted coconut, shrimp, and lime (£6). When they arrive and are devoured, we are left with two questions; the first being, if all the mushrooms in our future can come fried and with Szechuan flavours, and the second being how a corn cob even can taste like that?

The mushrooms burst with juice yet still keep their crunchy fried shell, while the corn ribs marry sweet and savoury together in a match made in heaven. The slightly salty flavour coming from the shrimp gives beautiful balance to the potentially overpowering fruity sweetness of the corn and coconut. But for the vegetarians or vegans, fear not of an overbearingly sugary taste as the non-shrimp version features a lush soy based sauce to give the desired salty addition.

We are on a high after hitting the jackpot with our first choices and we soon get a second round of starters while we continue sipping on our cocktails. A Koko Kwai (£8.50) delivers a fruity yet rounded combination with its pineapple and rum, while a citrus and pineapple mocktail (£6.50) makes for a fresh and clean drink for anyone preferring a non-alcoholic beverage that still packs taste.

The hand-dived scallops with pomegranate, shredded cabbage, lime leaf, and lemongrass (£14) keep their natural “fresh out of the sea” saltiness and also gain some beautiful bursts of fruitful flavour with the cabbage salad, topped with the colourful seeds. The accompanying greens of the crispy pork belly that comes with a sorrel, watercress, and calamansi salad (£9) reinforce the fact that you should most definitely not dismiss the sides as being solely decorative at Ka Pao. Adding heat to the fried, fatty and oh-so-flavourful pork, this salad brings some serious spice to the table from its chilli and lime dressing.

Soon after, our mains are coming in hot, with stir-fried ox tongue, pak choi, oyster sauce, and green peppercorns (£9) and a plate of slow-roast pork belly, pak choi, and burnt tomato sambal (£9) gracing our table, along with sides of steamed jasmine rice and fried brusselssprouts with a soybean dressing. While the texture of the ox tongue might not be for everyone, it did have a nice flavour hitting your taste buds, with a strong hit of umami coming from the oyster sauce.

The pork belly, however, stunned with its “melt-in-mouth” factor yet still crispy outer. This new favourite was served with tomatoes that had been charred to perfection and paired greatly with the spicy sambal paste. When biting into the tomatoes, the actual burst of juice that exploded in the mouth was duly noted. These were tomatoes packed to the brim with flavour.

When we needed a bit of sweetness to end our meal at Ka Pao, we turned to the gingerbread served with pear, long pepper, and white chocolate yoghurt (£6) and banana crème diplomate combined with peanut caramel and black sesame filo (£6). The former disappointed, with the gingerbread being not as moist as desired. But where this one was a bit lacklustre, the layered filo dough of the second dish surprised and reached out a graciously-smooth hand to us after our relatively spicy meal. Delicately decadent, the soft texture of the banana crème and the slightly caramel taste from the roasted peanuts made for a symphony of classically homely flavours.

Ka Pao’s wide influences made for a fusion of sweet and spicy but also different cuisines, making me a firm believer in corn ribs and a keen enjoyer of the restaurant’s bold and fragrant food. It could be a perfect venue for a fancier after-work meal and cocktails with friends or equally a nice evening out for two. It is recommended to book, although walk-ins are welcome.

You can find more info about Ka Pao at www.ka-pao.com/Edinburgh/

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