Regularly cited as one of the best Thai restaurants in London, this pokey little place still warrants the lofty acclaim. It’s just had a makeover, too. Thankfully it’s still a bit ramshackle though, so the focus remains firmly on the food.
A little walk up from King’s Cross station, just past the ever popular Big Chill Bar but not quite far enough to reach the undesirables peppering the path to Clerkenwell, Paolina still has to rely on its reputation, as enticing people in with a flash of its metaphorical thigh is never going to work. The recent makeover has tidied things up a little but for all intents and purposes it still looks like a grubby little café, with a new sandwich board and awning the only real indicators that this is a restaurant at all. Inside it’s perfectly clean yet still very modest, with a couple of tables upon entry, an open kitchen, and stairs leading down to a dining room for about 30, with wooden panelling still the recurrent theme.
All generalisations are rubbish (including that one) but staff at Thai restaurants aren’t always the happiest of campers. Those at Paolina, though, are like little rays of sunshine in comparison to most - all smiles, laughs and eagerness to please. They're serving a bit of a mixed bunch, but thanks to this being something of an in-the-know place you can expect your fellow diners to have at least a little knowledge of the London restaurant scene. Either that or they’re capable of getting half-decent results from Google. It can get busy on occasion, and tables are pretty close, so be prepared to knock the odd elbow - or worse, should someone be squeezing themselves out to leave.
Very good Thai food at very good prices. There are plenty of authentic options but those dishes familiar to western palates do the briskest of business, and they’re very tasty indeed, not least thanks to the kitchen's admirable aversion to playing shy with the heat – freshly cut chillies often play more than a supporting part.
Chicken tom yum (£4.50) proves the point; there’s plenty of heat to a dish that’s without a doubt the star of a very good show. True it’s a little salty (because the brilliant broth is obviously made with plenty of fish sauce – which is a good thing), but it’s cut through wonderfully with loads of lemongrass, lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, coriander and chilli. It’s a pretty much perfect rendition of this classic sweet, sour and spicy soup.
The beef massaman (£6.95) in contrast could be much spicier but there’s some great flavour there, with sourness this time coming from plenty of tamarind, sweetness from coconut and spice from cinnamon, star anise, turmeric, cumin and cloves. Steamed rice (£2.90) is fine, and a little bit sticky, as it should be.
The salads (not always a strong point) here are excellent, with the som tum (£6.50) a spicy and sweet delight that has a lot of garlic (beware repetition) mixed with papaya, carrot, tomato, peanuts, palm sugar, green beans, chilli and lime juice. Dry shrimps scattered throughout are the authentic kind – you can see their little eyes and they have a greater depth of flavour (and better texture) than those often shrunk to nothingness. There’s also a lot of garlic (this time perhaps too much) in the stir fried vegetables with oyster sauce (£5.50), but the veg itself is kept pleasingly al dente, so is good.
Desserts are fine, though in true Thai manner, sickly sweet. Banana fritter (£3.75) is nowhere near as oily as elsewhere, and the (slightly generic) vanilla ice cream on the side a good foil, while the coconut custard and sweet, sticky rice (£3.75) every bit as sweet and gelatinous as it should be.
It’s a BYO place, with £1 corkage per person, which is very reasonable indeed. If you do need a kick up the arse to get you back out into the delights of King’s Cross then a delicious Thai ice tea (£1.95) topped with milk is not only lovely but so sugary you will feel compelled to move your limbs somewhere, with toward the door being your only real option.
The Last Word
Despite the makeover, not a lot’s changed here. Which for any fans of great, cheap Thai food, is a very good thing indeed.