Khwan’s Isaan Thai BBQ is smoke, spice, grilling meat. Like Berlin’s never seen.
No one goes to the RAW Gelände for good food. This is one thing that makes new pop-up restaurant Khwan such a treat. Housed in the Craft And Smoke building, you smell Khwan before you see it. Smoke, spice, grilling meat.
Their menu offers Isaan-style north-Thai dishes served in shareable tapas-like portions. Oysters, smoked and BBQ-glazed lamb shank, grilled mackerel, chicken and ribs, all immaculately garnished with crushed nuts, herbs and dipping sauces. And Khwan really know how to pack flavour into every bite.
Smoke, burnt, spice, citrus herbs, sweet and sour, nuttiness, and a deep pungence, the lingering memory of gapi (fermented shrimp). These are the flavours of Khwan. Plus colour. Lots and lots of colour.
Even if you don’t have time to eat, or are just passing by, run into Khwan to try their pomelo and pomegranate “miang kham”, with toasted coconut and tamarind and wrapped in a betel leaf. It’s their manifesto of flavour in a single bite. Khwan distilled. And bite one that’ll have you hooked on their entire menu.
We ordered the Full Banquet Menu for 4.
Which is, well, one of everything on their menu. And we ordered their daily special – a whole mackerel with turmeric, chili, lemongrass and gapi spice paste and cooked over fire in a banana leaf. But we couldn’t resist the urge to first try their coal-roasted oysters with green nam jim.
All of us oyster virgins, we had no idea what awaited us as those tide-gnarled shells were placed in front of us. But like good Catholic boys, we closed our eyes and opened our mouths. Whoosh! The spice hit our throats, followed by sweet, salty, sour. That huge, chewy oyster and a taste bud-torching amount of garlic. The perfect aperitif.
The Full Banquet Menu means your table is suddenly full of beautifully-presented dishes, reds and greens bursting through a cloud of smoke. Sticky, slightly sweet glutinous rice served in bamboo boxes. The garnish is as important as the main, often comprising eggs cooked sous vide or soy cured. The crushed nuts are ever present, as are the fresh, citrus herbs.
Khwan’s not afraid of fat or bones. They know the flavour these things add to the dish. So eating requires your hands, gnawing on ribs and separating meat from bone. It’s not food for polite company and, when it tastes like it does, it’s hard to keep your hands off it.
Khwan’s menu is uncompromising. Un-Berlin.
Don’t like spice? Go somewhere else. Don’t like flavour? Stick to schnitzel. Vegetarian? Go elsewhere. Pescetarian? Alright take a seat. You can eat a few things.
The restaurant understands its foods should be spicy, and very few dishes on their menu offer respite from the heat. And their use of gapi as a base ingredient, and garnishes such dried squid “floss”, mean that very few of their dishes are vegetarian.
In my mind, Berlin needs more places like this.
So, what is this gapi?
Gapi is shrimp paste – salted and fermented for weeks. Yummy.
“Rotten fish doesn’t sound that appealing”, owner Dan told me, “but Thai food needs that stinkiness”. I fought off the urge to ask to smell the gapi, and am infinitely glad I did. Dan went on to tell me that in authentic Isaan cooking, this “stinkiness” from the gapi would be a lot more apparent, but Khwan temper theirs with a sweetness that makes their food a lot more approachable and readily delicious to non-Isaanis like us.
What’s the future for Khwan?
While this might be the first time you’ve heard of Khwan, the clock is already ticking on the restaurant.
Currently they’re a pop-up restaurant, open Wednesday-Saturday at the fantastic Craft & Smoke venue, but their contract here only lasts until the end of September. What happens after this is anyone’s guess, although the Khwan team told me they are looking for a permanent home for their restaurant concept. Either way, go and experience Khwan before it, or summer, disappears.
Revaler Str. 99
Open Thursday Evening-Sunday
Visit Khwan on Facebook.
Photos: Tom Taylor
Camera: Canon EOS 6D