All singing, all dancing, all coconut scented rice, high ceilings and Buddha murals. We paid the guys at Thai Square a visit to see what they do for Thai New Year. Subtract the completely divergent cultural context and we suppose its not that dissimilar to Auld Lang Syne and a glass of bubbly at Midnight…
Thai (…but pretty high end)
‘Prestige diners’ in search of Eastern charm – the prices, setting and location are conducive to showing off a bit. In a good way. Vegetarians – you will not be neglected, there’s a veggie menu of some substance.
Hungry people – This is not one of those places where you spend a lot and get a little. Between all the heavy animal protein, thick sauces and piles of coconut scented rice – a full and satisfying meal will be enjoyed.
Social diners and sharers: you might not think of Thai food along the same lines you think of think of something like tapas, but you could very easily order lots of smaller plates here to share with your beloved people.
In a Word
What’s Songkran, then?
Like most cultures, Thai people like to see the new year in with a bang. They call it Songkran, and like us, engage in music, dance, eating, drinking, revelry etc. When the folks at Thai Square suggested we see how they celebrate it, we thought, ‘why not’?.
Which leads to our next point. If you’ve been in London or SE England long enough, and you’ve had a look at what sort of Thai Food is on offer, you’ve probably come across Thai Square. We headed down to the one by Leicester Square on a Sunday evening to catch the last day of the celebration. It appears quiet from the outside but, dropping in a little before 1900, we can see the place is starting to pick up some steam, filling near to capacity later in the evening.
Your first impression of this Thai Square is something along the lines of ‘they have a budget for interior design’. The place looks amazing, asides from the fact it occupies what used to be the Norwegian Embassy, the interior is decked out with all manner of aesthetically distracting curiosities, such as ‘Thai Totem Pole’, fake trees and a huge wooden carving of Gautama.
We are seated next to the Totem Pole and a radiator that reminds me of something from my primary school days. The place is not intimate, but it is small – there can’t be more than 60 covers here.
With the caveat that I’ve never been to Thailand, I can say that, asides from the odd Nordic touch due to the location, the ambiance is perfect. The staff appear all to be from Thailand or places nearby. It’s child friendly too, if the small children and empty crib where my partner wants to sit are anything to go by.
Service is polite and heavily accented, but there’s a tendency for long periods of abandonment and it takes us a while to get seen.
Things kick off at 1904 with a guy playing a zither-like instrument in a tremolo style that I associate with Chinese traditional music. It starts get to get interesting when he begins to land on some flat notes that we don’t have in Western music. He has a woman next to him who hits a hand-bell (and later sings).
It’s pretty free-form, insofar that it doesn’t follow a strong rhythm. Can’t say that I recognise any of the songs.
About 30 mins later, the musicians disappear and are replaced with music from PA system . They start dancing Thai style (?) to Latin music, before a man in a demon mask runs amok. I expect him to start punking diners but all that really happens is the occasional interruption to people’s dinner and some selfie taking.
They leave his head on the table later.
The Food and Drink
As is often the case with East Asian restaurants, the menu is humungous and, for the overwhelmed, they appear to have permanent set menus with varying levels of price. Prices are quite high – I am not sure if this is reflective of the restaurant itself or the fact that this is a very premium/’tourist-friendly’ part of London.
Only one Thai beer (…bet you can guess what it is), and a range of Thai wine from Monsoon Valley (who appear to have the monopoly, at least in the UK). There’s a good selection of Veggie main courses at the back, most of which appear to be very reasonably priced (as you would hope, as meat/fish is expensive).
Spicy prawn cracker £3.00
Nothing to say, prawn crackers are one of the only foods I don’t eat. As far as I can tell my partner, Greta, enjoys them enough to diminish her appetite for the rest of the meal. This is presumably the Thai equivalent of accidentally filling up on bread at the start of the meal.
Grilled Scallops £ 7.95
Grilled scallops served in a sauce made from coriander, green chilli, garlic and fresh lime.
The texture of the scallops is exquisite, as you want scallops to be – but the sauce is too much, far too much. The coriander and garlic are there in good measure, but there is far too much lime – it singes the tongue with citrus. I’m not sure if this is how they’re meant to serve it, or if someone dropped an entire lime in here.
It reminds me of the days when I used to squeeze an entire lemon into a glass of water and then drink the whole thing as quickly as possible, bad for your gums, good for the rest of you…
Prawn Summer Rolls £7.95
Rice paper rolls packed with prawns, light vermicelli noodles, carrots, cucumber and fresh herbs, served with a sweet coriander and chilli dipping sauce.
These have what I can only describe as a ‘clean’ or ‘bland’ taste and texture. I’m not sure if I like them, without the sauce they’re somewhat bland – with it, too sweet, unless you get the right amount of sauce – which I find difficult. Consolation points for the novel taste, would make a reasonable palate cleaner too.
Soft shell crab and mango salad £9.95
Crispy soft-shell crab accompanied with a Thai mango salad, made from shredded green mango. It gets its flavour from roasted coconut flakes and fried shallots.
Wow. The dressing is truly a phenomenon. Creamy, with the mango and cashew working together so very well. It actually gets a bit much after a while – being so intense in flavour. The crab is savoury and the batter is not dissimilar in taste and texture to British battered cod. Presented with a little carrot flower, if not for the beige looking fried crab, this would be a rather pretty dish.
Kang Kua Lobster £24.95
Chargrilled lobster tail, served on a bed of blanched baby spinach infused with shredded crab meat in a creamy coconut curry.
Amazing, warming coconut flavours – with generous portions of lobster buried amidst the hearty sauce. Lots of hearty sauce…far too much sauce to actually use in one go. This results in me trying to use it on everything edible – rice, vegetable side dishes, the remains of my partner’s salad. I manage to use about half of it.
Broccoli with Shitake Mushrooms £6.50
The broccoli is cooked al dente, but heavily flavoured with what must be peanut. Nothing about the mushrooms really sticks with me, a strong 5/10.
Ped Palo (Duck with Special Gravy) £15.95
Tender stewed duck breast, served on top of a bed of steamed seasonal vegetables.
This is can only be described as ‘dense’. A flavour assault. Greta orders it, but finds it to be too much for the same reasons that I like it. This is the kind of dish I could have quite happily had for myself at the start of the meal. But by this point I find it to be a bit too much. A bit of a shame.
Coconut Rice £3.95
This is presumably fried in coconut milk – being a slightly sweeter variation on the planet’s favour starch, and with the faint taste of coconut. As you’d hope, not heavily coconut flavoured enough to be cloying, just enough to be memorable. As far as (mostly) plain rice goes, this is fantastic.
Never having been to Thailand (or experienced their new year celebrations) I’m not exactly qualified to comment on how good their version of Songkran is. It makes a pleasant backdrop but it did feel like they were rushing through it at times, and I don’t think you can credibly reproduce the glitz of an Asian new year’s celebration with, at most, 10 performers in the cramped confines of a restaurant in central London.
It was however, an interesting intellectual diversionary backdrop to be observed over what turned out to be a massive portion of mainly delicious food. As someone with an interest in other cultures, it was lots of fun to watch whilst trying to actually finish the enormous portions of food I ended up with.
Speaking of food – I’ve more to say about that. This is a place where you put on your fancy clothes and your fancy affectations and bring your fancy spouse or fancy family. OK, I kid – it’s not white tablecloth and nobody’s going to shit themselves if you show up in a Sonic The Hedgehog T-shirt, but it’s not cheap either. Somewhere in the middle – but never pretentious…
And, in the same way that TexMex doesn’t really reflect the food your average Mexican eats, I doubt that this is reflective of the kind of food your average Thai person eats. Don’t let it stop you though.
Food is *mainly* good, when they get it right the sauces are magnificent. The portions are mainly reasonable and the food, hale and hearty
Large selection of food and drink, though a little more beer wouldn’t go amiss.
Songkran: free cultural sensitivity training
Some dishes are hit and miss – the sauces are a ‘salty, saucy double edged sword ‘ (lol) – no half measures and not enough water for your salt blasted tongue.
Pretty expensive (though the location must be considered)
Service lags a bit at times.
21-24 Cockspur St, St. James’s, London SW1Y 5BN