Our Rich – who is both highly discerning and well versed in Thai food, heads down to Thai Square’s place in Covent Garden. Planning to brave/test the menu by going off-piste, Rich is instead given a set menu, and not many choices. Predictably, the results are mixed…
Romantic couples (or couples being romantic…), Covent Garden tourist drop-ins, those planning Central London ‘work does’ in a slightly exotic yet mostly inoffensive location…
People interested in testing the waters with Thai Food (ready to make the leap from Chinese, perhaps?), and in not too ‘hardcore’ a fashion. Also people who like really aesthetic toilets. Non food hipsters and people who are not as food obsessed as much of the beloved Tasting Britain readership…
In a sentence
Not Thai-ing Hard Enough
Thai as we might…
…society has preconceived ideas about restaurant chains. It expects them to be lacking in passion, excitement, standardised factories of the soulless chef. In some ways it’s an unfairly negative generalisation. Some people like the certainty that comes with a familiar culinary experience. Personally, I’m not a fan – I like a special find; an unknown gem; a best kept secret; a different kettle of fish (or meat to be honest depending on the establishment).
So when Tasting Britain was invited to review the instance of Thai Square located near Covent Garden I put my best foot forward and engaged my open mind, accompanied by a 100% positive attitude. My time had come to test a theory – can a chain stop being a chain if you venture off-piste?
If delve into the far reaching corners of the considerable menu and seek out those choices that make the waiting staff have to double with the kitchen, will I find the those unknown gems; those best kept secrets? Will the chain stop being a chain and start being something more?
The plan was set. With my trusty cameraman/editor in tow we sat down to enjoy the adventure. And were promptly handed a set menu. Erm…..no. Before we go any further with the assessment of the meal – what is the point in asking a reviewer to judge your restaurant and then offering them one choice of dish? Starters – defined. Sides – defined. Desert – defined.
Only the main course was a choice on offer – and there were four dishes to choose from. We selected ‘Weeping tiger’ – a classic seared steak dish accompanied with a fiery chilli sauce, and a scallop and prawn stir fry. And with defeat already in our minds, our starters arrived….
Crispy duck with pancakes and hoi-sin came already shredded from the bone. I’m always dubious of this presentation. I like to see the meat shredded at the table – I have absolutely no idea why.
When someone brings me a burger I don’t expect them to put everything in a bun at the table. It’s not crepe suzette…. Nevertheless I treated the dish with scorn and suspicion. And for no good reason it turned out. This was a rather good take on the norm. Juicy and tasty with little grease and lots of flavour. It wasn’t revolutionary but it was simply a very good first dish if a little on the small side for two people.
What happened next was bizarre and would continue to be a distraction throughout the entire meal. The waitress turned up to clear away the plates. But instead of taking them from the table and walking them to the kitchen, she brought with her what can only be described as a plastic school dinnerladies’ trolley to the table, filled it up, and wheeled it off to the kitchen.
It wasn’t even an ornate mock thai gold trolley to match the décor of the restaurant, it was like something used in B&Q to stack paint on the shelves. And as I looked round I could see this trolley, stacked with dirty crockery, weaving its way around the restaurant like a Noddy train doing a tour of diners, snaking its way around Thai Square, towards the kitchen.
Now, I do understand that this is just a trolley but if you pay the sort of central London prices you are asked to pay here, you don’t expect the sort of front of house operation found at a YMCA. It certainly takes the shine of a decent meal when you’re constantly listening for the squeak of rigid plastic on carpet as ‘The Beast’ approaches to swallow your leftovers. Small thing – big impact – and it dogged me for the rest of the evening.
After ‘The Beast’ had wound its way back into the kitchen for unloading, scallops arrived at the table – steamed and topped with a thai green curry sauce. Served in their shells the scallops looked the part and indeed tasted wonderful. The meat itself was gently charred and firm with a buttery caramelised flavour, offset by what I would genuinely describe as one of the best green curry sauces I’ve tried.
Thin and soupy rather than thick and lumpy it made this small dish light when it could have been very heavy. It was a highlight and unexpectedly excellent.
The Beast arrived with the mains arrived and although well presented they did not inspire and delight the way I would have hoped. The steak in my weeping tiger dish was flavoursome but tough and chewy. It would have benefited from being cooked rare but to be honest the cut was clearly not wonderful and so the quality would still have resulted in sore jawbones.
I should have known better than to try the chilli sauce which accompanied the dish. I’m fine with heat but this looked angry. Raging in fact. Dark in colour, a little oily (just to ensure the milk you need to drink to sort yourself out afterwards has no affect whatsoever), and studded with raw bird’s eye chillies – I sensed it was a little demon. And I was right – blew my head right off. No real flavour – just lots of heat (followed by lots of coughing). One to leave alone next time.
The prawn and scallop stir fry was delicate and very enjoyable but really nothing more than a standard take away dish presented in a nice bowl with a carrot made to look like a flower. This remains a fascinating adornment and left me wondering if anyone had every tried making a flower look like a vegetable for decorative garnish. Surely an untapped market for the Hestons of this world? He seems to like all that topsy-turvy stuff….
Accompaniments of plain noodles, egg fried rice and stir fried vegetables were acceptable and nourishing but again, lacked flair. Sensible, safe and not bad – just not special.
The Beast once again graced the table and cleared the plates, which was swiftly followed by the delivery of two coconut ice creams covered in chocolate sauce. This was actually rather nice and refreshing. It would have been easy to offer a single scoop of supermarket vanilla playdough but the extra effort to provide coconut really made a significant difference.
It shouldn’t have been a big deal but amidst a low effort showing for a set menu this demonstrated a modicum of thought and it was noticed and enjoyed. Chain owners, take note….
Let’s be clear, this wasn’t a poor meal, it just wasn’t more than the basics done reasonably well. There was a decent volume of food but not a huge amount and nothing turned up that wasn’t as expected (apart from The Beast, obviously). This reviewer, however, was rather disappointed.
Expecting an exciting journey off piste and the chance to get a chain to show its breadth and scope, I was channelled into as standard a set of fayre as I’ve ever eaten, which is rather tough to review when it’s nothing more than ‘nice like it always is’.
I did have a look at the a la carte menu and there were some really interesting options available for those willing to venture but I can’t tell you any more about them because I was too busy being forced to try the same egg fried I get from the Madison Bowl on a Sunday night.
So it didn’t feel like a review. More like a quick bite between museum visits. Maybe that’s what they are going for? If so – they’ve nailed it. But there is an awful lot of competition in this market around Central London so at over £45 per head with drinks and services there is simply no way to justify this meal as a value for money option. Spend £20 and get some noodles in China town. It will be bigger, better, and there won’t be a plastic trolley in your peripheral vision the whole night.
166-170 Shaftesbury Ave, London WC2H 8JB, UK