‘Chain restaurant’, ‘Soho’ and ‘Over £30 per head’ – phrases that hardly dance off the page and make your heart/tastebuds/wallet sing. So it was with some trepidation that TOF wended its way through Soho last month for a midweek curry of the Thai persuasion.
We were greeted with efficient pleasure, despite a rather fascist warning when booking that tables would be foregone should you be more than fifteen minutes late. The Londonist can only imagine what an opium den looks like (think Johnny Depp’s interludes as a narc-head cop in ‘From Hell’) but Patara seemed to have pulled it off. Lots of wood, lots of black and lots of red, and sitting in the smoking section, lots of smoke.
Despite goosestepping in three minutes within the allotted period of grace we were then ignored for 30 minutes. Not a great start. Murmurings of ‘Chain restaurant’ and ‘Soho’ and ‘Over £30 a head’ (the last phrase delivered with some consternation, might I add) were overheard by neighbouring tables as the slightly pricey Gewurtztraminer (white and light) hit empty stomachs and loosened tongues. From thereon in, however, having seemingly realised we were royally pissed off, service became more and more earnest as we moved closer and closer toward leaving a tip.
The menu was ample and not too big as to feel suspect. A starter of three pearlescent scallops, ‘cooked’ authentically only in lime juice and chilli in a cold store, put us back on the right track. This was outdone by the equally fresh tuna tartare, subtly garnished with delicate shavings of pickled ginger and just a hint of seasoning – luxurious in its simplicity. The jewel in the crown, and indeed jewels they resembled, was the selection of Thai dumplings. The Londonist has a very strong belief that a restaurant’s end-game is that you should eat food you can’t possibly recreate at home and these voluptuous droplets of pleasure provided exactly that. This is the kind of food that you want to take photos to put on your desk to remind you of happier times in your life. Perfection.
Past the starters, the main course came almost too quickly. Rice portions were too stingy for a Western plate and probably for a Thai one, a couple of tablespoons more wouldn’t have broken the bank surely. Sides of asparagus in oyster sauce (thrifty with stalks-and-all) and aubergine with holy basil were accessibly tasteful and generous. Red meat for all came in the form of four curries, the best of which was duck that had been crisped before dropping into a carefully reduced rich and smoky sauce. Veal was also very good, the chef balancing the tenderness of its pubescent bovine charm with distinctly Eastern flavourings. Beef was less successful. The sauce was packed full of overpowering lime essence where a few lime leaves and a little gentle cooking would have sufficed. Venison was a big letdown following the wonderful dumplings; chewy, overdone without enough seasoning and swimming with murdered strands of holy basil. A shame and probably only a misjudgement – all restaurants have them; venison should only ever be served plain or perhaps in sausages; a curry was never going to be the right place to put it.
Desserts were fabulous; sticky mango paired with lustrously sweet coconut was wonderfully authentic and a real delight. A bitter chocolate pudding was so perfect you could probably have bought it from Marks and Spencers.
So what can you expect from a chain restaurant in Soho? A wide menu of new and old favourites and some real individualism, even if they don’t always quite pull it off. And as for service- this is Soho after all. But £30 a head? Dream on. This was £60 each without service. Do go, but go after pay day - and make sure you line your stomach before hand in case of a long wait.