Heron – Paddington

I love how, every now and then, London can floor you with surprise. The city is an incredibly rich example of multiculturalism, but I have to say that this is the first time I ever felt like I was in a completely different country.

It was a Friday night, and I was out at after-work drinks with DQ. Slightly giggly due to too much wine and not enough food in my stomach, I suggested that instead of going home and being boring, we go out for dinner. A quick look at Urbanspoon showed Heron – a Thai restaurant within a pub just down the street. DQ remembered going there once or twice for lunch and thought it was pretty good, so we headed down.

The Heron is basically a sports pub, typical of the locals you might imagine in some small English countryside town, where the guys have nothing to do but drink a few pints and watch the footie. TVs with Sky Sports were positioned all around the bar so that wherever you were sitting, you could have a view of whatever match was featuring that night. Even worse, there was no food to be seen on any of the tables.

Just as we were about to walk out and try to find somewhere else, I saw a staircase. It couldn’t hurt to have a look. That’s when it happened. We walked through to a small room, where immediately, all eyes darted to us, like we were obviously in the wrong place and must be looking for the bathrooms. Undeterred, we sat down and our server, a nervous-looking girl with broken English asked if we’d been before because their dinner menu was just in Thai, and she could possibly try to translate it for us, but it is quite long and she might struggle.

The blasting Thai karaoke music on the big screen TVs and garish disco lanterns all around made it difficult to concentrate, but we eventually settled on a minced pork with chili, a sort of Tom Yom soup with giant prawns and spongy omelet-type squares of eggs and a dish of spicy Thai sausages. Naturally sensing that this was not exactly the type of place where you can get spring rolls with sweet chili dipping sauce, this was proper authentic Thai.

The rest of the evening was kind of a blur of fantasticness. The food was amazing. The chili in the pork was hot enough to singe your eyebrows, and the soup was a multi-layered example of the balance that Thai food should exhibit – the perfect combination of sweet, spicy, sour and bitter. The sausages were bursting – almost chorizo like in spice and flavour. It was a beautiful thing.

On top of that – the entertainment. I mentioned before the karaoke tracks playing on the TVs? Nothing compared to when one overly-keen budding star of the London/Thai karaoke circuit at the 12-top next to us, grabbed the mic and belted out a version of Mariah Carey’s ‘Hero’ that could have quite easily made the ‘train wreck’ compilation of auditions on Britain’s Got Talent. By the end of the song, everyone in the restaurant was joining in. The experience was unreal, completely foreign and so much fun. It was like we were on holiday.

The bill came to £45 for two with two beers a piece and a side of rice. It’s not takeaway prices, but it’s worth it. In fact, I’ve actually hemmed and hawed whether or not to write about this place, simply because I want it to remain a secret, but at the end of the day, Heron can not go unrecognized as the most authentic Thai experience in London.

Heron on Urbanspoon

Patara – Soho

What an absolutely polarising experience, Patara was. On one hand, you have excellent, melt-in-your-mouth, near perfect main courses; and on the other you have what is probably the worst table service I’ve experienced all year. Somewhere in between were our starters.

DQ and I came to Patara‘s Soho restaurant for his birthday after a special screening of Senna at the Curzon Soho. It was a late dinner, 9:00pm, and most of the diners were on their way out. We sat down, ordered a couple glasses of wine, and waited. And waited. And waited. Finally after about 15 minutes, we were able to order starters.

We shared the Kong Nueng Ruam – Assorted steamed handcrafted dumplings with prawn, chicken and pork fillings – (£6.75) and the Porpia Tod – Crispy spring rolls of prawn, crabmeat and vegetable fillings – (£7.25), but unfortunately, that isn’t what arrived. Instead of the spring rolls, we were brought satay. Ok, fair enough – it happens – but we had to wait another 20 minutes to have it corrected.

Mistake aside, we mostly enjoyed what we had. The dumplings were perfectly steamed with three distinctly different fillings. The only slight disappointment was the shrimp dumpling, which was really quite dense and made chewing a bit more difficult than average.

Spring rolls were creatively packaged and lightly crisp. The crab rolls off to the left in the picture had clearly been sitting in the fryer too long, but the seasoning and lovely soy dipping sauce made it less noticeable.

If I sound a bit down about the starters, it’s only because the mains were so absolutely frickin’ brilliant in comparison. I’ll admit we were both a bit boring by going for the same type of meat (duck), but with both being cooked in different ways – and both being delicious – it showed me whoever was on the grill that night was a skilled DuckMaster™.

We had the Phed Tod Sauce Makham – Spiced crispy duck leg confit in piquant tamarind sauce and roasted pineapple – (£14.75) and the Phed Pad Graprao – Slices of Gressingham duck breast stir-fried in garlic and chilli sauce with crispy basil – (£14.50), with sides of rice (brown and white).

But again, there was a mixup, and I was brought brocoli instead of brown rice. We told the server, she apologised and promised to correct it. So we waited. And waited. And waited. Finally, I started tucking in to my duck before it got cold.

And it was delicious. So tender it fell of the bone. The roasted pineapple’s tart juice mixed perfectly with the sweetness of the tamarind sauce. With just a bit of heat and a few bitter garnishes, this dish achieved brilliantly what all Thai food strives for: the perfect balance of the sweet, spicy, bitter and sour.

DQ’s duck breast was equally tender, and the crispy basil was rich and fragrant, giving a delightful texture to the dish overall.

But guess what? Despite us trying to make eye contact with every server that walked by, my brown rice never showed up. It was fine because DQ shared his with me, but it really shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

By this time, it was nearly 11:30, and the thought of staying another estimated hour for dessert made me ill. With my credit card out and waving in my hand, we flagged down the server for our bill, and sure enough, we were charged for the missing brown rice and the satay instead of the spring rolls. I let him know, he disappeared for another 10 minutes. I still had my card out, clearly ready to pay, but as he returned the new receipt, there was no credit card machine to be found. Another 10 minutes passed before he came back with one. I swear, I couldn’t make this shit up.

I really really want this to be one bad service experience because, honestly, the food was gorgeous, but I’m not sure I could take a repeat of that dinner.

Patara on Urbanspoon

Thai Girder – Southfields (Wimbledon)

Let’s just start off by saying I’m not a big fan of tennis. It’s not that I hate it, but it’s just not my thing. My dad, however, is, like, the biggest fan EVER. So much so, that he times his visit to London to coincide with the tournament. I promised to go with him if we got tickets, but I was mostly looking forward to the strawberries and cream and a place in London I hadn’t been before.

So we went to the first Saturday of the competition, saw a really long match between eventual winner Nadal and some German guy, and split some really good fish and chips and mediocre strawberries and cream. At the end of the day, exhausted from sitting quietly for 9 hours, and annoyed at the prospect of having to queue for the tube home, we decided to take a detour and eat dinner at a little Thai restaurant just down the street from Southfields tube.

Thai Girder is pretty busy, but not with Wimbledon folk, which is nice. We’re seated and greeted right away. The menu is typical Thai, nothing special.

My dad goes for the Thai Green Curry:

A decent recipe, but could have been a bit spicier. It was more creamy than anything. The portion was bordering on too small, but for my dad it was perfect. The courgettes and red peppers added a nice crunch.

I was feeling rather boring, so opted for good ol’ Pad Thai with Prawns:

Unfortunately, I wasn’t impressed. The whole point of Thai food is to be all flavours at once – a perfect harmony of sweet, spicy, bitter and sour. This was all sweetness. The noodles were soggy and really heavy. Missing, was any hint of citrus, which was made even more evident by the fact that it was served without a lime slice (I thought it was a Pad Thai garnish staple, no?).  If you can’t get Pad Thai right in a Thai restaurant, it doesn’t give you much hope for anything else.

Certainly not the place I’d travel back to, but as just a local Thai place for those in the area, it’ll do.

Thai Girder on Urbanspoon

Mango Tree – Victoria

Finally, after a year of diligent Top Table dining, I banked up enough points to take myself and a friend to dinner. For free.  Score.

I remember reading a very mixed review of Mango Tree from EuWen over at A Very Unusual Chinaman – one that was confirmed for me earlier this week when I saw him at an event at Silk for the India Tourism Office and 2010 Commonwealth Games put on by my sister PR agency (yes, that’s a small plug, but India really does look amazing). However, the other choices for a free meal looked pretty rubbish (like Maxwell’s in Covent Garden, which may just be the worst tourist trap in London apart from all the chain steakhouses), so Mango Tree it was.

The restaurant is very slick. It’s accented with dark wood and low lights all around, but each table has an overhead spotlight, which made the food look brilliant, and even gave me enough light for my stupid iPhone to take a decent picture.

We had a very small menu to choose from, but I was starving, and when faced with too much choices, I tend to waffle. I was grateful.

For my starter, the Vegetable Spring Rolls:

Nice light, albeit basic, spring roll. It was a little on the greasy side, but it was served with a very nice sweet chilli sauce that masked any imperfections.

I also got to try a bite of my friend’s Thai Fish Cakes:

I wasn’t a fan of these rather rubbery little patties, but to be fair, I’ve never really had one I’ve liked.  Every Thai restaurant I’ve ever been to cooks the hell out of them and then serves them with a completely overwhelming dipping sauce.

My main, on the other hand, was much more successful. The Thai Green Curry on Noodles:

Alright, it was fairly basic, but it was still really tasty. Rich, but not too rich. Spicy, but not too spicy. It was juuuust right.

Dessert was the Ice Cream Selection and the Lychee Cheesecake:

Both fairly odd selections for a Thai restaurant.  The ice cream was essentially a Neapolitan, and the cheesecake was just normal cheesecake served alongside a lychee jelly.  It was just ok.

Mango Tree is certainly not the best place in the world, but it was decent easy-to-handle Thai food in a nice setting. I should mention we had very attentive service too. And for free, it was totally worth it. But then again, I suppose there would be little that wasn’t worth it.

Except Maxwell’s.

Mango Tree on Urbanspoon

Benja – Soho

My friend Katrina and I needed a place to eat by Piccadilly last Wednesday. We were going to see the new Harry Potter at the Trocadero (don’t ask – awful theatre) and didn’t want to end up somewhere too touristy or too expensive. After a quick peruse of the Top Table deals, we settled on Benja, a Thai restaurant on Beak Street offering one starter, one main and a cocktail for £15.

Walking into Benja, you think it’s a rather small restaurant, but as we’re led up a flight of stairs, you quickly see they have the whole building. We’re the first table seated in the dining room at 7pm. I wonder how they ever fill it up…

I ordered a cocktail with vanilla vodka cinnamon and lemongrass. It had a name, but I’m never good at writing those down:

Benja Cocktail

Kat got a fruity one that was pleasant, but not nearly as tasty as mine. We were off to a good start.

For starters I went with a duck salad:

Benja duck salad
I could understand what they were trying to do with this, but it was off the mark. There was a lot of spice and quite a bit of tartness, but there was really no depth of flavour. The spice, in fact, was overpowering and it completely overshadowed what could have been a lovely little dish. 4/10

Kat tried the satay:

Benja satay

The beef was seasoned and cooked very tender. The chicken – a bit over done with not a lot of spice – got ‘meh’ marks on both sides of the table, as did the peanut sauce, which really did not much taste like Thai peanut sauce at all. It was sort of like watered-down peanut butter that someone put in blender with a bit of flour to thicken it up. 3/10

For my main, a lightly battered seabass with chili sauce:

Benja Sea Bass

I actually quite liked this! The fish itself was delicate and light. The batter was moist, not soggy and just very lightly coating the fish. Delicious! Sauce was not as entertaining, but certainly didn’t take anything away from the fish. I would definitely get this again. 7/10

Kat had the pad thai with prawns:

Benja Pad Thai

Unfortunately this was also pretty bland. I don’t get how if you’re a moderately successful Thai restaurant, you shouldn’t be able to get away with having a bad pad thai. It’s what most people order when they go to a Thai restaurant, right? I don’t get it. There was just nothing to these noodles. Very blah. 2/10

Overall, I liked Benja ok. It wasn’t the best and it wasn’t the worst.  Sort of like the Harry Potter film we saw after…

Benja on Urbanspoon