Busaba Eathai, 8-13 Bird Street, London W1
Does Alan Yau's Busaba chain still offer the same comfort 10 years after its launch?
Sunday 06 February 2011
I don't expect much sympathy (all right, any), but visiting new restaurants can be tiring. The day's preparation: not eating too much, avoiding scorched tastebuds from too-hot coffee, remembering pseudonym the table is booked under, and so on. To say nothing of the occasional fear involved. For instance, tonight I'm going to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and the media frenzy and elaborate – some might say perversely – historically accurate menu is making me nervous. (You'll be able to read my review in a fortnight.)
Sometimes I want – like you, I'd guess – to go somewhere reliable, comforting and easy, especially when it's a chilly winter night and it's taken protracted diary-wrangling to get a babysitter, find friends who aren't away, for them to get a babysitter, yadda, yadda, yadda.
I've always had a soft spot for Alan Yau and his restaurant enterprises. Wagamama, which will celebrate its 20th birthday next year, was his brilliant idea, bringing noodles and soups to the masses, who fell love with the refectory tables and killer combination of speed and flavour. He's no longer at the helm, but it's still a dead-cert for speedy, tasty lunch. Then there's been Hakkasan, Cha Cha Moon, and a newish foray into Milanese bakery with Princi in London's Soho (drove past last night at 8pm – it was packed).
But it's his Thai mini-chain Busaba Eathai, now more than 10 years old itself, that is one of a handful of go-to places when I want no surprises, lots of good food and a relaxed time.
We pile in to the Bird Street branch just before the Saturday-night rush, thereby avoiding lingering by the incense burning by a statue of Buddha, and the attention of the queue-wrangler. The interior hasn't changed since the über-chic designer Christian Liaigre's original plan – dark-wood benches and huge, square, shared tables under soft lighting. Nor need it have changed; it's a style that gives diners the feeling they're somewhere more special than a post-shopping fuel stop.
Sprawled over two sides of the table, we order quickly and extensively. The beauty of eating out with good friends is that there's no need to hide one's greed.
Still feeling New Yearish, we stay off the alcohol and have a jasmine smoothie (unusual, not displeasing, although it does look like puréed frogspawn), cherry soda and home-made lemonades, which are perfect foils for the deeply savoury, tangy Thai food. The menu hasn't changed in years either, since Thai-food expert David Thompson consulted. Classic starters of chicken satay (£4.95) and vegetable spring rolls (£3.90) are well executed, but it's the green papaya salad (£6.90) I'd recommend to anyone – almost unbearably zingy, with tender strips of fruit and crisp dried shrimp getting a punch of flavour from the chilli heat. That clears the passages good and proper for more Thai crowd-pleasers.
Grilled duck with tamarind sauce (£12.40) is rich and tender, cut thick, and I need almost all of the coconut rice, served in a dinky bamboo pot, to soak up the juices. Mr M and neighbour Paul fight over a beef green curry stir fry with sweet basil (£9.40) and the phad thai (£7.40), which is the probably the least remarkable dish on the menu. But it is comforting in the same way that a phad thai eaten at the kitchen counter out of a foil container when you're hungry is.
Meat-free Tara hunkers down over a bowl of tom yam talay, a spicy sour dish of soup and noodles, adorned with prawn, squid and baby clams (£6.70). I'd say you'd have to really love seafood to contend with the pungent flavours and squiddy bits, but it seems authentic. Most importantly, everything tastes fresh and cooked with care, which appears to be too much to ask of some more expensive restaurants, never mind speed-eating chains. Apparently everything is made on site each day, with curry pastes made fresh twice a day. Now that's impressive, particularly when you're paying less than £20 a head for a proper blow-out.
Do I need to justify going to an old favourite instead of a new cutting-edge eatery? If so, I'd say wouldn't everyone want to be reminded just how good a place still is after 10 years? There are, alas, only seven Busabas, six in London and one in Oxfordshire's ritzy shopping enclave Bicester Village, but perhaps with some lobbying, Mrs Yau (who's in charge) could be persuaded to branch out...
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
Busaba Eathai, 8-13 Bird Street, London W1, tel: 020 7518 8080 Lunch and dinner daily. £38 for two, including soft drinks
More terrific Thais
7 Swan Street, Warwick, tel: 01926 494 303
Helpful staff and beautifully cooked Thai food using top-class ingredients make this friendly, informal place in the middle of town a gem
Kemp Hall Passage, 130a High Street, Oxford, tel: 01865 202 233
Fresh and flavoursome Thai fare at what is still often hailed as the best restaurant in Oxford; it occupies an interesting (if sometimes noisy) Tudor building, just off the high street
Rim Nim Thai restaurant
Butler's Wharf, New Road, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, tel: 01422 846 888
Delicate Thai food makes this tiny restaurant overlooking the Rochdale Canal basin a very popular venue
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2010' www.hardens.com
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