You know how, in a dream, you find yourself surrounded with familiar objects, landscapes and people but also with completely unfamiliar, surreal and alarming things? That sense of walking down a street near your old school which is also, somehow, a path on the side of the Grand Canyon, populated with giant talking lemurs? The Naamyaa Café made me feel like that. It's both Western and Eastern, basic and exotic, frank and inscrutable.
It's the newest thing from Alan Yau, one of the great innovators of the catering world. He's the chap who invented Wagamama in 1992 and introduced British lunchers to the restaurant as high-tech, spick-and-span Japanese works canteen. He sold the chain after five years, and launched the Busaba Eathai, a Westernising of the Thai eating experience. The Busaba interiors were dark and woody as saunas and the food was prepared by David Thompson, the Australian expert on Thai cuisine. It became the after-the-movie supper venue for Soho nighthawks, once they'd got over their British reluctance to share a table with strangers.
Now, after ventures with Chinese cuisine, he's offering Thai street food. Walk into the Naamyaa Café in Islington (soon to become a chain), and your eyes have to take in a lot of design. Four or five competing designers seem to have been turned loose on the interior. The far wall seems to be made of brown turf briquettes, inset with little gold Buddhas. The side wall is tiled with coral-on-white scenes of temples, hillsides and rustic wooing – the Siamese equivalent of Willow pattern. The bar stools are bamboo painted a tart's-lipstick-red. Above the pale pistachio banquettes, a cat's cradle of black wires holds a collection of yellow fairy lights. The overall effect of these warring designs is chaotic but rather jolly.
And look at the menu! It's full of little photographs of the dishes, photographs that are both a) too small to see properly, and b) faintly offputting. 'Stir-fried free range corn-fed chicken & asparagus', for example, is illustrated by a picture of what looks like blackened toast and a fried egg.
Another surprise is to find, among the other 'street food' selections, chilli dog, bacon burger, Caesar salad and USDA rib-eye steak. Are they on the menu for the faint-hearted who can't cope with Thai curry? Or is this genuinely what le tout Bangkok has for lunch?
From the Small Plates selection (which includes satay with peanut sauce, mussels with chilli jam, chicken wings – basic stuff) we tried fried calamari, salmon sashimi and jasmine tea-smoked baby back pork ribs. The calamari were wonderfully fresh and tangy, deep-fried in 'curry spice' (unspecified) with Thai garlic and coriander. The salmon looked sad under its green shroud but tasted fine – the fish wondrously soft and cold, the Thai pesto whacking the back of my throat with a zesty kick. The ribs, though, were the stand-out: big, meaty, smoky and sweet (they'd been sautéed in Chinese five-spice, braised for four hours, smoked with jasmine tea then grilled and brushed with palm sugar); they fell off the bone in heavenly chunks. "There's a strange levity about all these starters," said my date, Julia. "These ribs are so light and un-claggy, they're like no ribs I've ever had."
Thereafter, things went downhill. From the rice dishes, I chose stir-fried ginger, spring onion and seabass. It was terrible. Three small wedges of over-roasted fish were served with over-boiled pak choi. On a mountain of white rice sat a fried egg that had clearly been fried at hell's-cauldron heat and was frizzy at the edges. Runny egg-yolk and rice do not go together; they certainly don't work with roast fish.
Julia's chicken laksa looked strikingly unappetising, a hefty soup of bits'n'pieces covered in beansprouts and sweet potato crisps. From its gloopy depths she extracted some dried shrimp, a hard-boiled egg the size of a baby's head, some tofu and a minimal amount of chicken. "There is some down here," she announced. "But it's dry and hopeless and I'm not convinced it's been fed on corn, or anything else."
The puddings bordered on the sinister. Layers of coconut and lime jelly were alternately too gelatinous to be borne. Their colour resembled the home strip of Celtic FC, and frankly I'd rather have eaten the shorts. A selection of cakes was on offer, but we turned them down because they looked too dry. Some kind of crumble yielded a mouthful of fruit, but you needed to dig down through layers of pack-ice and shale to get to the actual crumble.
It was a weird meal. The first half was so promising, the second so disastrous – as if the chap who understands about cooking simply took off at 2pm. There's something slapdash about the food that's at odds with the smartness of the décor and the service. There'll soon be a Naamyaa Café in a street near you, apparently. Try it by all means, for the spectacle – but it might be wise to leave soon after the ribs.
Naamyaa Café, 407 St John Street, London EC1 (020-3122 0988). Around £80 for two, with drinks.
Tipping policy: ‘No service charge. All tips go to the staff’
Side orders: Tempting Thais
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