30th December 2016

Busaba • 7-11 Verulam Rd • Christopher Place • St Albans • AL3 4DA • 01727 224 680

Reviewed by Jill Glenn

The first branch of Busaba Eathai opened on Soho’s Wardour Street in 1999. Today this modern, informal Thai dining venue has 16 locations, mainly in London, although it is expanding across the country, and its newest incarnation has recently opened in St Albans.

The imposing frontage gives way to an equally imposing interior. It’s effortlessly stylish in a casual, oriental way. There’s a semi-open kitchen across the back, and a trio of big paper lanterns above the main dining area. And it’s huge – but cleverly laid out, so although the atmosphere is very buzzy, it’s not at all overwhelming. It doesn’t feel crowded, even when most of the adjacent tables are occupied. Service is friendly, knowledgeable and straightforward.

A carafe of iced water is delivered promptly (and refilled without delay during the meal), and followed by a basket of very crunchy prawn crackers and a delicious dip with a serious kick. It’s all looking very promising. The menu is concise, but offers plenty of variety and potential for mix-and-match feasts, with Small Plates, Wok Noodles, Stir Fry dishes and the Bangkok Char-Grill. There’s also a convenient ‘chilli rating’: ‘slight tingle’, ‘Nice and spicy’ and ‘Hot stuff’.

From the Small Plates selection we pick Fragrant fried chicken (lightly spiced chicken breast, chilli lemongrass sauce) and Thai calamari, with ginger and green peppercorn. Both are excellent choices. I’d envisaged strips of chicken, but these are chunks, and decent chunks at that, in a light, crunchy coating. It’s very clean, in both look and taste. The sauce is zingy with lime, and wows the tastebuds. Meanwhile the calamari is in the same magical coating (rice flour, we learn later) that gives great texture. As for flavour, although neither of us can spot the ginger specifically, it’s wonderfully warm in both temperature and a mouth-filling, comforting way. I stop eating only because I know my limitations.

To follow there is Tamarind fish fillet (pollock strips, Thai ginger, garlic, red chilli and kaffir lime) and Massaman duck (braised duck, potato, peanut, star anise, cinnamon, onion). In the former the tamarind blends in well in this really clever combination of oriental, citrusy ingredients that set your soul – and your tongue – alight. The fish itself is a little bland, but it flakes nicely and has good texture, and there is so much flavour packed into the rest of the dish that, overall, it’s very punchy.

The Massaman duck is a complete contrast: a really warming dish, in which the star anise is particularly evident. The meat is very tender, and has taken on the spices beautifully; it’s rustic and rich, and, while not a classic Massaman, encapsulates everything that makes a good one good. Our only criticism is that we’d like the pieces of potato cut smaller… but really, it’s not hard to do that ourselves.

Along with these we’ve ordered rice, of course, and Phad phak, a delicious assemblage of French beans, broccoli, courgettes, baby corn, cashews and pine nuts. It’s a mixed veg dish, essentially, but what a mixed veg… perfectly al dente in bitesized pieces, light in flavour and with the warmth of the nuts to elevate it still further.

We are, sadly, defeated by the thought of the Thai-inspired desserts. though the Crème brûlée infused with kaffir lime almost sways me. Next time we tell each other. Next time. With food as clever and seductive as this, there’ll certainly be a next time.

Price Guide: SMALL PLATES: £4.95-£7.50 • MAINS: £8.25-£15.50
DESSERTS: £3.50-£6.50 • HOUSE WINE: £16.90

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