ChaophrayaThe Townhouse, Nelson Mandela Place,
0141 332 0041
£ – inexpensive
££ – mid-price
£££ – expensive
££££ – very expensive
Bling beats bliss
Review published on 04/02/2013 © Sunday Herald
In terms of theatricality, the Athenaeum in Glasgow, formerly the RSAMD, has found a fitting tenant in Chaophraya, the glitzy Thai chain. The building, inspired by the Greek Athenaion, meaning temple of Athena (a place where poets gathered for readings), was established in 1887 to provide a source of mental cultivation, moral improvement and delightful recreation to all classes.
Its architect, JJ Burnet, had lost out to Charles Rennie Mackintosh when he tendered for the Glasgow School of Art but, inspired by French Beaux-Arts Classicism, he gave Glasgow another of its most splendid and striking buildings. Built in the pioneering elevator style in which height makes the most of a narrow plot, I remember loving it as a child, when I went along for drama and dance classes. Hilarious really, we skinned-knee girls flitting about the central hall, dressed in tunics to resemble mythical Greek nymphs, in an earnest attempt to learn eurythmy, the art of expressive, graceful movement.
Well, that didnt work, for me at least, but with its balconies, balustrades, pilasters, turrets, cornices, arched recesses, sculpted figures and, of course, its octagonal Tower of the Winds-style cupola, the building made the spirits soar, and encouraged you to connect with the finer things in life.
No-one could accuse Chaophraya of being indifferent to the buildings unique architectural character. It honours it, and embellishes it further, with an opulent infusion of golden buddhas, oriental lacquer and lustre, giving the place a palpable five-star resort, expense-account feel. The greeters are young women with admirable cleavages popping up from their figure-hugging dresses who look as though they have been recruited from the spa at a deluxe hotel.
Bemused by the swank, I didnt demur when one such beauty told us that she would need our table back in an hour and a half. The rich decor and clubby atmosphere conspire to create a humble oh, how privileged we are to gain admission to this select establishment sentiment, a feeling that quickly turned to something approaching indignation when the over-priced, third-rate reality of the food impinged.
The menu comes with some hefty price tags. A hot/sour tom yum soup, for instance, costs £8.95, while coconut rice will set you back £3.95. Most of the main dishes are in the £15-£18 bracket. Other than the environment and lets be fair here, some people will happily pay through the nose for ambience I cant see what this confident high pricing is based on. Its most certainly not cutting-edge, competent Thai cooking or authenticity, for that matter.
One of the better deals on the menu is a £39 mixed grill (steak, chicken breast, king prawns and lamb chops) flambéed with whisky, served on a stunning brochette (note the aspirational use of French) with grilled vegetables, Panang and green curry sauces. Theres a fondue too. These everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dishes doubtless make good business sense, catering for diners who are intimidated by the prospect of composing a meal around foreign dishes.
Considering that our golden baskets (five flaky fried mouthfuls with all the heft of a crisp) came with what tasted like dull, defrosted veg, with a vague hint of curry powder, and cost £7, we werent impressed. The cod and coley fish cakes at least had some essential flavour.
Street-style pan-fried crispy pork belly tossed with fresh chillies, garlic, green beans and hot basil leaves, advertised as the chefs signature dish, was tragic.
The pork tasted old, wasnt crisp, and resembled the dogs dinner. Roasted duck with palm sugar and tamarind sauce (£14.55) was another appetite-killer: stale tasting, dry meat, this time in a cloying, glossy sauce.
By the time I had sampled the rice noodles, which were advertised as cooked with soy sauce, bean sprouts and fried garlic, it was time to skip desserts and leave. The bland noodles stuck together like glue, lacking lubrication and the aromatics that might have brought them to life.
Maybe the chef just couldnt be bothered, or was outside having a fag at the time, and so had devolved the task to the kitchen porter. On second thoughts, the kitchen porter might make a better job of it.
Twist and shout
Review published on 16/07/2012 © Sunday Herald
Its one of those comedy gold moments. A hushed dining room. Voices suddenly raised. Diners turn towards the glass-fronted kitchen. Inside, one of the chefs is going radio rental at a poor waiter. Moments later, a waitress comes out and sheepishly turns the volume down by sliding the glass door shut. Too late, sweetheart.
Still, its Chaophrayas first night and there are bound to be teething problems. And frankly, a bit of fireworks like that can only do a restaurant some good; they should arrange a show every night after they have completed the staff training, of course because theres no denying that the young waiting staff are pleasant but have not yet been trained.
Take the Thai Cullen skink I ordered, posted missing when the starters are brought to the table. Our eyes follow the condemned waiter as he returns to the kitchen with the bad news. Within moments a chef can be seen animatedly waving a slip of paper before him. We take it the words Cullen skink arent on it. The poor boy didnt even take the order.
Enough opening night entertainment. Is the food any good? The Thai fish cakes are delicious, packed with cod and coley, fresh green vegetables, lime leaves and punchy with red curry spice, and a revelation compared to the insipid versions served up in most places these days.
The ribs are sweet, reasonably tender, sticky and pineappley although the staff have no idea whether they should be served with fingerbowls or napkins to clean up the gooey aftermath. So they dont bother with either.
To be fair theres possibly a management problem here. The rookie staff certainly seem adrift tonight. Is that because theres a very offhand manager type in a grey suit spending a lot of time with another man who seems to be connected with the restaurant and is dining at the table next to us. Who knows? But its not a look that inspires confidence. Not in me, anyway. Not on a first night.
That Cullen skink? Its here. And this is where Glasgow Chaophraya which is apparently the largest Thai restaurant in the UK does well. Its one of a number of Scottish dishes given a Thai twist. Instead of cream theres coconut milk, instead of bog-standard onion theres Thai red onion. And a fair hit of lemongrass for luck.
Does it work? Yes. Its a lovely combination of flavours, although theres not nearly enough smoked haddock in it; its all a bit watery; and who diced those potatoes? More Scottish-Thai craziness, anyone?
The haddock fillet with hot, sweet and spicy sauce whatever that is is not the most attractive when it arrives, especially as this is supposed to be fine dining. Its been pan fried, broken into three pieces and ladled with a sweet, peppery, sour sauce that covers up the fact the fish is clumsily cooked. Luckily for the kitchen, it tastes great.
Debs has spicy beef salad which is small but brilliantly spiced and marinated. The fillet beef is superbly tender, the flavours of lime, mint and chilli bursting through a sweet undertone. Excellent.
Now, Glasgows no stranger to restaurants boasting they are the largest. We did once have the largest Indian restaurant in Europe, and may well have the largest Chinese in the UK. What we dont usually hear is any claims of being the best in the UK.
Will Chaophraya change that? Its yet another large English chain there are four other restaurants albeit an apparently successful one. The decor is certainly stunning and its a classy transformation of a beautiful building but its let down a bit by some budget hotel-style tables and chairs and maybe tablecloths would help.
The food is boutique Thai food or fine dining as they call it. Its generally pretty good although are those big photographs of dishes in the kitchen really necessary? Dont the chefs already know what the dishes should look like? And the pricing? High.