Dinner at Bua Thai, St Albans

Sea bass at Bua Thai, St Albans

Sea bass at Bua Thai, St Albans - Credit: Archant

Thai restaurants hold a firm footing among the ever-growing options for dining out offered by St Albans. Food and drink editor Richard Cawthorne visits one that, while small, offers big variety and value

Chicken satay

Chicken satay - Credit: Archant

St Albans boasts at least eight Thai eating houses among the 240-plus restaurants in the city currently listed online, a comparatively small number, but all long-standing examples of their kind in an industry where longevity is the surest sign of success.

Thai cooking’s emphasis on fresh ingredients and even more exotic herbs and spices than Chinese or Indian/Bangladeshi cuisine is a major factor in its appeal to me, along with some intriguing dishes, the traditional lengthy menus and near-guaranteed gracious service. If you’re in the mood for something other than steak and chips and casting your net a bit wider than ‘the Chinese round the corner’, it’s a good bet.

Set strategically close to St Albans’ office community, Bua Thai is a favourite if tiny and completely unprepossessing meeting place in the city for fans of eating out, having spent some years building up an enthusiastic following for its two-courses-for-a-fiver (or thereabouts) business lunches. From there, word of mouth has generated a healthy evening trade, more than enough to keep the 40 or so covers buzzing. Because it’s so small, it needs only a few regulars to generate the sort of relaxed atmosphere that seems to go with Thai cuisine, as happened on the evening I was there.

It’s also a lot of fun playing with the names of the dishes. English translations are provided, but it’s entertaining to consider that if you order Ped Makham what you get is sliced breast of roasted duck with chef’s special tamarind sauce and crispy deep-fried challot. That’s clearly a nod to the Western audience, but if you want exotic, Bua Thai can do that too. Tom Yung Goong is a hot and sour soup with king prawns, mushrooms and the aromatic Thai herbs galangal, lemon grass and lime leaves. Gang Pah, to name another well-known offering, is otherwise known as jungle curry, hot and spicy again, with a choice of chicken, beef, pork or prawns cooked with jungle curry paste, fresh vegetables, Thai herbs and basil leaves.

Special mention should also go to Weeping Tiger, otherwise known as sirloin steak served on a sizzling plate with chef’s special spicy sauce.

Typically, Bua Thai’s menu offers 80 dishes, from soups and salads to noodles, with prices from less than £5. Chef’s specials, of which there are some 15, are around the £10 mark. You could spend an hour trying to decide what to order knowing that whatever it was you would be unlikely to spend much more than £15 a head for two courses, plus drinks.

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In the event, we stayed with the familiar, kicking off with the Bua Thai mixed hors d’oeuvres for two (£10.50), as good an introduction as any to the style of the restaurant. The platter consisted of two each of chicken satay, golden bags (crispy parcels filled with chicken and vegetables with sweet chilli sauce), savoury prawn toast and corn cake (or Tord Man Khao Pod), all with peanut and the ubiquitous chilli sauce.

For mains, my fellow critic would not be parted from a particular favourite, Pad Thai (£7.50, left), which she describes as ‘real comfort food’ and in Bua Thai’s case ‘always flavoursome’ with – a key point - the noodles properly separated and not gooey, as has been known elsewhere. For Thai food beginners, this is a traditional dish, often with a choice of chicken, pork, beef or, as in this case, prawns, stir fried with rice noodles, egg and bean sprouts flavoured with a special sauce and served with ground peanut.

With everybody in the mood to be healthy, I chose Pla Sam Rod, a crispy seabass fillet (£12.50, far left) with – the deciding factor – chef’s special tamarind sauce, which was exactly as good as it sounds. Dessert, again traditionally, was taken care of in the form of (free) fresh orange segments, a fitting end to a relaxed evening in a simple, value-for-money neighbourhood restaurant. n

The cost of this meal for two was £41.50, including two glasses of wine. Service is extra.

This is an independent review featuring a restaurant selected and experienced by our food and drink editor. The restaurant was not told it was being reviewed

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