Restaurant Review: Sukawatee, Hitchin
Enjoying lunch with Melissa Chai at Sukawatee in Hitchin
MEETING owner and restaurant manager Melissa Chai for the first time I am first struck by her easy charm and later by her infectious laughter as she relates the ups and downs of running her first restaurant. It seems a good place to start so I ask her how Sukawatee, located just round the corner from Hitchin's High Street, translates and learn that three years ago, when her daughter Melody was born, a Burmese priest blessed her with hopes of a happy and jolly life or 'sukawatee'.
As we sit down at our table Melissa tells me the restaurant is celebrating its first anniversary after its refurbishment. 'When we took over we continued the previous style for just over a year before deciding to modernise. We couldn't afford to lose business by closing down so all the staff helped.' It must have been an intense transformation, undertaken in only 12 days, but the results are for all to see, with customers now often commenting Sukawatee has the look and feel of a London restaurant.
Melissa has suggested we start with a sharing plate of hors d'oeuvres, combining chicken satay, spring rolls, fishcakes, prawn on toast, honey chicken and golden parcels. The tray makes for moreish finger food; crisp and succulent in one mouthful, sweet and sour in the next - all helped along with several dipping sauces. For a change, instead of wine, Melissa has also suggested drinking one of Sukawatee's freshly squeezed fruit juices. My cooling watermelon is ideal refreshment from some of the chilli spikes.
Through dainty nibbles Melissa explains how the refurbishment also extended to the menu, 'We included some Malaysian dishes in the menu as well as Thai. Nowadays people travel a lot more to Thailand and Malaysia, so they know a lot more about Asian food. Because we are a small business we have the flexibility to cook dishes not necessarily on the menu, which customers may have eaten during their travels.'
For our main course Melissa is keen to show off the skills of her head chef, Kian Soh, developed over 15 years in the kitchen. Dish after dish of spectacularly colourful food combinations are laid before us. Seafood includes fresh steamed mussels in their shells, gigantic king prawns in a mild coconut curry and a clay pot containing crab claws, scallops and prawns served with glass noodles and leeks. A hollowed out bisected pineapple is filled to the brim with tropical fried rice, chicken, prawn and roasted cashew, and of course we couldn't forget everyone's favourite, phad Thai; traditional Thai noodles with prawns, bean sprouts and tamarind sauce.
Melissa summarises the main differences between Thai and Malaysian cooking, 'Thai dishes tend to be more extreme. If they are spicy they're very spicy and if they are sour they're very sour, while Malaysian dishes generally tend to be just hot and spicy.'
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Presentation of all the dishes demonstrates considerable handiwork; the orange and yellow flesh of a partially skinned melon is adeptly carved into a perfect array of close knit flowers. Kian casually tells me it took only 20 minutes.
Melissa is also keen for me to try the contents of one of the �5.50 set lunch menus. Chicken satay, chicken green curry, vegetables and Thai fragrant rice are attractively laid out in separate sections of a black lacquered Bento box. The price includes tea or coffee making it a regularly affordable lunchtime treat.
Melissa's husband, Simon, has been instrumental in helping her forge ahead with Sukawatee's plans - so much so she jokingly refers to him as her 'buddha'. However the restaurant has been very much her baby as Simon has several of his own restaurants to look after.
We finish our lunch with Thai desserts. I try the deep-fried ice-cream - an ice-cream ball rolled in cake crumbs and quickly deep-fried, so that exterior and interior contrast hot with cold, and crunchy with silky smooth. It is understandably one of the most popular desserts and, along with the other dishes, enough to make anyone happy and jolly.
Sukawatee80 Hermitage Road, HitchinSG5 1DB 01462 423733 / 01462 450255