I ate out a lot in Reading long before I started Edible Reading. I remember when this town was a wasteland for diners, and all the places that have come and gone since those days. All the nacky chains when the Oracle first opened: Yellow River Café, Old Orleans, Ma Potter (did anyone ever actually go to Ma Potter?) I remember Bistro Je T’Aime, on Friar Street where Nando’s is now, a joint whose sole purpose seemed to be to put people off French food forever. Lots of restaurants have closed as Reading has slowly, gradually improved on the culinary front – the most recent, Kyklos, only last month. And yet throughout all that time Thai Corner has been quietly, unobtrusively plying its trade on the corner of Friar Street and West Street, at an end of town which was unfashionable ten years ago and is even more unfashionable now.
It feels like Thai Corner has always been there, and back in the day I used to go there an awful lot. It was my go-to place when I wanted something tasty and affordable, because even at the turn of the century I liked to avoid chain restaurants where possible. But I haven’t been there in ages, to the extent where I wouldn’t have been surprised to walk past to find that it was the latest casualty in the constant battle restaurants face to stay afloat. I’ve always taken for granted that it would be around when I next wanted to visit, and if I’m honest I was slightly reluctant to review it in case it had a bad night (because I can’t remember ever having had a bad meal at Thai Corner). Nonetheless I put my nagging worries to one side and headed over on a rainy evening (has there been any other sort, this year?) to visit it “on duty”.
The interior of the restaurant is a great illustration of how to use a compact space really well. They manage to pack a lot of tables in without you ever feeling like you’re on someone else’s lap or subjected to their small talk – mainly by breaking up the room with pillars and partitions. It’s also a very attractive room: all red silk and black framed lights, golden bells, wooden shutters and lighting which manages to be tasteful and flattering while still giving you a fighting chance of seeing what you’re eating. Handsome, comfy furniture, too. I’m sorry to come over all Living Etc., but I was really surprised by what a nice room it was to eat in; they’ve clearly invested in doing it up, and it shows.
First things first: the Thai red wine (Monsoon Valley, a snip at about sixteen quid a bottle) is really tasty, light and fruity. I could see some other quite tempting things on the list (I think I saw Chateau Cissac on there for less than £30, for instance), but a good bottle of easy drinking red at that price was just too good to pass up. We ordered some prawn crackers to keep us going during the decision-making process and those were good too – the proper, thin, fishy Thai sort rather than the fluffy white Chinese ones that are always slightly reminiscent of polystyrene packing chips.
I’ve clearly learned nothing from my last trip to a Thai restaurant, The Warwick, because again we started with the mixed starters, which were served on a handsome traditional-looking golden platter (I’m not sure if the accompanying paper doily was quite so traditional, but never mind). I know it’s a bit of a cliché but it’s a useful way to assess lots of dishes at once. As assessments go, Thai Corner’s selection weren’t particularly inspiring. The spring roll was bland and the pastry was too thick and heavy; it was improved by dipping it in sweet chilli sauce, but then again what isn’t? The chicken satay was only just hot and only just cooked, with no real texture on the outside and no real flavour. Again, the satay sauce wasn’t bad but there wasn’t a lot of it and it didn’t redeem matters. The fish cakes were better – they’re not usually my cup of tea because I’ve always found the spongey-bouncy texture a little off-putting but these tasted good, with hints of lemongrass and spring onion.
The pick of the bunch was the sesame prawn toast: what’s not to like, really, about a triangle of fried bread (a mainstay of the English breakfast) topped with minced prawns and a crispy layer of sesame seeds? It’s one of those dishes people eat all the time at Chinese and Thai restaurants without really thinking about it but when done well it’s a genuine delight. Thai Corner’s prawn toasts were exactly that – the layer of prawn not too thick, tender and meaty rather than pink and springy. With hindsight I should have just ordered lots of those and forgotten all the other starters but that’s hindsight for you, always taunting you with the perfect meals you didn’t have.
The mains, fortunately, were better – although still a long way from perfect. The prawn Gang Ped (red curry with bamboo shoots and aubergine) was pleasant enough but not very interesting. The prawns were firm and well cooked, the vegetables were all tasty and not soggy, but the sauce let it down. There was no heat there, no real sign of fish sauce and no complexity in the flavour, so all you really got was the sweetness. Poured onto the coconut rice towards the end it was delicious, but almost more like a dessert than a main. The chilli lamb, on the other hand, was fantastic: a generous helping of thin slices of tender lamb in a delicious sauce which had everything the red curry sauce had been missing – heat from the chilli, zing from the lemongrass and a little bit of oomph from the garlic. The green beans in it had just enough crunch, too, to add the contrast the dish needed. It was by far the best thing I ate all night.
On the side we had a couple of bowls of that coconut rice plus a serving of pad broccoli. I’m afraid I insisted on this as I remember the dish being simple steamed broccoli served in a thin, almost fragrant oyster sauce which lifted the broccoli just brilliantly. However, my memory must be a bit out of date as the sauce with this broccoli was pale, watery and insipid and didn’t have anything going for it. This dish – less than half a floret and some underwhelming sauce – felt like a bit of an insult at £5.50 (I suppose when you have fish sauce in a lot of the dishes maybe you’ve given vegetarians up as a lost cause).
Service at Thai Corner merits a mention because it gets the balance just right – friendly, helpful, there when you need them and (I’m not sure how they manage this) almost invisible when you don’t. It’s always been that way in my experience but it’s also particularly noteworthy because, on a Wednesday night, the place was almost completely full: it seems my worries that Thai Corner might be closed next time I wandered past were completely unfounded. This is a restaurant that has a lot of experience at managing a full house, and it shows. Looking at the staff serving the other tables they were efficient without being bustling, and busy without ever seeming out of control.
The total bill for two people – starters, mains, rice, a bottle of wine and that slightly tragic broccoli – came to just under sixty pounds, not including a tip. On this occasion we decided to forego dessert as we were just too full – although the Thai Corner desserts have never appealed to me, being a bunch of frozen offerings that are unlikely to have been made on the premises. It’s almost worth ordering the “Funky Pie”, though, just so you can sing your order to the tune of the 1980 Lipps Inc classic “Funky Town” in a busy restaurant (you can have that tip for free, and apologies in advance if those efficient, quiet, polite serving staff throw you out).
I know comparisons are odious, but it’s impossible to review Thai Corner without comparing it to The Warwick, its closest competitor in Reading. Thai Corner wins on many levels – it’s a lovely room, it’s a great use of space, the buzziness makes it a fun place to eat, the service is impossible to fault and the wine list is attractive. And if that’s all restaurants were about, Thai Corner would get as good a mark as there is. But, as so often, it comes down to the food and Thai Corner’s just isn’t quite as good as its rival all the way at the other end of town. The satay is a little too limp, the spring roll a little too heavy, the curry a little too bland. I liked Thai Corner – just like I always have – and it didn’t let me down, even if it didn’t quite blow me away either. Still, I know they won’t mind: more than ten years on, without any fuss or fanfare, they are still one of the best places to go in Reading for an unspecial occasion. They don’t need my custom, which is wonderful to see, and I admire them for doing what they do so well. And, if I’m being honest, a big part of me would be disappointed if they weren’t still around in another ten years.
Thai Corner – 7.0
47 West Street, RG1 1TZ