I have a funny relationship with Thai food, I think. It would never be my first choice when suggesting a meal out with friends but when I go to one I always like it. “Like” is the operative word here, though: I rarely love it. It would probably take a more discerning palate than mine to distinguish between the fishcakes or the pla chu chi I’ve had at all the Thai restaurants around Reading. So instead it comes down to the price and service, arguably the cherry on the cake rather than the cake itself. Sometimes a single dish will stand out, but my meals at Thai restaurants have generally been been solid and respectable – neither stellar nor sad, just somewhere comfortably in the middle.
This all dawned on me, as it happens, when I sat down at Chaiyaphum and started to go through the menu.
The decision to go to an out of town restaurant seems to happen increasingly when I am on a vegetarian week – for those of you new to the blog, my New Year’s resolution last year was to review one vegetarian main course per month – and here I was again, jumping into the car to go and eat tofu (not sarcasm: I was actually looking forward to trying the tofu). Chaiyaphum is up on the A4074 just before the turning for Gallowstree Common, the road towards Oxford which, like hundreds of others across the UK I’m sure, has the nickname “the seven bends of death”. The building itself is an old red brick pub on a crossroads where I can imagine highway robbery used to happen (ironically I once ate at the Pack Horse just down the road, where it was still very much taking place).
Inside, though, you’re under no illusions that you’re in a restaurant not a pub. Goodness, but it’s purple. The walls are purple. The ceiling is purple. We’re talking somewhere between Dairy Milk and Quality Street purple. Properly purple. That makes it sound awful, but actually I rather liked it, and the whole thing is decked out with statues of Buddha, art and artefacts, a picture of the Thai king and queen and, incongruously, a whacking great piano in the bar area. We ate in the room off to the right, a split level affair, with a nice view out onto the garden. A few tables were reserved when we got there, which was encouraging as we were literally the first people to arrive.
I don’t normally talk about background music in a restaurant, but I’m going to make an exception here just to say that Chaiyaphum had managed to get hold of the most surreal easy listening album of all time. I’d never heard hotel lobby soft jazz cover versions of Womaniser, Moves Like Jagger, Sweet Child O’ Mine and The Only Girl In The World before, and I can safely say that if I never do again it might be too soon. It took me right back to the Nineties, when adverts on late night ITV would proudly offer compilation CDs which were “not available in any shops”, usually with good reason.
Anyway, back to the food. The menu was almost identical to every other Thai restaurant menu I’ve read on duty, which made me wonder whether what we get is the anglicised version, watered down just enough to make it seem exotic yet safe. And therein lay the problem for Chaiyaphum, something I was pondering throughout my meal there – because when a restaurant is a little way out of town, especially when you have to drive to get there, being much the same as other local Thai restaurants just isn’t going to be enough. It has to be better, cleverer, more distinctive: otherwise why make the effort?
The starters were a mixture of the safe and the unknown. Starting with the safe, the chicken satay was a pretty good example. I think the meat was thigh rather than breast – always a good thing, in my book – but either way it was juicy and well marinated, tender with (I’d guess) some lemon grass. The satay was also good: deep, rich and earthy, although I always wish there was about twice as much sauce. But, and you can see the trend starting to come through loud and clear, it was good but not great. The sesame chicken toasts were just lovely, and eating them made me slightly sad that Thailand has this and we just get fried bread. It’s probably hard to excite anybody writing about these – I mean, you know exactly what they will look like, what they’ll taste like, how they will be, that exquisite balance of crunch and tenderness. And yet they rarely disappoint: these certainly didn’t, covered with sesame, packed with chicken and then fried to the point of decadent filth. I dipped mine in the small pot of chilli sauce (again, wishing there had been a little more) and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I knew I’d hardly taken a risk.
The third starter was more of a venture into the unknown, mainly because I find it very hard to turn down soft shell crab when it graces a menu with its presence. It came battered and fried, obscured by a cornucopia of other lovely things – lots of finely chopped garlic, fried onion, spring onion and a fair few slices of red chilli. I liked this dish an awful lot – the crab was delicious, the batter was light and delicate and all the gubbins on top really made every mouthful magnificent. It came with two pools of brown sauce – the menu describes both a pepper sauce and a Thai garlic sauce and I have no idea which this was but it really wasn’t needed and didn’t add an awful lot. At the end, after the crab was demolished (and it didn’t take long) we raced round the plate with our forks making sure not a scrap of the nice bits was left: all that remained were the sauces and the ubiquitous vegetable flower.
Main courses continued the trend. Gai pad himmaparm, recommended by the waitress, was a good example of a Thai chicken stir fry. This one had cashews, a few pieces of halved baby corn and plenty of vegetables – why is there always so much onion? – and was decent if not outstanding. The sauce was rich with chilli and especially garlic (nobody has ever gone wrong by giving me too much garlic) and was tasty but not life-changing. As so often with these things, it came in a flat shallow dish which meant that not only wasn’t there enough sauce but what sauce there was was blessedly difficult to get on to your plate, stirred in with the coconut rice where it belonged.
I’d been looking forward to the massamun tofu. Ordering it was, to some extent, playing percentages: I figured that one of my favourite things about eating Thai food was that glorious mixture of slightly sticky coconut rice and a sweet, spicy sauce, so if the tofu didn’t work out I would still get to enjoy most of the dish. The tofu itself wasn’t bad – you got lots of it, big hefty pieces, and they had some texture and contrast to them. That said, there was a slightly sour taste to it which seemed odd against the massamun sauce. The sauce itself also didn’t quite work – all sweet, no savoury, not enough punch or spice. Perhaps, because it was a vegetarian dish, there wasn’t any fish sauce in it to add that contrasting note. The potatoes in it, weird corrugated edges and all, were soft and floury and not quite right. Ditto for the slices of carrot, again tinned-vegetable soft. There were a few crisped fried onions on top, but not enough. By the time I got to the rice and sauce stage, ostensibly the highlight, my heart just wasn’t in it.
We both had coconut rice – the waitress asked if we wanted one between two and we decided against it, but we should have listened to her as one would have been quite enough. It was – bit of a theme here, isn’t there – pleasant: edible but not incredible.
We’d over ordered on the starters (wilfully if I’m honest, in case the whole tofu thing didn’t work out) so there was no chance of having dessert. We both had a glass of house sauvignon blanc – nice, fresh and easy to drink, if perhaps not quite as cold as I’d have liked – to start, and my companion also had a bottle of Tiger, after being told at extensive length about all the beers that were currently out of stock. I had a diet coke and didn’t hugely feel like I’d missed out.
Service was lovely. There seemed to be two waiting staff on and they were looking after quite a lot of tables, but regardless of how busy they were they were friendly, polite and happy to make recommendations. Beautiful uniforms, too – maybe a funny thing to notice, but there you are. The food took just about the right amount of time to come out, and all the other tables looked happy. I saw families with small children, a couple of chaps enjoying dinner together and, just across from me, a birthday celebration (with the exchange of bags from Fortnum & Mason – fancy!). They all looked like they were having a brilliant time, and I wondered why I wasn’t quite so enamoured.
The total bill, including a ten per cent service charge, was sixty-three pounds. Interestingly that service had been pre-added – perhaps the south Oxfordshire red trouser brigade (there was a very eye-catching example right next to my table, a veritable rhapsody in scarlet: I could barely stop gawping at him) aren’t so keen on tipping the staff. Anyway, it all seemed fair enough to me and the service was one of the high points so I wasn’t bothered, though I can imagine it would rankle with some diners.
As we drove away we were discussing whether Chaiyaphum was good enough to merit a drive out of town. As you can probably tell by now, my answer is not really. It’s by no means a bad restaurant: the food was decent, the service was charming, the room managed to be bling and tasteful at the same time, purple paint and all (I did find I left really wanting an individually wrapped hazelnut in caramel: the power of subliminal advertising). But ultimately, there is no USP for Chaiyaphum unless you live round the corner. It’s stylish, but so is Thai Table. The service is friendly, but it’s just as good at Thai Corner. The food is quite nice, but Thai food seems to be quite nice everywhere, and never better than that. Ultimately, it’s just not enough to get me to leave Reading and head for the Chilterns. Maybe this restaurant is for the red trouser brigade and they see it the other way round: because they can go to Chaiyaphum there’s nothing to make them go into town. Each to their own, and thanks but no thanks. Maybe next time I’ll go to Oli’s Thai in Oxford, which I’m told blows them all out of the water.
Chaiyaphum – 6.8
Reading Road, Cane End, RG4 9HE