"Scorpions, or grasshoppers"
36 George Street seems to change hands quicker than a Paul Daniels card trick.
Over the past decade, the prime Oxford location has housed numerous restaurant brands, and for some reason or another it seems like nobody can keep the place open. As recently as 2009 it was the home of Cajun-style Tex-Mex outlet Old Orleans, which was abandoned for financial reasons by its parent company.
Next up was bizarre global-cuisine-on-a-pizza brand Fire & Stone, which managed a good run of 4 years before, presumably, the novelty of eating hoisin duck on a dough base wore off and the consumer focus shifted away from oddity and towards actual quality – the pizza-hunting consumers themselves likely moved to The White Rabbit about 200 feet across Gloucester Green which, coincidentally or not, opened around the same time and is now doing very good business indeed.
The viciously overpriced and wholly terrible burger-and-steak joint Cleaver could only endure 13 months at the site before once again shutting its doors in February of last year. Now, we see the most ambitious redesign of the two-storey location to date, as the Thai Leisure Group have installed an outpost of their bright, energetic and dazzlingly decorated street food brand Thaikhun. Previous history of the building aside, have the team finally cracked a winning formula?
Let’s start with the décor – there’s clearly been some serious investment put into transforming the place into an approximation of a bustling Bangkok side street food market, complete with road signs, traffic lights, tuk-tuks, flags, mismatched furniture and a long-tail boat suspended from the ceiling. The atmosphere is merry, loud and lively, and the staff strike a fine balance between welcoming and efficient. So far, so good.
The menu is fairly faithful to what you might actually find in Thailand, which is a welcome sign. Por pia sod – rice paper prawn rolls spiked with sharp coriander, shaved carrots and mint are served ice cold and have a robust, confident flavour. If you’re looking to start with something hot, go for the moo dad deaw pork. This huge pile of dangerously moreish strips is deep fried with palm sugar, pepper and soy and covered with sesame seeds – sticky and tender and with none of the hideous rubberiness that you find with similar pork dishes at a worrying proportion of ‘oriental’ restaurants.
Regular and avid readers of my restaurant reviews – that’s right, both of you – will know that if there’s sea bass on a menu, I’m physically unable to order anything else, and I wasn’t going to make an exception here. Thaikhun’s ‘pla pao’ is marinated in oyster sauce, covered in lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled over charcoal. If you’re not already salivating then we’re unlikely to ever be friends.
The geang phed Thai red curry doesn’t fare so well – whilst the fruity blend of grapes, pineapple and cherry tomatoes are all fresh and juicy, the sauce is disappointingly bland for such a classic dish, tasting of coconut milk and very little else. My only other gripe is the sticky rice, which takes on the texture of building materials and takes as much calorific output to carve yourself a serving as it would provide as dietary input.
However, where Thaikhun really comes into its own is as a family destination, as the menu caters for kids in a way that encourages them to try foods that are fairly outlandish for young palates, but in a way that won’t scare them off. Their ‘mix and match’ approach allows youngsters to pick from a selection of elements for each dish, and the restaurant offers complimentary fried insects with each kid’s meal. One question – why not do the same for adults? I would’ve loved some crickets, scorpions, or grasshoppers with my meal but it seems that the option is only provided for children, which is a shame. Nevertheless, I can imagine a kid’s party going down an absolute storm at Thaikhun, with the sensational visual display and affable staff catering perfectly to the little ones, with enough genuinely high-quality food to keep the adults more than happy.
Let’s hope that Thaikhun is here to stay – in a city bursting at the seams with every format of gastropub and eatery, it’s fantastic to welcome a restaurant with so much character, despite its minor flaws. Gin hâi a-ròi!
Children’s parties, sea bass, gin coolers
Don’t go for:
Tender rice, punchy curry, a quiet night with your partner