Let me be candid for a moment. I’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to restaurant chains. Over the years of eating out in such places, whilst I’ve only occasionally had truly awful experiences, neither have I encountered truly great food either.
I’m not such a prat that I refuse to set foot in such places, and I’ve eaten my share of meals in Pizza Express, Wagamamas et al. They’ve been fine. And of course, I’ll grab a coffee and croissant from the various chains or a quick lunch on the run. But when it comes to choosing where to spend my hard earned cash for a nice meal out, it’s not usually a chain I turn to.
But there are upsides to chains, not least the expectation of a familiar menu, delivered in a consistent way, at prices that have benefited from economies of scale in purchasing. Many chains do a pretty good job of providing food that their public enjoy and can afford, in well-managed spaces run by well-trained staff.
Recently, I accepted an invitation to review Thai Square, a small chain of 17 restaurants in London and nearby towns.
Existing commitments made it easiest for me to visit the St Albans branch, located in the heart of the town centre, on the junction of the tiny George Street and Verulam Road.
It’s housed in a really beautiful 15th century timber-framed building which has been refurbished sensitively to retain original features. Large windows along the George Street side let in plenty of natural light during the day. It’s a very pleasant space.
To start, we both went for freshly blended non-alcoholic fruit drinks. My Melon Mint (£5) was delicious, like a glass of summer, full of the freshness of melon and mint. The layer of froth was enormous though, which meant that the glass contained far less drinkable volume than it appears. Pete’s Kiwi Berry (£5) fared better on that front, and was equally fresh and tasty, combining kiwi fruit with red berries for an altogether sweeter result. Both benefited from being light rather than smoothie thick or sticky; too many places make their non-alcoholic options too dessert-like.
Our first starter was the Giant Duck Spring Roll (£6.50). These were decent, crispy without being greasy and with a nice filling of duck, cabbage, carrots and vermicelli. The hoisin sauce alongside was a decent one, with pleasant slightly smoky flavour. Pete commented that it was like a fried version of aromatic crispy duck pancakes.
For our other starter, we actually ordered a main dish, the Yum Nua (Beef Salad) (£8.95). Described as thinly sliced grilled sirloin with a “fresh cucumber salad, Thai herbs and spicy dressing” I was a little disappointed that there was more celery than cucumber (but that’s because I dislike it and picked it out – the husband didn’t mind its presence at all). The textures and flavours were great, with lovely freshness from cucumber, tomato, raw onion and shredded lettuce, a nice bit of chew from the beef and great heat and flavour from the dressing and herbs. Another plus point is that the salad had been properly tossed, ensuring that all the components were nicely coated in the dressing.
The portion was decent, and would be ideal on its own for a light, healthy lunch.
For actual mains, we quickly selected a (Chicken) Gang Penang (£8.50) as it’s a dish we order regularly and have tried at many Thai restaurants over the years. Described as a “dry curry” it was served with a thick sauce, thicker than we’ve encountered elsewhere. Although the menu listed this dish as relatively hot, with the same two chilli icon as the beef salad, it was actually milder than we expected and could have benefited from a touch more heat.
Wanting to try one of the many fish and seafood dishes on offer, I asked for guidance from the staff and was directed towards the Chu-Chee Goong (King Prawns) (£13.95), recommended for the enormous size of the king prawns. Sadly, although our waitress had just written down our order for Penang chicken, it didn’t occur to her to point out that the sauces are virtually identical. Indeed, when I asked after the dishes had been delivered and tasted, staff confirmed that the only difference was the addition of extra lime leaves to the Chu-Chee. The lack of variation in flavours was a disappointment, but still, the prawns were good, and as promised, the four giants on the plate were truly enormous! Serving them in their shell underneath a thick sauce did make them difficult to eat, but I persevered!
A side dish of Pak Choi With Garlic And Oyster Sauce (£5.95) was excellent, cooked to just the right point of softness and crunchiness and coated nicely in the sauce.
Chicken Fried Rice (£7.50) is another dish we often order, a plain and simply comfort dish that we occasionally crave in place of richer offerings. Although egg fried, coconut or sticky rice might be a more appropriate choice to go with the rest of our order, we wanted to see how Thai Square’s version compared to those we know well. In short, the flavours were right but there was not enough chicken and the portion was much smaller than we’ve encountered elsewhere.
The Kooneow Mamuang (Coconut Sticky Rice With Mango) (£6.50) was surprising and delicious. Surprising because the faintly green rice was not only wonderfully chewy (which I expected) but also salty rather than sweet (which I didn’t). This dense, mildly savoury rice was a great contrast to the fresh mango, though the latter wasn’t as sweet as the best mangoes can be. The coconut cream on the plate served more as decoration than ingredient for me, as it had very little flavour of its own.
So, as you can see, we had a good meal. I’d rate it as decent rather than stellar, but I’m not trying to damn with faint praise. What we ate was certainly better than we’ve had in many (independent, non-chain) Thai restaurants, though not the very best we have experienced.
My only remaining issue is that the prices seem a little high, and that’s even to someone accustomed to London prices. St Albans has a great many dining options, and whilst there’s a large enough population (and visitors) to support them, I can’t help but feel most of the prices are £1 or £2 too spendy for what we ate.
On the bank holiday Saturday lunch time of our visit, we weren’t the only diners, but only 3 other tables were occupied in a space that can seat many, many more.
Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Thai Square.