I am in the minority; I never warmed to Hakkasan, underwhelmed by all three of the holy trinity of food, service and setting. Sitting in nightclub-like gloom, eating overpriced food served by poorly trained staff just doesn’t appeal and I’ve been at a loss to understand either the Michelin star or the multitude of fans. As for Wagamama, I credit it with popularising Japanese-inspired ramen more widely across the UK, and have certainly grabbed a quick meal there on occasion, but it’s not a restaurant I seek out. "Acceptable" is the best I can say of it, though at least it’s far cheaper than Hakkasan.
So Naamyaa, also from Alan Yau, was not a restaurant I made any particular effort to visit when it launched last year. (Yauatcha remains on my list, I have always assumed I’d like it but simply never managed to visit. Busaba Eathai I hear is decent, offering authentic Thai in sleek surrounds at high prices).
Indeed, I only came to visit Naamyaa at all after a seriously misguided visit to GBK. (I know, I know, I’ve said often enough that any restaurant that needs to put ‘gourmet’, ‘fine’ or ‘ultimate’ in its name clearly isn’t; in my defence a brewery we really like wanted to celebrate making it onto the GBK drinks menu and asked us to come along). Ten minutes was all we could endure of the appallingly awful "burgers", the too-close tables and the chest-vibrating music rendered into unrecognisable thumpy white noise by too many hard surfaces and a poor quality sound system. Social media came to the rescue when we asked for recommendations within the immediate area. Naamyaa was suggested three times within the first several responses!
Naamyaa is described as a "Bangkok Cafe", (in which Thai dishes are routinely served alongside food from neighbouring countries and a few from the West) and its menu, like that of Busaba Eathai, is a collaboration between restaurateur Alan Yau and chef David Thompson. Indeed, it’s owned by the same business and positioned as a sister brand to Busaba Eathai.
Naamyaa’s look and feel is much lighter and more informal than Busaba Eathai’s, which in turn is not as dingy as Hakkasan. For me, that’s definitely a good thing.
Stepping inside was an immediate balm after our nails-on-a-chalkboard reaction to GBK. A colourful, luxurious interior which beautifully balanced traditional Asian design motifs with modern (but not minimalist) interior design was warm and inviting, vibrant yet relaxing. Instantly soothed, we were welcomed in and offered a choice of where to sit – in the main area or in the small, intimate space by the window. We chose a comfortable low corner sofa and coffee table flooded with light from the floor to ceiling windows.
The menu sections were a little confusing, we found. Dishes in one mains section came only with rice and those in the other section only with noodles, which felt a little prescriptive. And we didn’t spot the much-written-about Western dishes such as burgers or eggs on toast – I’ve since noticed they seem to be restricted to the breakfast and brunch menu.
Staff were ready to step in with advice about the various dishes, though once I explained my preference for mild to medium chilli heat rather than very hot, we were firmly steered away from large swathes of the menu with dire warnings about the heat levels. The specials board was also explained, though it would have been great to have printed sheets slipped into the menus as we couldn’t see the board from where we sat and it was hard to remember the full list we’d been talked through.
I’m always happy to see an appealing range of soft drinks, as these are so often after thoughts to the wines, beer, spirits and alcoholic cocktails list. My Watermelon Bangkok (£3.80) was wonderfully refreshing in the heat. Pete was happy to see Asahi beer on draft (brewed on license in the UK by Shepherd Neame) but £5.90 a pint is a little steep.
I remember having the Jasmine Tea Smoked Ribs (£8.50) at Hakkasan. I liked them there but couldn’t detect the smoking, making them pleasant but nothing out of the ordinary compared to much cheaper local neighbourhood chinese takeaways. These were much better with a mild but clear smokiness to the flavour, wonderfully soft and tender meat and a delicious sticky sauce coating.
From the specials board, Fried Eggs with Chilli Jam (£5) were incredible. The eggs cooked perfectly so that the yolk was a viscuous pool of golden liquid, the white was set but not rubbery, with a lovely crisp "skin" from being briefly deep fried. The chilli jam was a deeply savoury mush with a welcome fishy umami note; so intense and so good I would order it on its own.
Naamyaa Chicken (£9.50) came with (a tiny portion of) noodles and beansprouts, and half a plain boiled egg and dragonfruit slices that seemed more for show than an integral element of the dish. Oh-my-goodness was this hot! One of the dishes our waitress deemed less hot than most of the rest, this was not only way too hot for me, it was also too hot for Pete who has a much higher chilli tolerance. A shame as we both thought it was delicious, but had to admit defeat as our mouths couldn’t take any more burning.
Braised Tofu, Aubergine and Shimeji (£9.40) was in the Rice Set section of the menu, which meant it came with a bowl of rice and a pot of broth soup. This was the second standout dish of the meal for me. Much like a Chinese black bean dish but with far more complexity of flavour to the thick sauce, I struggled to identify what ingredients added to the richness – fish sauce, shrimp paste, something else entirely? And I absolutely loved how tofu, aubergine and mushrooms all had a lovely silkiness in common and yet each had their own texture and taste.
My Lemongrass Panna Cotta with Fruit (£6.50) was let down for me by the fruit which wasn’t as fresh or flavoursome as it should have been, featuring underripe strawberries and tinned peaches. Next time, I’ll skip dessert and focus on the starters and mains.
We were surprised that two out of three filter coffees (£3) listed in the menu were not available (poor stock management) but what was available was a good coffee. It took an inordinately long time coming though.
We really enjoyed our evening at Naamyaa. Although we’d have to be careful with choosing dishes given the chilli heat, we’d definitely go again. A big thank you to those who suggested it!
Please leave a comment - I love hearing from you!One Comment to "Naamyaa: A Bangkok Cafe in Islington"
Sounds promisong, have to try this one soon.