“ Thai restaurant in Manchester city centre. „
Our friends Alex and Katya live in an apartment block right in the middle of Manchester City Centre, within (no irony intended) spitting distance of China Town. We went to visit them the night after Chinese New Year and their attempts to book one of the two Thai restaurants in the Tastecard scheme had failed totally - one was full and the other wasn't answering their phone. Alex remembered a third place that they'd often passed but never been into on Princess Street called Koh Samui, and we thought it was probably worth a try. If everything was full, we'd get a take-away and go back to their place.
Koh Samui is in a basement and you can't tell how full it might be until you've gone down the steps and entered the restaurant. I think this is their biggest problem. Passers-by want to be able to see easily if a place is already full (and go elsewhere) or is completely empty (and so they assume not very good). We were surprised to discover that this very large restaurant was almost entirely empty with just two tables occupied when we arrived. It was clear that we weren't going to have to fight for a table. Two possibilities came to mind - that either the food was horrible or the prices were ridiculous but we were there, there was space and we weren't the type of people to walk out.
The restaurant is very 'beige', understated and not especially 'Thai' in appearance. They seem to have a bit of a thing about elephants with lots of elephant paintings on the wall. There are a few statues and ethnic touches but mostly you have the sense that you could be in any type of restaurant. There are a lot of tables and this place is clearly intended to cope with very large numbers of diners which made it seem a bit 'sad' with so few customers. The tables have cream tablecloths with white cloths diagonally over them and soft padded chairs.
The maitre d' brought over the menus and the drinks list and a waiter trotted over with a basket of Thai prawn crackers - the nice pinky coloured ones that actually taste of something unlike the Chinese white prawn crackers you tend to get in most places. These were supplied with lots of sweet chilli dip and were soon polished off. We each chose a starter - Thai fish cakes (my favourite), crispy tofu, duck spring rolls and prawn and pork toasts. The first two were for me and my husband to share, the last two for our friends. I thought the starters were quite expensive, costing on average about £7 per portion. I generally like to have a soup (Tom Yum ideally) but thought that these were also quite pricey so stuck with the fish cakes and tofu to share.
Main course dishes are available in lots of different sauces and priced primarily according to the main protein choice. For example the various curries and other main course sauces cost £8.95 for chicken, pork, beef or duck, £10.45 for king prawn or seafood, and a whopping £12.95 for tiger prawns. Rice is charged extra on top. There are also rice and noodle dishes and quite an extensive vegetarian menu. We ordered a prawn red curry and a tofu dish with chilli and basil, Alex had a rice dish and Katya went for a seafood green curry. The maitre d' took the order, mumbling to the trainee waiter standing beside him. I was a bit worried because it seemed like they weren't entirely sure what we wanted, but I needn't have worried.
The starter portions were on the generous side of average and I was really pleased that we got four fish cakes. It's an on-going issue between my husband and me that most Thai places give us three fishcakes and then he 'accidentally' eats two of them. These were good - juicy, chewy and with a good chilli kick. The crispy beancurd by contrast was utterly rubbish - it tasted like fried paper and I certainly wouldn't try it again. Katya got lots of duck rolls - so many that she had to force one on my husband, whilst the prawn and pork toasts looked very strange but apparently tasted great.
The main courses were brought to the table in rather elegant square white bowls and they looked beautiful - though I must admit rather mean given the prices. I looked at my dish and thought it looked rather too much like a starter portion. However, once we'd dished up the rice and split the two curries, the quantities were actually quite good. The tofu was excellent which was a relief as I've had some bad tofu in recent weeks and was ready to be disappointed. The prawn curry was also excellent, with the prawns large, juicy and served skin-off-tail-on. We picked out any obvious large pieces of chilli but they were easily avoided. I like spicy food but I'd rather avoid big chunks of chilli.
Katya and I had each had a couple of glasses of wine round at the flat and I knew I'd reached my limit before we even got to the restaurant. My husband was driving and Alex is teetotal so consequently we stuck to diet cokes and fizzy water. Even so I was quite surprised that the bill came to just over £80. I had expected it to be quite a bit more.
At the table next to us two men in suits spent most of their meal talking about their new cars. Why do restaurants with only a few customers put people at the table right next to you? I wasn't paying attention to them but Alex was getting quite wound up about their one-up-manship discussions. He whispered across the table and asked me who I thought would be paying, and sure enough, when the bill came they asked for a VAT receipt. After they left, Alex checked the tip they'd left and harumphed about "mean bastards showing off about their £40k cars and tipping a miserly £2 on a meal that must have cost £50.
We paid up, tipped considerably better than our neighbours and left feeling pleasantly but not uncomfortably full. The food was good, fairly standard Thai fare, elegantly served in a restaurant that lacked much in the way of atmosphere. But the value for money was pretty good and certainly better than I'd expected. I wouldn't be disappointed to go back for another meal sometime soon.