NIPA THAI, Lancaster London, Lancaster Terrace W2 2TY www.niparestaurant.co.uk
It’s been a while since someone murmured’sa-wÃƒÂ¹t dee khÃƒÂ¢’ at me softly on entrance. Even longer that I’ve been seated with a ‘khop khun mÃƒÂ¢ak.’ But then again it’s also been an age since I’ve taken the trouble to eat in a hotel restaurant that I haven’t been staying in at the time.
Nipa Thai, however, with its 2AA Rosettes and a head chef who’s been serving up plates of Northern Thai specialties for the past 16 years, is more of a restaurant that happens to be in a hotel than simply a hotel restaurant.
The looming facade of the Lancaster House Hotel (and the snarl of traffic that’s constantly tearing around it) isn’t the most auspicious of starts for a relaxing meal, but walk through the lobby and upstairs and Nipa Thai feels almost zen-like with it’s spa approved colour scheme of honey and cream, right down to the crisp white linen and orchids on the tables.
The menu here reads like a showcase of Thai favourites, with Som Tam salad, a surprising array of curries, crispy spring rolls and various forms of Pad Thai making an appearance. So no surprises there, although there are some interesting Thai wines available on the special list. However, everyone knows that the key element of good Thai food isn’t a vast menu, it’s all about the flavour delivery.
Thai food is, like many Asian cuisines, a balancing act between salty, spicy, sweet and savoury notes. It’s also an act that’s hard to master and one I’ve experienced first hand during a gruelling cookery course in Thailand. I’ve also witnessed the extremes of flavour that can be produced having seared the roof of my mouth off with a Jungle curry that should have come with a toxic warning label and watched a pocket-sized chef grin maniacally as she tipped more salt than should be humanly possible to consume into a bubbling bowl of coconut rice pudding, only to bring it back from the edge of insanity with a ladle of fudgy palm sugar.
We started with soft-shell deep-fried crab that was perfectly soft and pillowy, if a little cloying and oily from some too-thick batter. All was made right, however, with the pot of effortlessly brilliant dipping sauce Ã¢â‚¬â€œ studded with shards of flame-red birdseye chilli, rich with pungent fish sauce, sweet with what tasted like rice wine and swimming with slivers of coriander and shallot, it was an example of what Nipa Thai does well: walking that flavour tightrope.
The Penang curry transported me straight back to northern thailand to Chang Mai and to those classes spent pounding roasted peanuts and fat cloves of bone-white garlic into paste and the fish special steamed spiced sea bass with a fiery dipping marinade – was a thing of beauty, even if it did come with a retro-fantastic carved vegetable flower.
Pudding was a pleasant, if unremarkable affair – the standard lament when it comes to most Asian meals with a vaguely bouncy white chocolate panna cotta and a pineapple cake with chocolate sorbet alongside some violently coloured blobs of yuzu sauce. Give me a steaming bowl of that salty-sweet coconut rice pudding any day!
I’ve rarely had such a relaxing meal as I did at Nipa Thai. Maybe it was the half-empty, mid-week vibe, maybe it was the impeccable service or maybe it was the soporifically calming atmosphere. Most likely it was the fact that somewhere that looks like a spa can serve up plates of food that set my tastebuds on fire and anywhere that can do that is somewhere worth a repeat visit.