I was recently asked to review a branch of the Thai Square chain of restaurants. Given that we have one locally here in the Roman city of St Albans, I was only too happy to pop in.
Like many of its local counterparts here in St Albans, Thai Square is a chain, with nineteen individual restaurants across London and beyond and apparently, a new health spa.
The Thai Square group came under local public scrutiny here in St Albans a few years back, when they took on the challenge of renovating the Tudor Tavern public house, a Grade II listed building. The former tavern dates back to 1400-1401 and can be found on the corner of George Street and Verulam Road, close to the Abbey Gateway.
At the time of opening, the Thai Square/Tudor Tavern St Albans conversion was hailed a success. Though many locals were quick to oppose the change, the general view on completion was that the building had been tastefully and sensitively converted. Thai Square continues to be one of St Albans’ most striking restaurants, internally. Many of the original architectural features, such as exposed wooden Tudor beams and brick walls were retained, and are complimented by Thai statues, carvings and decor.
Competition for business and customer loyalty is fierce everywhere, and St Albans is no exception. Despite the economic downturn, St Albans seems to be becoming the gastronomic ‘hub’ of Hertfordshire, with new restaurants popping up rapidly. Most recently, Jamie Oliver has followed in Thai Square’s footsteps, renovating ‘The Bell’ public house on nearby Chequer Street into a bustling Jamie’s Italian. Raymond Blanc who is soon-to-be Thai Square’s newest next-door neighbour, has also confirmed he is embarking on a similar adventure with his Brasserie Blanc chain.
There are at least three other Thai restaurants within the immediate vicinity of George Street and The Abbey, though Thai Square, with its impressive structural features, has established itself as one of the better Thai restaurants, offering consistency in food standards and service. I do suppose you pay a slight premium for the 15th Century location.
The space inside Thai Square St Albans lends itself well to a restaurant setting, with a spacious downstairs reception and dining area and an equally roomy upstairs. There is a separate bar area with its own entrance on George Street serving cocktails, beers, wines and spirits.
There are steps to contend with, both on the way in and within the restaurant itself, as well as low beams, so you do have to watch out!
On both floors, the tables are well-spaced out and you certainly don’t get the feeling that you are practically sitting on top of your neighbours, as I have noticed recently within other local hot-spots. There are smaller nooks and crannies and areas you can sit down in for bar snacks and drinks.
The restaurant was aware that I was reviewing, though the service from gently-spoken and welcoming staff was as polite and attentive as I have found to be the case on previous occasions. I had to ‘top-up’ my own wine a couple of times, but I didn’t take this as a lack of service; more that the general nature of Thai waiting staff is to leave you to enjoy your meal in an unobtrusive manner, whilst being on hand if you need them. Either that, or I am a fast drinker!
The menu at Thai Square is vast with over 1,000 dishes to choose from. The chain pitches itself as ‘incorporating authentic ingredients to produce both traditional and contemporary dishes.’ Chilli pepper icons indicate heat levels, although I find with Thai food that even one chilli can indicate quite a spicy dish (though I am bit of a chilli light-weight.)
There were a few ‘Chef’s Recommended Dishes’ on offer, including a Lamb Shank stewed in Panang sauce, as well as a range of special seafood choices. Following this, a traditional selection of starters, such as Royal Dim Sum, Satay, Aromatic Duck (much the same as in a Chinese restaurant), Thai Soups (always a bit of an acquired taste, I find) and Thai Salads. Moving on, various types of Thai Curries (red, green, dry, jungle) and an array of main courses featuring meat, poultry and seafood.
You can also order Thai noodles, rice and vegetable dishes as well as a separate and substantial vegetarian menu. If you are part of a group, you can order a vegetarian banquet/set menu too.
The menu at Thai Square is ambitious; but luckily the chefs seem equipped to provide freshly-cooked food to order with no huge delays between courses.
We opted for traditional mixed starters, which included chicken satay, spring rolls, golden sacks, fish cakes and dim sums. There were two sauces (peanut and chilli) and the plate was decorated with the obligatory Thai hand-carved vegetables. The starters were all freshly cooked and non-greasy.
For our main courses, we ordered a Gang Kiew Wan, a traditional Thai Green Curry cooked with coconut milk and chilli as well as a side of steamed rice. The curry was much spicier than I could tolerate! Luckily, we had also ordered the Chef’s special fried rice served in a pineapple shell, which was generous enough for one main course or for two as a side and again, looked pretty.
I also tried the Goong Gratiam (Garlic Prawns) which were served butterflied and in their shells (though the menu didn’t state this) with the chef’s ‘special paste’ over the top. I thought there was too much ‘paste’, though the prawns were really big and well-cooked. I did mention a red-pepper aversion to our waitress and she guided us on the choice of prawns. Despite this, I did find myself picking out red peppers from the fried rice, which seemed a little odd, given that I had specifically asked for my main dish not to contain them.
A large selection of desserts including Thai specialities are on offer if you have the room, such as traditional Thai Coconut Sticky Rice, a Fresh Fruit Platter or a fruity Thai Sundae. Right in the middle of the ‘Thai desserts’ is a Belgian Chocolate Pudding and though I was tempted, as I generally am by chocolate, I went for the Baked Banana with ice cream and toasted almonds. Not especially Thai-like, but it hit the spot. I usually order the chocolate ice cream at Thai Square as it reminds me of Swiss Movenpick ice cream, and they serve it in great big coupe.
Though this time I stayed with wine, sampling the Thai Monsoon Shiraz Rosé, I maintain from previous experience that Thai Square’s ‘Black Bison’ cocktail (Polish Bison Vodka, Chambord Liqueur, Blackberry Puree, Lime Juice and Gomme Syrup) is one of the best cocktails that you’ll find in St Albans. The Monsoon Shiraz was served ice cool and complimented the entire meal very well. It didn’t really taste any different to say, a Pinot Grigio rosé, but I would recommend it.
Overall Experience & Price
I have thought hard as to whether there was anything in particular that detracted from our overall enjoyable experience (other than the red pepper thing, which I am used to because it is uncommon intolerance) and there was one thing; the music. It wasn’t so much that it disturbed me; more that I found it an odd choice for a Thai restaurant. It was a sort of strange mix of ‘elevator’ music, almost instrumental Frank Sinatra venturing into Frasier-type jazz, which I noted at the time as bordering on a bit annoying. I am not sure what type of music would best suit the venue, but whatever was playing, didn’t seem to enhance my dining experience!
Thai Square’s opening hours are also worth a mention. In the past, we’ve stumbled into the St Albans branch quite late following a cinema trip in a neighbouring town, and have been seated well past 10.30pm on a week night. They also offer a take away menu and quite often, a lunch-time special. During the day, the restaurant is lovely and bright, owing to the huge windows along George Street. By night, it is dimly lit with candles and low lighting. Perfect for a romantic meal!
Following this visit, I stand by the quality of the service and food at Thai Square, St Albans. The king prawns were particularly succulent and tasty. The venue definitely gives the impression that you are dining in a high-end restaurant, reflected in the price of a meal, but with enough space around you to not feel crowded or rushed, even during a busy-spell. The benefit of eating in a chain restaurant is that you would expect some consistency and standards throughout.
Discerning diners still appear to be keen to enjoy a meal out, but whilst internal character and visual appeal will get you off the ground, after that, it is the food that must win diners over, if they are to keep coming back for the price it costs to eat out.
You’ll pay at least £60 for a three-course meal for two at Thai Square, including a non-expensive bottle of wine. It’s not a cheap night out, but it is certainly a place to go to impress.
Good quality Thai food aside, the ‘Black Bison’ cocktail, is certainly worth stopping in for before a night out, though I do warn; it could become an expensive habit!
With Thanks to Thai Square for inviting me along to review. Photos Thai Square.
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Have you visited the Thai Square chain, if so, what did you think?