I now believe I have a pretty good idea what it feels like to dine inside a spacious, antique wooden box. The transition from plush carpet to boundless polished wood was the first thing I noticed when walking into Nipa Thai, a decidedly secretive restaurant housed on the first floor of the Lancaster London Hotel just opposite Hyde Park.
This wood has been allowed to grow ivy-esque all the way round and up across the ceiling of the smallish dining room, around the rims of the chairs and the glass tables. Around the edge, glass fronted cabinets contain ornate Thai ceramics, metalwork and artwork. Everything is spotless. And it all looks wonderful.
There are two tables inside the box that overlook the park, and to our delight, we bagged one, taking our waitress up on her offer of two glasses of the Takrai Champagne cocktail (£9.50). That’s lemongrass infused vodka, homemade green tea syrup and, of course, Champagne.
It was a terribly cold evening out, so I was already chuffed to be sat sitting, sipping and scouring a promising menu in decadent Asian surroundings. It was around eight in the evening and the dining room held a smattering of affluent looking couples and a large party of business people. Even though the large table’s business was conducted in occasionally loud American; all things were sophisticated and thoughtful.
The Chandra set menu, it turned out, was of a similar disposition.
A five course offering with accompanying Thai jasmine rice with the mains, the Chandra comes as £42 per head, with £66 unlocking wine pairing. A true representation of the Thai cuisine from head chef Sanguan Parr, who has been at Nipa Thai for 16 years.
We didn’t have long to observe the mid-evening joggers and invisible London buses before our starter arrived. Chef’s special Thai starters to be exact, with char-grilled marinated chicken skewers, crab meat spring rolls, Thai fish cakes, and crisp prawn dumplings, served with a selection of dips.
Always a safe bet, the mixed starters, and these got the ball rolling nicely. We chatted about the week, the news and the plight of my friend the aid worker in the middle of the chaotic Calais Jungle. I also spent a while talking with my companion, who’d secured her ideal psychology placement that week. She had a few things to say about my attachment to the slowly diminishing ensemble in front us.
Tom Yum Koong, a traditional Thai broth, was up next. A mix of spicy lemongrass, chilli and lime, prawns, mushrooms and coriander. Until recently, I was not aware of the various studies linking a dislike for the latter ingredient with genetics. Some brand the taste of coriander as soapy, and while I’m still not sure if I fall into that category as I’ve ever taken a bite out of a bar of Dove, I do struggle to form a bond with the contentious ‘erb.
But, this broth was easy to fall for. Possessing of a warm kick right at the death, the Tom Yum Koong was bubbly and full of hidden surprises. The whole prawns being a particularly exciting reward for digging deep.
Jasmine rice was then tipped onto our new plates, with our three mains arriving in row. Chicken and Thai aubergine in a spicy green coconut curry, stir-fried scallops with asparagus and a phad Thai.
I spent a quickfire holiday in Koh Samui in Thailand a few years back and while it was, admittedly, a bit of a tacky strip we found ourselves on, the phad Thai really stood out. I had not tasted anything quite like it, and like the scent of a mysterious woman passing in the street, it left me as I departed back home.
But Nipa Thai’s phad Thai is seriously good. It just is.
The scallops, meanwhile, were big enough to wear trousers. And possibly to sneak a pint at the pub. If there’s one way to tell how good a Thai restaurant is, its surely the size of their scallops. I’ve had bullet-sized, sponge cake-sized, and veritable lampshade-sized; and these fell into the latter category.
My companion had a great time spooning out the curry, purring with every mouthful. She proclaimed it her favourite dish of the meal, but really, the set menu wasn’t held back by any course. Very much like Nipa Thai in general. They’ve got everything spot on, all the way down to the cloud-like coconut ice cream dessert that arrived in a hollowed out coconut shell.
It’s class. It just is.