LESS than 25 years ago, chef Kim Kaewkraikhot arrived in Britain from the small village of Maenum Bon, in remote northern Thailand, and set about forging a restaurant empire built around the big, opulently gaudy Oriental emporiums that were to become his trademark.
Chaophraya Fourth Floor, 33 Castle Street, Edinburgh (0131-226 7614, www.chaophraya.co.uk)
Bill please: Starters £6.95-£10.95 Main courses £8.55-£18.95 Set menu £25-£40.50
Rating: 7 out of 10
They are neither understated nor decorous, but despite a price list that occasionally had an old tightwad like me bumping my gums, the whole concept has been extraordinarily successful.
This year, gradually working his way northwards after opening nine different restaurants and bars in the north of England, the Thai entrepreneur has arrived in Scotland with a bang. In July, to much fanfare, the Glasgow branch of Chaophraya – named after the main river in northern Thailand – opened its doors at the Townhouse on Buchanan Street. The biggest Thai restaurant in Europe, it also boasts the Palm Sugar cocktail bar and has so far been a runaway success.
If this was mildly unsurprising – Glasgow has always warmed to the loud and self-confident – the fact that Chaophraya, which only opened in the capital a month ago, has been taken to Edinburgher hearts was far less predictable. Yet the place has been doing very decent business since its launch at the beginning of November, despite the paucity of Christmas partygoers or tourists.
It has probably helped, of course, that Kaewkraikhot has chosen one of Edinburgh’s most iconic venues for his new restaurant, taking over the rooftop site on Castle Street vacated by Tony Singh when Olorosso went the way of all flesh. Indeed, not only has he taken it over, he has extended and significantly improved it. There’s the ubiquitous blingover, of course, but far more interestingly they’ve annexed a big chunk of Olorosso’s rooftop terrace and enclosed it within a big glass ceiling and walls.
Given our lack of a summer, this is an exceedingly sensible move, but it has also added a hint of drama to proceedings because you almost feel as if you are stuck out on a viewing platform plonked on the side of the building, four floors up. The views are breathtaking: you look south on to the illuminated Edinburgh Castle and north across the Forth to Fife. Despite the strong claims of the Fourth Floor Brasserie at Harvey Nichols, the new uber-posh Pompadour restaurant in the Caledonian and Kyloe in the Rutland, this is probably the best view from a restaurant table in Edinburgh.
You might suppose that such a burnished gem would come at a high cost, but Chaophraya has a remarkable range of prices. Edinburgh is full of sensibly priced Thai restaurants, and at its top end Chaophraya is a different beast altogether, one that makes establishments like the wonderful Time for Thai look like Far Eastern gastronomic poundshop by comparison; at its priciest, it even gives the entertainingly expensive but brilliant Dusit Thai a run for its money. If you want to eat cheaply, however, it is entirely possible to do so, with the cheapest set menu at £25 and the staple dish of Pad Thai coming in at under a tenner; a highly edifying price for the surroundings, and one which probably explains the fact that most diners appeared to be in their 20s and 30s.
Eventually, after looking through a menu that was printed in a tiny, spindly font that was almost unreadable in the candlelight (seriously, why do so many restaurants think that people carry reading glasses with them of an evening?), we decided that we needed to try as many dishes as possible so went for the most expensive set menu on offer, ordering the Set Maenum Chaophraya at £40.50 per person. At least, we reasoned, that by the time we had finished the ten options within the menu we would be able to roll ourselves down the hill towards home.
The meal started with a platter of appetisers that included grilled pork skewers, chicken satay, tempura prawns, golden baskets and chicken spring rolls, which came with three unmarked small dishes containing sauces that, through trial and error, we worked out were peanut to go with the satay, some sort of tamarind concoction and a brutally feisty sweet chilli.
If the golden baskets (mini-tartlets of flaked cod and coley flavoured with lemongrass, lime and honey) were a little on the bland side, the rest of the platter more than made up for it. The chicken spring rolls were brought to life by the fiery chilli sauce, while the satay was wonderfully succulent and the excellent Bangkok-style grilled pork skewers were made of a meat that had been so marinated with honey and was so dark that it was difficult to believe it was actually pork. The tempura prawns, however, mixed the good and the bad: the batter wasn’t quite hot enough, but the prawns themselves were the biggest I’ve ever seen, and wonderfully moist. All in all, a very good start to the meal.
The arrival of the main course was like something from The King and I, with dish after dish appearing one after the other. There were only five, but it felt like double that number; but then I do like a little bit of theatre with dinner, especially when the surroundings feel like a film set. All four dishes and the steamed organic brown rice were decent, although Diana and I couldn’t agree which we liked most. She plumped for the house favourite of weeping tiger – admittedly gorgeous slices of grilled sirloin steak served on a sizzling platter with a tangy chilli dip – while I preferred the turmeric king prawns. This was partly because they came with a marvellous mash-up of celery, onions, peppers, spring onions, turmeric curry sauce and chilli oil, but also because they reminded me of the split prawns that were a staple of the Patio, the dearly departed Italian establishment that once graced the city.
Although the lamb in our massaman curry was extremely tender, the dish was undeniably bland, which wasn’t a complaint that we could level at the fried sea bass fillet with chilli sauce, which was well-cooked but contained numerous little chilli landmines for the unsuspecting. All of which made for a monstrously large amount of food, although it never felt overwhelming.
Just in case, pudding was incredibly light, consisting of two skewers of pineapple, mango and strawberry, plus a dipping bowl of molten chocolate. This was, we both agreed, a very decent way to end our first visit to a new restaurant that promised much and, by and large, delivered.