Alan Yau does it again?
London’s restaurant going public can be broadly divided into two camps: those that care about celebrity chefs, brand names and trends and those that don’t. People in the first camp will almost certainly have heard of Alan Yau, the entrepreneur behind Wagamama, Busaba Eathai, Cha Cha Moon, Hakkasan and Yauatcha. His latest restaurant is Naamyaa Cafe, a Thai eatery, but it is very different from Busaba Eathai.
In terms of looks and layout, Naamyaa is almost Busaba’s exact opposite. In Busaba, the kitchen is tucked away out of sight – here it’s visible from most corners of the odd u-shaped dining room. Gone are Busaba’s elegant wood panelling, communal tables, chopsticks and dark, moody lighting. In its place are Delft-style tiles, miniature Buddhas on an elaborate wall-mounted bricks, individual tables for twos and fours, bright lighting and knifes and forks. The menu is also very different and is focussed around set rice or noodle dishes complete with soup. In an unexpectedly bizarre twist, there are sections devoted to burgers and Western-style salads.
The Euro Hedgie and I were divided over the decor – he liked it while I thought it was bordering on ostentatious camp. We both had mixed feelings about the food. We started off with the oddly-described salmon sashimi with Thai pesto which turned out to resemble a ceviche more than sashimi. The oddly-cut slices of raw fish were buttery and fatty and were dabbed with blobs of basil, green tabasco and coriander-based ‘pesto’. It’s not a bad concoction, but at the end of the day I’d rather have some traditional sashimi or ceviche instead.
Turnip cake, which despite the name is typically made from rice flour and daikon radish or taro, is another odd one out. This pan-fried dish is usually found in Cantonese Dim Sum restaurants and here is served with fried eggs and a large amount of bean sprouts and spring onions. The dense blocks of cake are remarkably oil free and have a pleasingly strong taste of dried shrimp.
For the main course I opted for the stir fried squid which has been aromatically flavoured with both the fruit and leaves of Kaffir limes as well as shrimp paste. The curled bits of forgettable squid are nothing to write home about and are merely a mechanism for delivering the sharp acidity of the lime fruit and leaves and the salty, gritty tang of the shrimp paste. The amount of shrimp paste has been moderated so it’s not too overpowering, but I managed to swallow a large chilli whole which managed to give me a severe case of neck sweats and hot flushes. If that sounds a little too exotic, there’s plenty of steamed rice and a fried egg to fall back on.
My stir fried squid also came with a bitter melon soup, but this tasted more strongly of white pepper than anything else. It’s unremarkably inoffensive, unless you’re suffering from a case of chilli sweats which is absolutely not helped by necking half a bowl of white pepper-infused soup.
The Euro Hedgie also got a bowl of the same soup with his main course of beef curry. There was precious little beef to be had, but the sauce itself was tasty although it wasn’t spicy in the slightest. It was aromatically flavoured with sweet Thai basil, sharp Kaffir limes and crunchy mini Thai aubergines. You slather the curry yourself on a bed of thin vermicelli rice noodles and garnish as desired with a refreshing star fruit, morning glory and bean sprout salad although the star attraction of the salad (sorry, couldn’t help myself) was underripe and bland.
Out of sheer curiosity we ordered the tuna niçoise salad on the off-chance that the kitchen had given it some sort of Thai twist. No such luck – it turned out to be a perfectly competent if generally unremarkable tuna niçoise salad. Juicy black olives, a very light balsamic dressing, small chunks of potato, gem lettuce as well as some overly chilled tomatoes and boiled egg slices. Only the seared tuna, which was still tastefully pink in the middle, was worthy of any note.
After the oddity of the tuna niçoise salad we moved onto desserts. The Hedgie opted for the coconut cream dotted with tapioca pearls and topped with toasted sesame seeds and pomegranate. The nuttiness of the sesame and the sweet crunchiness of the pomegranate provided a nice contrast to the squishiness of the tapioca and the cream – it’s a shame there wasn’t more of either the sesame or the pomegranate. The cream only tasted vaguely of coconut and was a touch too thick – a slightly fluffier cream with a bolder flavour would have made for a better match with the sesame and pomegranate.
My own dessert of mascarpone ice cream was also too understated for its own good. Although very creamy, a stronger mascarpone taste would have provided a better counterweight to the very sweet and fruity strawberry coulis and a touch more of the barely-present Thai basil wouldn’t have gone amiss either. The overall effect was of an Eton mess, but without the meringue.
I was happy to wash down my food with sparkling water, but the Euro Hedgie wetted his whistle with a sour cherry mash. He expected something resembling an egg-infused whiskey sour, but instead got an excessively sweet concoction that didn’t have enough booze in it. He did appreciate the touch of star anise though.
Naamyaa Cafe is a very peculiar place. Bearing in mind that the place is still in its soft opening phase, the bright decor and oddly-structured menu feels like a gentle introduction to Thai food for those not familiar with it yet the bold flavours and odd combinations of some of the dishes feel like they’re aimed at the more adventurous. The execution of many of the dishes also still needs refinement.
Although Naamyaa Cafe shows some promise (its promise of an eventual breakfast menu piques my interest), I can’t see myself returning frequently unless I’m in need of a feed, can’t get in anywhere else and can’t bear to face one of the similarly-priced chain outlets nearby. There just isn’t enough here to hold my interest.
It’s pretty clear that this Islington restaurant is the template for a chain designed to do what Busaba Eathai seems to have had trouble doing – branching outside of London. Everything from the menu to the decor and cutlery suggests that’s where Naamyaa Cafe is heading. I’m sure it’ll be a rousing success, but I doubt I’ll be a regular.
Name: Naamyaa Cafe
Address: 407 St. John Street, Islington, London EC1V 4AB
Phone: 020 3122 0988
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 17.30-23.30 and Sunday 17.30-23.00. Breakfast and lunch services coming soon.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Total cost for one person inc drinks and service when shared between two: £35 approx. each (we actually paid half this amount during the soft launch, but either way you’ll pay less if you’re not as gluttonous as we were)