Thai mini-chain sprouts again in Soho
Restaurants, especially those serving foreign cuisines, have a funny relationship with names. They will often have a cliched name related to the mother country – a disproportionate number of Thai restaurants, for example, will have some combination of ‘Thai’, ‘Siam’, ‘lotus’ or ‘elephant’ in their name. Then there’s the menu which will be unwieldy to navigate through, not just because of their typically huge length, but because they’ll have both English and Thai names for each dish, along with the description.
The innocuously and generically named Rosa’s Cafe neatly sidesteps both of these cliches. Although far from short, its menu neatly hides the Thai names in plain sight by colouring them in a light grey below the English names. Although this doesn’t sound like much, it makes the menu far easier to parse. I wasn’t expecting much from the Carnaby Street outpost of this four-branch mini-chain, but I walked away pleasantly surprised.
First things first
Rosa’s gets unsurprisingly busy on and around weekends, but Templeton Peck, Vicious Alabaster, The Squinting Brummie and I managed to grab a table with only a few minutes waiting. Both Vicious Alabaster and I had a similar hankering for noodles. I opted for the pad thai and was reasonably pleased by the firm prawns and zesty rice noodles which were only slightly greasy. The prawns were a little lacking in taste, but the crushed peanuts added some variation in both taste and texture. Vicious Alabaster’s egg noodles with prawns were very similar to the pad thai, but with egg noodles taking the place of the rice noodles. I wasn’t fond of the rather heavy and dull noodles, but Alabaster was pleased.
Vicious Alabaster and I also disagreed when it came to the starter of soft shell crab. Although the crab legs were crisp, free of excess oil and coated in a well-seasoned batter, the actual meat underneath was bland. Alabaster was once again nonetheless pleased – perhaps the endless bottles of wine explained our divergence in opinion.
The Squinting Brummie loves green chicken curry and Rosa’s version is definitely a corker. Firm chunks of clucker were served in a thin sauce that was light yet also creamy, crisp and zesty with the distinctive tangs of both fish sauce and Thai basil.
Smoked, grilled meats aren’t what I would normally associate with Thai food and Rosa’s small selection is easy to overlook, tucked away in a corner of the menu. The smoked, grilled duck is definitely worth having though – the thin, distinctly smoky slices of duck were also mildly tangy and sweet which was enhanced by the thin dipping sauce. Some slices were gloriously fatty, but even the slices that weren’t still hit the spot thanks to their denseness.
Templeton Peck’s jungle curry was a melange of vegetables in a thin, zesty sauce strongly flavoured with galangal. Although good, it was surpassed by the somewhat similar but better seafood mousse. Although this sounds bizarre, it is, as far as I can tell, a steamed seafood curry presented in a quirky way. The selection of seafood wasn’t especially generous or varied, just some firm squid chunks and prawns along with a solitary mussel, but the multilayered flavours of the sauce more than made up for this. Apparently made from white fish, coconut milk and fish paste, the sharp, peppery, spicy, galangal-infused sauce was simply cracking.
While my three dining companions were content to lubricate themselves with a bottle of generic house red, I moistened my whistle with the Thai milk iced coffee. The malty brew was heavily laced with creamy soya milk and all the more refreshing for it.
Going back for seconds
I returned to Rosa’s by myself for a quick bite on a rainy weekday evening. The milk-less variant of the Thai iced tea was sweet and refreshing with a clean aftertaste.
I’m usually more in the mood for noodles rather than rice, but not if they’re as ho hum as the flat noodles. This dish used rice noodles that were broader than the relatively narrow noodles used in the pad thai and were similar, if not identical to the rice noodles typically used in Cantonese ho fun dishes. Although grease free, they lacked any sort of seasoning. The dominant tastes here were of the light, creamy courgettes and the bready, light and tart tofu chunks. Although these two elements were pleasing, there wasn’t enough to either to make this dish truly satisfying, especially with the carrots and broccoli sitting around as limp bystanders.
The grilled pork neck was far better. The boldly tangy and tart dipping sauce tended to obscure the subtly sweet and lightly smoky nature of the thin, lean pork slices. The sauce had a clean aftertaste though, so it was possible to alternate between eating the pork au naturel and then with the sauce, getting the best of both worlds.
Three is the magic number
An increasing number of Thai restaurants now serve papaya salad and Rosa’s version, while not perfect, was pretty good. There wasn’t much in the way of the promised long beans, but the firm julienned green papaya, beans sprouts and salty, chewy dried shrimp were complimented well by the thin, lightly spicy, zesty, tangy, fishy sauce.
The scallops served out of their shells were too soft and bland for my liking, but the tangy, moreish, lightly spicy, sharp and peppery sauce partially made up for it. There was plenty of veg too.
I somehow doubt that pumpkins are a traditional Thai staple, but the pumpkin curry here was nonetheless largely enjoyable. The large chunks of pumpkin varied in texture from firm to tender, but all were outnumbered by the random grab bag of vegetables. Even so, the thin, yet very creamy and lightly sweet sauce was highly addictive – I tried to refrain from picking up the bowl and slurping the sauce but caved and did it anyway. A more civilised way of enjoying the sauce was the aromatic coconut rice – it proved to be a good match.
Go fourth and multiply
Rosa’s has a shorter lunchtime menu than it does at dinner, although this is augmented by a list of specials which changes every now and again. Unsurprisingly, the butternut squash curry greatly resembled the pumpkin curry although the sauce didn’t have anywhere near the same depth of flavour – at best it was moderately creamy. Once again, the chunks of tender squash were outnumbered by a seemingly random selection of other vegetables.
One lunchtime-only oddity that has no evening equivalent is the crispy duck wrap. Essentially a sandwich for mildly rushed office workers, the forgettable flatbread was filled with strips of dry, mildly salty and slightly chewy strips of duck along with some lettuce and a few other scabs of veg. The unrecognisable duck was deeply unimpressive and was made palatable only by the the thin, salty, slightly tangy sauce served on the side.
Templeton Peck opted for the spaghetti pork stir fry. The noodles were a bit greasy and the pork was a touch too soft, but he still found the sweet, moderately spicy stir fry to be pleasing comfort food.
I washed my food down with the Thai iced milk coffee, which was slightly different from last time. The taste of coffee was a little stronger than before but still very mild, somewhat akin to a coffee flavoured ice cream. Nonetheless, the malty, milky, sweet, soy-like flavour made it a refreshing drink. Interestingly, at lunchtime it’s served in a standard-sized glass rather than the larger dinnertime jugs.
The Carnaby Street branch of Rosa’s Thai Cafe isn’t perfect, with some dishes notably better than others. Recurring flaws include a reliance on ho-hum ingredients which are then outnumbered by fillers, but there are enough crackers on the menu, such as the green curry and the grilled smoked duck, to make it worth eating at Rosa’s time and time again. It just nudges into four star territory ahead of Busaba Eatthai, but behind the nearby Janetira.
Name: Rosa’s Thai Cafe (Carnaby Street branch)
Address: 23a Ganton Street, London W1F 9BW
Phone: 020 7287 9617
Opening Hours: Monday-Thursday noon–22.30; Friday-Saturday noon-23.00 and Sunday noon-22.00.
Reservations: highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including service, soft drinks and coffee: £25-30 approx.