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Clifford Mould takes a fantasy ride to Thailand

Blue Elephant
Thai Food Festival
August 2004

This is a must do event, so don't miss it!

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When you arrive at The Blue Elephant on Fulham Broadway, there's a reception committee waiting for you with hands pressed together and shy smiles and bows. Slightly taken aback, I understood at once why the Queen looks the way she does on such occasions - we have nothing adequate in our own meagre cultural repertoire of body language with which to reciprocate. Then I quickly recovered the critic's hardboiled cynical carapace: how long can they keep this up, I thought to myself. The answer was all evening and some more.

There are three principal ingredients that ensure that a visit to the Blue Elephant is a memorable one: the decor, the service and the food. It's rare to find all three in such a happy combination; what a difference it makes.

I'm frankly rather suspicious of "Theme Restaurants", where so much more thought seems to have gone into the decor than the menu, which is often fast food by another hip but juvenile name. Here, the many and various candle-lit dining areas on different levels are cleverly divided by thick jungle greenery, pagodas and pergolas, while walkways and bridges lead you through oriental water gardens stocked with impressive fish. The impression is one of tropical dining al fresco.

The waiters and greeters are dressed in brightly coloured traditional costume, flitting in and out of the jungle like Technicolor parakeets. The senior staff dress in business suits, which seemed a pity, rather as if they don't expect to be taken seriously if wearing national dress themselves. Couldn't an even grander outfit be provided for them, we wondered?

On arrival we were offered cocktails, but we chose Gewürztraminer from Zuentz-Bas at £21.75 a bottle. The drinks service was impeccable - oriental restaurants are not always noted for this - our wine waiter had the steadiest hand and replenished our glasses just when required.

 We decided to try the Royal Thai Banquet Menu as this offered the opportunity to try many different samples of popular dishes all of which appear on the carte. Priced at £29, you get six starters, six mains and three accompaniments, so it's well worth the money. I'd recommend it if you're still fairly new to Thai cuisine; old hands will probably want to try out some of the less well-known dishes. For my part, it's interesting to see whether a restaurant of this calibre really does have the culinary edge over typical neighbourhood Thai eateries. The food is beautifully presented, with much decorative carving of vegetables. There are lovely plates with a plain white glaze and splashes of abstract oriental blue. You can buy plates and other decorative memorabilia.

A chicken satay starter was good, but the peanut sauce was the best I've tried. Indeed, there were several different sauces to go with the starters and we were given a crash course by the waiters on which was to go with what. The transparent vermicelli salad with finely diced chicken and prawns had its own integral sauce and we were absolutely forbidden to mix any further condiments with this subtle offering. Of the other starters (including the ubiquitous Thai fish cakes), the dim sim were particularly good with a delicious filling of pork, shrimp and crab. The soy sauce was very thick and rich and a million miles away from the stuff you buy in the supermarket.

The main courses came in little bowls on a great filigree brass pedestal dish which you cold rotate like a lazy susan. Established favourites like Massaman lamb curry, Cashew chicken and Prawn curry were well executed with clearly differentiated sauces. Thai beef salad featured prime strips of flash fried fillet of beef and the flavours of lime and coriander in the dressing were vibrant and sharp. The Bangkok fish was particularly tasty, with cod in a really gooey garlic and ginger sauce. My favourite was Emerald chicken made from morsels of marinated chicken wrapped up in so-called Toey leaves which look like bamboo fronds. The leaves impart a delicious aroma and go all sticky when they are fried. You're not meant to eat them but you simply have to lick the sticky stuff off - it's much too good to waste!

After a pause we were delighted by a dish of perfectly cut and presented fruit; the slices of mango were particularly good. A final mention of the impeccable service would not be undeserved. All French waiters should be made to go there to see what charming, attentive but non-obsequious service is all about. The Blue Elephant is a dining experience not to be missed. Those of you who've been to Thailand will recharge their memories, those who haven't will be trying to get onto the next flight.

This review dates originally from April 1998 since when we have revisited several times, always leaving with a warm glow.


The Blue Elephant, 4-6 Fulham Broadway, London SW6 1AA
Tel: 020 7385 6595

There are other Blue Elephants in Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris, New Delhi, Dubai and Beirut.
Details on their website: http://www.blue-elephant.com


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