Because of Rosa Thai’s proximity to my office, I eat lunch there almost once a week. I invariably order the green curry with pork, which I love for its tender slices of pork, the generous handful of crunchy bamboo slivers, and its balance of sweet, salty and spicy flavors. Much as I love my lunches there, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly testing out the menu at Rosa’s when I go.
So when my friend told me he’d enjoyed dinner at Esarn Kheaw and forwarded me this ecstatic January 2009 review in the Guardian, it was a no-brainer to get myself over to Shepherd’s Bush earlier this week. By coincidence, last night, when I picked up this week’s issue of TimeOut, I saw Easarn Kheaw listed as one of London’s best Thai restaurants and described as “the place to try some of the real tastes of Thailand.”
Which makes me wonder: have either the writer of that Guardian review or TimeOut been back to Esarn Kheaw recently?
Let’s start with the starters: the papaya salad, described in the Guardian review as ‘crunchy, lime-suffused,” was in fact a bit limp. Its most redeeming feature was as a condiment to our fish cakes, whose texture was alright (i.e., not hopelessly rubbery), but which tasted bland. Where was the taste of curry, coriander and fish? Good thing there was a dipping sauce.
Based on the Guardian review’s description of the Thai sausages as “gratifyingly garlicky,” I expected powerful flavors out of these little guys. But instead they tasted like bits of lightly salted meat stuffed into a casing (aka your typical English supermarket sausage). That chili on the plate was just for show.
We fared even worse with our mains: lap mu (minced pork and chili) tasted almost entirely of lime juice. And where was the pork? When our server asked us if we liked it, we replied that it tasted overwhelmingly sour, which prompted him to launch into a lecture on the four flavours of Thai food, as if the dish were supposed to be that sour. But as I recall from my cooking classes in Chiang Mai many moons ago, those four flavours are supposed to be *balanced*.
I’m a fan of both crispy pomfret and alliteration, so when the Guardian reviewer called Esarn Kheaw’s version a “piscine paradise [and] a strong contender for a Desert Island Dish,” there was no stopping me from ordering it. That was a mistake. If there was fish meat somewhere underneath that mildly spicy-and-sweet goo, I wouldn’t know it, and if I were trapped on a Desert Island with this dish, there’s no doubt I would starve to death.
We tried out the “Tiger Cry” because our friend’s Thai friend had recommended it. In our case, this dish was a case of marketing gone awry. With a sexy name like “Tiger Cry,” you’d expect something more than slices of overcooked and underseasoned beef. To be fair on the point about underseasoning: you’re supposed to dredge your beef slice through a bowl of soy sauce and chilis, but you’d get the same effect for less trouble by just shaking some salt on.
To be clear, the food wasn’t inedible. It just fell far short of the hype. I should leave my writeup at that, but a brief note on the service:
I asked for tap water. Our server registered our order and returned with bottled water. I repeated that I’d asked for tap water. Our server put the bottle down on our table and insisted we’d like the bottled water better and mumbled something that sounded like he would charge us for tap water anyway, so why not go with the bottled water. Because the three of us were busy chatting, we left the bottled water on the table unopened, and about five minutes later, our server came back and made a point of opening our bottled water. I hate places where the choices are bottled water or no water at all.
The food was cheap, but too skimpy and generally underseasoned for it to count as good value. And if this is one of the best Thai restaurants in London, then London is woefully lacking in Thai restaurants. Our tab for three beers each, three starters, four mains and bottled water came to £31 a person.
Esarn Kheaw, 314 Uxbridge Road, W12 7LJ; 0208 743 8930; closest tube station: Shepherd’s Bush Market