The Thai Orchid is located at the junction of Fleet Street and Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2, a spot where Temple Bar meets the civilized world. To a degree the location reflects the custom; the night we were there the clientele consisted of English revellers, of the sort who liked a good time but didn’t drink their lager by the neck and by the gallon; their Irish counterparts; a few Darby and Joans who looked as they’d been going there for years; and Bangles and me.
It was not an easy choice as I’d spent the afternoon in Temple Bar, dodging the rain, waiting for a chance to have a word or two with Silke Cropp, currently, thanks to the Irish Food Writers Guild, the most feted of our stellar cheese makers. This pursuit also involved some hearty alfresco dining on Frank Hederman’s smoked mussels and the ever amazing Sarah Webb’s Gallic Kitchen pies and cheesecake. There are some nights you could do without contemplating undertaking a restaurant review and this was one of them.I hung about town in early evening, pondering, fretting while drifting between Mulligan’s and Bowes’, thinking three courses and coffee was just not on. Unhungry, if there is such a word. Then Bangles rang and, sound woman, suggested the Thai Orchid.
If there’s one thing that can refurbish you to the prime of eating condition it’s one of those Thai soups, Tom Yum-something–or-other. The Thais, who are a lot niftier than we are when it comes to tucking away course after course, use soup in just such a way. As a restorative, a mid-meal aperitif, something akin to the way the Normans use their native spirit, Calvados. At a Thai meal soup is on hand throughout and a mouthful or two instantly refreshes the weary palate.
Like the story of Icarus the bird-man, the Thai Orchid may be enjoyed on two levels. We were directed to the upper one. Our initial thought was that the tables were rather too close together and this was reinforced when a party of eight climbed the stairs and claimed the table behind us. The aroma emanating from the four women in the party (at least, I hope it was the women) led me to paraphrase Noel Coward’s oft-quoted quip, “Extraordinary how potent cheap scent is” I whispered sotto voce to Bangles.
We were presented with menus. One of the extraordinary weaknesses of Western restaurants who essay Oriental food is that everything is pre-ordained as if you were dining European. It’s such a mistake to shoehorn Thai food with its great mix-and-match, pick-and-snack tradition into starter/main course/dessert. Like seeing a magnificent Mongol warlord stuffed into a dinner jacket. We did our best to avoid the pitfall by asking that food arrived at table as and when it was cooked and, no, we didn’t want the soup first. But it didn’t quite happen.
“Like many Asian cuisines, Thai cooking is a ‘throw-together’ style of cooking that allows much room for creativity. The foods in season and available fresh at the marketplace… ..are the important deciding factors of what will appear on the dinner table. Of course, a good sense of what foods and flavors work well together and a comprehensive knowledge of the basics are helpful.” The words aren’t mine. They come from a fine book, It Rains Fishes, published in 1995 and written by Thai cookery guru Kasma Loha-unchit. While they could stand as a bench test for any restaurant, they are particularly relevant to Thai food which stands or falls on freshnessand seasonality. How would the Thai Orchid measure up?
Well, the Tom Yum Koong, that’s the soup with prawns, didn’t taste as fiery as I’d hoped. Not quite dumbed-down but certainly told to hush. I can quite understand that no Saturday night reveller wants to end up in The Mater having a re-roofing job done on his mouth but I do think a little more fireworks would have been in order, particularly as the dish carried a three-chilli rating. A slight disappointment redeemed by the excellence of the two “starters” the fried squid, just off-wriggling and the melt-in-the mouth chicken dumplings. Fragrant rice arrived, every grain rolling, plus a large bowl of plain soft noodles and, almost instantaneously, beef with ginger and spring onion, a prawn dish and, to my mind the highlight of the meal, a red curry of duck with lychees and fresh pineapple in a clay pot with a night light heater underneath. Unlike a meal I’d eaten in a much more expensive Thai restaurant the week before, the flavours weren’t muddy and indistinct – here was palm sugar, there was galanagal, coriander, nam pla, Thai basil, lime leaves, everything playing a part, like musicians in a chamber orchestra, everything contributing to the whole symphony.
The wine list, as expected, didn’t win any prizes for originality. But I did find an Alsace Riesling I’d not had before and this lent an excellent counterpoint to the aforesaid musical mix. The staff, mainly young Thais, were worthy representatives of The Land of Smiles and served to enhance our enjoyment of the restaurant no end. The bill came to e104 something, ex-service, which I regard as extremely good value as its getting harder and harder to have a night out in Dublin for two without breaking into four fifties. To my shame I hadn’t even noticed the Thai Orchid’s existence before, for which I’d like to make amends by recommending it now.
Thai Orchid, Westmoreland Street, Dublin 2