It’s not difficult to identify the star of Asian dining in the U.K.
Alan Yau stands alone.
He’s the Hong Kong-born restaurateur who created Hakkasan and Yauatcha at the top end of the market and Wagamama and Busaba Eathai for inexpensive meals. He’s the man behind Cha Cha Moon and Sake No Hana. Now, he’s back with a new concept.
Naamyaa Cafe is an all-day venue serving Thai street food, along with other dishes from around Asia (and beyond) that you might find in a Bangkok. So don’t be surprised to see a chili dog, Caesar salad and sashimi on the menu alongside tom yam goong (spicy prawn soup) and other favorites.
So far so good. One flaw is the menu, with too many set meals you don’t want and a shortage of individual Thai dishes that you do. The main attractions are the kanom jin noodles flown in from Bangkok and served with pickled morning glory, star fruit, free-range boiled egg and Thai herb soup.
There are also rice meals (again with that soup) as well as snacks and small plates. If you like to try a variety of dishes, you may find your table cluttered with plates you had to pay for and don’t want to eat. That’s unfortunate because much of the food is good, the restaurant is bright and attractive, the prices are reasonable and the service is friendly.
Naamyaa Cafe, near Angel tube station, represents the modern face of Thailand, with a “wai” in the direction of tradition. You are greeted by rows of Nang Kwak figurines. Nang Kwak is a spirit of household divinity which Thais believe brings prosperity and good luck.
Yau is obsessed with detail and it was no surprise to spot him tasting dishes and chatting with the chef on the first of my three visits.
I subsequently ate there with a Thai colleague who was impressed by the authenticity of both the design and the food. (With the one exception, that the noodle set meals all come under the heading of naamyaa, which she says is exclusively a fish-based sauce, so wouldn’t cover chicken or beef.)
Some of the dishes are very good. The jasmine-tea smoked baby-back pork ribs at 8.50 pounds ($13.45) are rich and sweet.
The Isaan chicken is also worth trying: It’s corn-fed, free-range chicken grilled with lemon grass. It comes with green papaya salad, sticky rice and green melon soup. Perhaps you would prefer the tom yam goong spicy prawn soup. That comes as part of a set meal for two and costs 24 pounds. Dine alone and the burgers make sense as a way of avoiding multiple plates of soup.
About 10 dishes come with soup. Think of the Monty Python Spam sketch and you’ll get the general idea.
The choice of drinks is inspired.
There’s a range of teas (from India, Nepal, Japan and China) served in attractive jugs; Thai, Japanese and British beers; and even Kopparberg (KOBRMTFB) pear cider from Sweden.
The wine list is a real surprise: It’s not limited to the inexpensive heavy hitters you might count on to stand up to Thai food. The Ramey Russian River Chardonnay 2009 is 77 pounds; for red, the Lytton Springs, Ridge 2007 (a Zinfandel blend from Sonoma County, California) is 73 pounds. The wines start at below 5 pounds a glass and just above 20 pounds a bottle.
Yau doesn’t copy. He just keeps coming up with original ideas that other people either follow or buy from him. He’s also a perfectionist, so teething problems at Naamyaa Cafe are likely to be short-lived. If you can’t make it to Angel, don’t worry: There will probably be a branch near you before too long.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? About 15 pounds a head, plus drinks.
Sound level? Buzzy, but not too loud: 75 decibels.
Inside tip? It’s good to eat at the counter.
Special feature? Soup, soup, soup, soup.
Will I be back? Unlikely as Delhi Grill is nearby.
Date place? If you’re on a budget.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Naamyaa Cafe is at 407 St. John Street, Islington, EC1V 4AB. Information: http://www.naamyaa.com/ or +44-20-7291-1128.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70- 75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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