20 February 2016
The Old Siam
Newcastle upon Tyne
0191 261 5590
It’s probably bad manners to commence the post-mortem whilst the patient is still twitching on the table, but that’s what happened long before we finished our meal at The Old Siam.
With good reason though: having struggled to find anywhere in Newcastle to match the flavours from happy times spent in Prachup Khiri Khan, Ko Samui, Chiang Mai and Bangkok, several people had recommended this place. Would my search for decent Thai food in Newcastle end in The Old Siam? I’m afraid that it very much did not.
‘I don’t get it’, said one of my friends from the other side of the table. ‘Even if you’re not doing “authentic” Thai, how hard can it be to make things taste good using chilli, lime, lemongrass and fish sauce?’
Chasing the last unloved remnants of my own dish around the plate, more out of hunger than enjoyment, I was in perplexed agreement.
‘But look, the place is rammed’, I noted. ‘Is this really what people want from a Thai restaurant?’
Perhaps it is, but if that’s the case then what a pity. Maybe it’s simply that people in Newcastle don’t have any good Thai restaurants to judge it by. In which case, they should go out and buy David Thompson’s seminal work “Thai Food”, a 672-page love letter to a cuisine in which an often bewildering array of powerful ingredients are marshalled to produce that unique balance of sweet, salty bitter and sour which, when done well, has such a thrilling effect. But enough about the meal I wanted; let me tell you instead about the one we got.
A number of set menus are available, but these were studded with unadventurous standards, and not particularly great value, so the 6 of us each went our own way. A number of deep fried things were ordered, as they often tend to be when people are hungry, although one, “Golden Bags”, was chosen because it had a funny name. Yes, that is our level.
‘It’s a standard spring roll, just in bag format’, came the response to my query.
Tempura of both vegetables and seafood were pretty poor, the batter more like a frumpy overcoat than the revealing dress it ought to be. More damning was the bog-standard sweet chilli gloop that accompanied the tempura and those golden bags. It tasted like the inside of a large plastic container.
I had been intrigued enough by the red wine sauce accompanying some chicken legs to order them. I was rewarded with a drab reduction that failed to enliven the meat, which tasted as if it may have spent some time in a fryer.
Best of the starters was Pao Tak - a fisherman’s soup which had a decent thwack of ginger, as well as a bit of fish sauce funk in the background. I cursed its owner’s prescience.
She came up trumps again on the main courses with a Beef Penang curry in which lime leaves and coconut milk contributed to a sauce of some complexity. That was, however, where the fun ended.
The menu had promised me an “exquisite” sauce of garlic and pepper on my dish of Duck Tod Kratiem Prik Thai. Dry and mealy slices of bird wallowed apologetically in a grim lotion that had none of the caramelised flavours this dish should have.
Mrs Diner’s Pad Thai was a another sallow duffer, lacking the contrasting textures which have made this so many people's go-to dish. ‘This is just hopeless…’, her voice trailed off, more in disappointment than anger.
One of our party that night possesses a rare talent for imbibing Lucifer-grade spicy food, being a victorious veteran of the now defunct Rupali’s Curry Hell Challenge. He was hoping for a bit of heat, especially from a dish marked with three little chillis on the menu. Not a bit of it.
‘This is pathetic’, he accused his Kang Phet Puk. ‘I could snort it and not blink.’
I sampled the dish in rather more conventional fashion, but had to agree. It tasted like the chillis had scarcely tip-toed through it.
We didn’t bother with desserts as most of the home-made stuff had run out and none of us could be bothered to eat ice-cream out of a coconut shell, as alluring as it looked on laminated card.
Service had been slow and unenthusiastic. We had asked for 5 minutes to look at the menu, but they gave us 20. We tried a bottle of Monsoon Valley Thai rosé, which was inoffensive enough, before switching to Prosecco.
It’s hard to know what to make of our experience: I had heard such good things about The Old Siam, and the place is riding high on that ultimate guide to gastronomic excellence Tripadvisor, but nearly everything we tried that night could be located on a spectrum of quality that ran from “alright-ish” to “total bobbins”.
The quality of the meat was poor and the cooking of it was worse. The sauces, for the most part, tasted like they could scarcely be bothered to be on the plates. Chillis were standard, rather than birds-eye Thai scuds. Yet the place was heaving and people seemed to be enjoying themselves. Why? How?
My search for good Thai food in Newcastle (with the exception of some of the mostly Malaysian menu in the excellent Chilli Padi) must continue. I quite enjoyed Nadon Thai, the little place above the chip shop in Morpeth, and note that they’ve just opened a branch in Newcastle’s Mosley Street, adding to another in Durham. They’re next on my hit list.
On a happier note, I am pleased to inform you that The Town Fry on Pilgrim street does a rather excellent cheesy chips and garlic sauce, a portion of which I put away two cocktails after our dinner at The Old Siam. That I should have had either the occasion or the inclination to do so says a lot.