The central point of the dining room at Zen Metro is a faux cherry blossom tree lit naturally by the domed skylight it resides under. Its a beautiful thing, as significantly ceremonial to the South East Asian cuisine here as aesthetically pleasing. Curiously, there is a lone table for two adjacent to it. I’d hate to be sat at that table, for sitting there means you are likely to feature on a strangers Instagram timeline. Its a picture that will be taken time over, the clay coloured walls adorned with Buddhist imagery, the white lined splayed across the wooden tops and the navy blue booths, all with that tree central to the shot. And it deserves to, for this is the cities prettiest dining room. Tell me otherwise and I wont believe you.
They do Thai food here, reasonably priced and authentic. It holds its own against the rooms character, more so at times when the whack of chilli fire hits the back of the throat and sends a bead of sweat down the forehead. Its unrelenting in the way that South East Asian food should be, but seldom is. We know this from the start with the prawn crackers that we work through whilst perusing the menu. The crackers have a decent flavour and nice snap, though it is the dips that impress. A nuoc cham has the deep flavour of fermented fish, a sriracha chilli sauce of pure heat and a sweet chilli sauce which is more fire than the sweetness we are used to from the supermarket jars. All of these punch with masses of flavour.
From here we eat some of the most authentic Thai food that I have tried in this country. Som Tum takes me back to roadside stalls of the stuff packed in to plastic bags and sold for pennies – the green papaya dressed boldly with more nuoc cham, palm sugar and chillies. It is, as all good Thai food should be, a vibrant mix of hot, sour, salty, sweet and bitter. Duck comes thinly sliced, rare and properly rested, the cucumber and celery a calming measure for more of the sriracha sauce. Tom Yum is pho’s naughtier sibling, a stock soup finished with a ferocious chilli oil. It’s addictive, even if the minced chicken balls are a fraction overcooked.
It’s not all heat. Butterflied prawns are grilled to a gentle smokiness and dressed in a garlic oil which enhances but never overpowers their subtle flavour, whereas deep fried morsels of chicken have a crunchy exterior that gives way to tender poultry. Pad thai with tofu is a potentially dull dish that springs to life with a tamarind dressing that enlivens it all with distinct sweet and sour notes. Sea bass is accurately steamed and finished with soy and ginger. To take these delicate flavours and transform them into dishes such as these shows an underlying respect for ingredients that others could learn from.
It takes a lot for me to like salmon and they almost achieve it with a teriyaki sauce full of funk and sweetness. I struggle with the oily fish as I always do and find myself devouring the underneath noodles coated in the same moreish sauce. We finish the savoury courses with two curries that hit the five flavours of Thai food with pin point precision. A green curry with chicken which would be a star on most tables was overshadowed by a lamb massaman that sings with aromatics. Its a stunning dish that sees me mop up the last of the thickened sauce with fried rice studded with scraps of scrambled egg.
Replete, I tackle a banana fritter for dessert in the name of gluttony. The stodgy batter needs a little refinement, which cannot be said for a silky coconut ice cream that adds a welcome luxury to the plate. Its a finish not quite worthy of the excellence before it. The savoury courses here are a notch above any other Thai restaurant in the city, the issue for me is maintaining the very essence of what makes it so. At present it is unflinching and bold; not holding back on the big flavours when needed, which is why it is as authentic as it is. But what happens when our tame English palate finds it too much? It potentially only needs two idiots on TripAdvisor to complain that it is too hot or too salty before questions are asked of the kitchen. Lets hope it doesn’t get to that, or, if it does, they politely tell them where to go in search of a blander experience. For now I suggest you get in quick, order the dishes with the fire and feel the enjoyment of Thai food cooked just how it should be.
I was invited to eat at Zen Metro