At long last I am proudly able to say that I’ve dined at The Blue Elephant, here in London. It’s one of those landmark places that I’ve been hearing about ever since moving to London. For a long time my commute took me past its blue neon sign twice daily but until last week, I’d never stepped inside.
When Monsieur and I passed through Bangkok earlier this year, we made reservations at The Blue Elephant’s sister restaurant in the Thai capital. The service and food were laudable but our fellow diners made us feel very un-intrepid as they were mostly Western tourists. I’m relieved to say that in the London restaurant, the crowd is far more local.
A group of my colleagues gathered at The Blue Elephant to celebrate the impending nuptials of Thai Bride. We call her ‘Thai Bride’ because her wedding is taking place in Thailand (not because of any resemblance to the Little Britain character, Ting Tong). It therefore seemed apt to take Thai Bride to eat Thai food in a Thai restaurant, surrounded by Thai staff. So we did.
The only bum note in the whole evening was that we had called to tell the restaurant that we had a Very Important Person in our party; that our friend was due to get married in Thailand and would they please arrange something special for her? We were thinking a special flower or place setting or a welcome drink would be a nice touch, but nothing happened. Meanwhile, the people at the next table had a special dessert with sparkling candle brought to them by a choir of waiters singing Happy Birthday, but still there was no recognition of our Thai Bride. What a shame.
Apart from that glitch, my virgin visit to The Blue Elephant was highly entertaining, with authentic Thai touches everywhere. Walking off the busy Fulham Broadway, we entered a vestibule with coat check and a glass cabinet filled with Blue Elephant souvenirs. Mental note: must treat myself to a Blue Elephant cookbook sometime. Then we were greeted by beautiful Thai wait staff, all dressed in traditional Thai costume, hands pressed together in greeting: ‘sawasdee’, they smiled. The ceiling and walls of the dining area hung with healthy, green vines and plants making the overall effect like being outside. Hectic London was mere metres away, yet the atmosphere was faraway Asian paradise.
Our waitress led us along a pathway which weaved in and out of tables and separated seating areas. Was that a boat floating on the bubbling stream filled with carp? Yes, it was. In one corner a smiling gold Buddha sat in prayer. In a word: WOW. I started planning when to bring Monsieur for a visit and I hadn’t eaten a single bite of anything yet.
Time for cocktails. What would we have? Most of our group ordered the Mai Thai, but being a big fan of dragon fruit, I ordered the Red Dragon, comprising strawberry liqueur and vodka blended with dragon fruit pulp and topped up with ginger ale. It kicked, looked luscious yet lethal, tasted divine and will probably take the mantle as my New Favourite Cocktail. So far, so good.
Tempted though I was to order the soft shell crab, I’d done just that in Bangkok so it was time for a change. What better way to try out the menu’s highlights that order their Thai Royal Banquet menu? Most of the gang chose the same, and the vegetarian among us had the vegetarian version: a 3 course taster menu (or 4 if you include a soup) taking you on a tiki-tour of Thai cuisine.
Following the amuse bouche of lemongrass curry-flavoured soup, the first plate arrived with a selection of starters: a crispy spring roll, a banana leaf folded into a ‘bowl’ containing shredded vegetable salad with delightful crunchiness and a chilli and lime dressing, a king prawn wrapped in golden rice paper, a miniature chicken kebab, a fried fish cake… There was one other but I can’t remember what it was and I’ve been so berated recently for (a) photographing food and (b) taking notes from menus, that I thought I’d better behave for once. I still took photos but refrained from writing down every single ingredient and taste, lest it irk my fellow Thai-Bride-wellwishers.
Further down the table, Thai Bride sat ever-so-slightly sloshed in her bespoked Thai Bride sash (hot pink, naturally) and tiara-veil, which was already shedding bits of silver-coloured plastic, indicating its mass-produced hen-accessory pedigree. Every now and then Thai Bride got up to dance (literally) about the table, though thankfully not ON it. In spite of the Red Dragon cocktail, which had not yet been slurped to its end, I was unnervingly sober. I don’t do hangovers too well anymore so I try (and occasionally fail) to avoid them at all costs.
Besides, the food was still coming. I slurped happily on a small bowl of Tom Yam Koong, which was worthy of its three elephant chilli-rating, setting my nose streaming and killing any semblance of the cold I’d felt developing earlier in the week. Next came a lazy-Susan type of contraption, holding a bowl of jasmine rice surrounded by little blue ceramic lidded bowls. Inside each hid a new taste of something Thai. There were a couple of devilled King prawns in one, a noodle dish in another, a chicken stir fry with baby sweetcorn, delicate salmon in a bold red curry, braised lamb with a spicy Thai sauce, tamarind duck with seaweed… And because I don’t eat lamb, in spite of my Kiwi roots, I was brought an extra bowl of chicken in a Thai green curry sauce.
Somehow I managed to eat a little of everything – helped by my Royal Banquet partner with whom I was sharing this spread – and left the rice to one side. Much as I love it, when confronted by a big meal such as this, I leave the rice. It only fills you up so you don’t have room for the more interesting food. As soon as we’d finished filling up whatever spaces still lurked in our expanding tums, I was ready to leave. The week had been heavy with work-related stress and I’d only just kept my head above the paper mountain growing on my desk. I was now desperate to rug up on my sofa and enjoy some down-time with Monsieur, so I called a cab and figured that the waiting time of 30 minutes would be plenty of time within which to sort out the bill, pay, and bid farewell to Thai Bride. It wasn’t. I’d forgotten that dessert was yet to come.
This was the most disappointing part of the menu. There was a wobbly green square of coconut jelly, which was very difficult to appreciate. A mini crème brûlée was as it should be but not different enough to be noteworthy. The coconut flan was light and tasty, but apart from the dragon fruit, which I adore, I could have lived quite happily without the dessert plate. To give some credit where it’s due, it was stunningly presented, as were all the parts of the menu; it simply wasn’t up to the standard of the other plates we’d enjoyed. My fellow diners agreed. We left most of our desserts on our plates.
At long last, and a small fortune later, I headed for the door, stepping carefully over the bridges, winking at the carp and passing courting couples holding hands in leafy corners. The be-suited maitre d’ handed me the coveted orchid that each female patron receives on leaving, as he once again pressed his palms together to say thank you and good night ‘sawasdee’. Thinking back to the Bangkok orchid, which lasted 10 days, 4 flights and 4 hotels before finally starting to wither, I wondered how long the London orchid would live?
Coat back on and scarf swaddled about my neck, I walked out of the Thai heaven that is The Blue Elephant, leaving the Buddha, the bridges and the lush leafiness behind. I will definitely be returning for a quiet evening with Monsieur and I already know what to choose this time: foie gras with tamarind sauce and the soft shell crab with fresh chilli sauce, peppercorns and Thai herbs. Monsieur may be tempted by the Running Crocodile stir-fry, and perhaps we’ll share a Coupe Blue Elephant, which is described as “A divine marriage of luscious fresh Thai fruits and ice cream scented with vanilla pods under a veil of our special coulis.” Now all we need is an occasion.
In summary –
GOOD POINTS: the interior with its stream and well-tended foliage is truly amazing, there are tables for groups of all sizes, the staff are courteous and efficient, and the food is very, very good with beautiful presentation. It feels like going on holiday, just by stepping through the door.
BAD POINTS: the prices are a bit steep, but in this sort of setting, that’s forgivable. It was sad that no one fussed over our Thai Bride, and the desserts let the rest of the Banquet menu down, but everything else more than made up for these glitches.
However, I would avoid this place on Valentine’s Day, because it would be absolutely packed full of couples with great taste but not a lot of originality.
NEXT on The Blue Elephant World Tour? Paris. Watch this space.