Thai starter passes the test

RESTAURANT REVIEW Robert Cockroft at Thai Sakon, Huddersfield.

Never underestimate the pull of the railway, even in the 21st century. Look what it's done for food in one Yorkshire town.

Ten years ago, the arches beneath the hefty viaduct that shoulders the track into Huddersfield were occupied mostly by shops. Now they are home to thriving independent bars and restaurants.

The interest begins at the top with a fine Indian restaurant, Balooshai, and ends at the foot of the street with Hoult's, a wine merchant. In between come Cibo, Gringos and Slammers, all worthy of consideration. Across the way lies the longer-established Bradleys.

The growth of a critical mass of restaurants has tempted more investors to the area. Two relative newcomers, Lounge 68 and Mas, help to pull town centre diners to this once unfashionable end of town. The latest arrival in the shadow of the scrubbed-stone viaduct is Thai Sakon which adjoins a clothing manufacturer that makes school uniforms and workwear.

All evidence of a previous Thai restaurant that traded here for many years has vanished in a radical redesign that conspires, successfully, to overcome the deficiencies of its semi-basement setting. It opened just over a month ago and the cooking is as fresh, clean and striking as the decor.

The owners are a young Englishman, who lived for five years in Thailand, and his Thai wife. Restaurant ownership did not always figure in their calculations; he was working in restaurants in Huddersfield while studying to teach maths when the idea took root.

Be glad it did. The restaurant, for all its gleaming glass and brass, is not yet fully polished, but it offers promise in a town long on Asian, but short on south-east Asian, outlets.

The potential of the kitchen shines brightly in a simple dish of pad Thai. Soft rice noodles are stir-fried with bean sprouts for crunch and spring onion for warmth. An egg is incorporated for colour and flavour. At the side is a small heap of chopped peanuts to add further interest to the texture.

The total effect is stunning. I'd come here just for these and at 4.95 there's every reason to do so.

Professors of deep frying, however, may have things to say about the oil exuded by some of the items in the mixed starter, which brings char-grilled satay chicken, spring rolls wrapped in thin rice pancake, minced prawns on toast, chicken tempura, battered sweetcorn and prawns with sweet and sour chilli sauce. Droplets on the surface of the battered chicken and prawn suggested the oil was too cool when the chef dropped them in, but the flavours spoke clearly enough and the fried prawn toast is a splendid version, savoury, dry and sweetly rich.

The menu stretches to 90 dishes, 23 of which are vegetarian, and flavours can be bracing in their intensity. The three Thai chefs in the kitchen are adept, not merely in balancing sour, sweet and hot elements, but in achieving that poise and clarity in a dish that makes this cuisine so seductive.

Geng pet ped yang is duck in red curry. The sauce is a thin, pale red and you wonder how much flavour can be developed in a broth quite so meagre in texture. Answer: loads. The impact sends you almost through the glazed conservatory roof. The sweetness of pineapple, the suavity of coconut milk, the aromatic burst of kaffir lime and the gentle chase of chilli combine to make this a memorable construction. It will be even more so when the duck is up to the sauce. The slices left the impression that they had been pre-prepared arrivals to the curry, a legitimate shortcut but not one that diners particularly wish to notice.

Geng pbaa – 'spicy clear jungle curry with unique Thai herbs' – arrives with the equivalent of a health and safety warning. In these politically correct times that would come as no surprise.Printed by the menu title are the outlines of three chillies. This helpful calibration is used throughout, but the meek should note that it ranges only from one chilli to three.

In the event, the jungle juice is not especially fierce. At least you think so on the first, second, third mouthful. Then, with the delicacy of a heat-seeking missile, the fourth mouthful tells you that the chefs have indeed not spared this year's chilli harvest.

A stir-fry of chicken pad grapao (it merits a two-chilli warning) finds the kitchen also extracting spice heat from ginger and garlic. This is feisty cooking: bold, keen and, through the agency of Thai basil, sweetly aromatic.

Supermarkets caught on several years ago to the British taste for Thai food. Its healthy image played well with shoppers attracted to chill cabinets stocked with beautifully packaged green and red curries and jasmine rice.

The texture of the meat is a problem with some of these ready-prepared dishes. Chicken, for example, can be slimily soft. Some manufacturers also like to westernise their dishes by thickening the sauces. They should call in here. The prawn green chicken arrives with al dente vegetables in a sauce that's hardly thicker than milk. Once again, however, the flavour beams through to yield a dish that is tangy, fresh, clean and packed with character.

The architects who redesigned the bar and dining room have done a fine job in creating a space that is contemporary, elegant and relaxing. While glass and wood provide the hard edges, soft sofas, fabrics and suede chairs offer a restful counterpoint. In short, this is a pleasant space, upscale in feel but moderate in price. The outbreaks of Eastern art are restrained – as is the service.

Service is hyper-polite to the point of reticence. The young women in their traditional Thai silk dresses may find the Huddersfield warmth of 'Eyup luv'a culture shock, but they would benefit from a shot of it. Let's hope then that the maths teacher manqu who has never run a restaurant before gets all his sums right. This could be first-rate.

Thai Sakon, 5 St John's Road, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire HD1 5AY. 01484 450159. info@thaisakon.co.uk Open: Tuesday -Sunday lunch and dinner. Ten per cent off for takeaway orders. Meal for two with wine: About 42. Street parking, access is down a flight of stairs.

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