The @ symbol (or to give it its proper name, the 'at symbol') has had a number of uses in its 111-year lifetime. Originally conceived as accounting shorthand for 'at the rate of', with the arrival of email in the 1990s the humble @ came into worldwide(web) usage as an integral part of every email address. Since 2006 however, the sign has acquired a new prominence as the opening character of every Twitter username; other means of communication are old hat - these days Twitter is where it's @.
Don't go looking for smart new Thai restaurant @SIAM on Twitter though; the username does exist, but it's not them - in fact it's one of the thousands of dormant accounts which include, frustratingly, @hughwright, an Evangelical Christian in the US who's not tweeted since May last year. And not that you would, but don't go looking for it in Siam either - you'd have a job to, as no such place exists, the Kingdom of Siam having become Thailand for good in 1949. Do however go looking for it on Frith Street, slap-bang in the heart of Soho, where you will find it, especially if what you're looking for is some really very good Thai food at not-too-hideous prices.
I'll say now for the avoidance of doubt that when I say 'really very good' I only mean in my self-confessed inexpert opinion; whilst I absolutely love Thai food, I can't pretend to know a very great deal about it. When I was invited along to experience @SIAM (something else I'll make clear now for the avoidance of doubt) I did think about being a bit mean and taking my Thai friend so that he could be the judge of authenticity. Realising however that that would just make me look and sound like an arse, I instead invited my lovely friend Greg, whose expertise is as non-existent as mine. Both of us know what we like and what tastes good however, and I base this post entirely therefore on the degree to which we enjoyed what we ate.
Seated at a slightly-cramped-but-great-for-people-watching window table, we ordered a selection of vegetarian and fish dishes, Greg being one of those poor misguided souls who has forsworn the consumption of lovely meat. First came some gorgeous corn fritters, deep fried kernels bound in a red curry-scented batter served with 'aromatic syrup', a sticky, sweet chilli dip. Tom kha goong - a rich, sweet and sour coconut milk-based soup containing fat prawns - was creamy, zesty and luxurious, the lemongrass within not over-powering the other flavours.
Next we enjoyed Pla Hoi Shell, seared scallops served in a cleverly-spiced dressing with enough heat to exhilarate without masking the sweetness of the flesh. Shards of crisp green apple on top added a pleasantly contrasting texture. Also very clever was a dish of steamed sea bass with chilli, served with braised lettuce in a salty, citrusy broth consisting of lime, fish sauce and sugar - a textbook example of umami. Soft-shell crab, bathed in a sticky sauce ('a light chilli jam' according to the menu) was excellent too, none of its flavour lost in the frying process and complemented by a crisp, bright salad.
Perhaps surprisingly, the only duff dish of the night was that most ubiquitous of Thai specialities, green curry; for many diners this would be the default choice, hence our ordering it to see if it passed muster. As it was, it was disappointingly bland, with no discernible taste of the advertised sweet basil, but perhaps this was due to the presence of tofu, which as we all know exists only to stop vegetarians dying from protein deficiency. Or perhaps it was just that everything else had been so exciting and complex that our palates, already dancing with so many joyful flavours, could no longer discern or appreciate subtlety.
Washed down with a bottle - OK I'll confess, two - of a peachy, floral Gavi di Gavi, it was an excellent meal which had we not been guests of the restaurant would have come in at about £50 a head, or without the wine about £30 - great value for such high quality in the heart of the West End. It was made even nicer by very pleasant surroundings - the room, although basic, has been carefully designed with some attractive touches including a huge, ornate Buddha - and attentive, nothing's-too-much-trouble service from which every table was benefitting.
I can't let it pass without comment that, for a restaurant with such an apparently contemporary name, the very use of the @ symbol suggesting that here is a business that is embracing the digital age, their website - every modern business's shop-window on the world - is fairly terrible. Music blares unwarned and unwanted from the speakers the moment one lands on the homepage, typos abound ('comtemporary' anyone?), navigability is next-to-non-existent and there are even factual inaccuracies - sorry, @SIAM, but you are not 'The only Thai restaurant in Soho', not by a long shot. Such inadequacies don't do what is in fact a very good little restaurant justice.
This notwithstanding, I'd certainly encourage any fan of Thai food, or indeed of good food generally, to give it a go. But by-pass the website, and head straight for the restaurant itself; if you don't enjoy it, I'll eat my h@.
@SIAM, 48 Frith Street, London W1D 4SF Tel: 020 7494 4511 http://www.atsiam.co.uk (though as above, I wouldn't bother if you value having normal blood pressure)