Location, location, location are, as every estate agent and Channel 4 property show addict knows, the three critical factors in determining the desirability of a property. The same cannot be said for restaurants, which can thrive in the oddest places - both under and atop multi-storey car-parks, for example - yet fail in seemingly sure-fire sites.
Ora is a fantastic smart Thai restaurant cursed with an abysmal location (location, location). Little Portland Street is an alleyway in the unlovely area north of Oxford Street that property developers would like us to call Noho. The previous occupant of this site was Annex 3, the short-lived West End off-shoot of Shoreditch favourite Les Trois Garcons.
Ora's owners are clearly unperturbed that the eponymous three boys, with their pedigree, couldn't make a go of it here. Money has been spent to good effect on giving the long, large dining room and adjoining cocktail lounge a sleek, dark, Christian Liaigre-ish makeover, and an elegant interlocking design rather like a curvy Union Jack runs across staff t-shirts, embroidered leather place-mats and menus. There's confidence as well as incense in the air.
The menu offers a mix of the familiar curries, stir-fries and noodle dishes with a selection of Thai specialities, some of them seasonal. Dinner date Frankie and I started with a Spice Market platter of mixed starters, each paired to a home-made dipping sauce. Fish-cakes, chicken satay and prawn tempura were comme il faut, but crisp light calamari with its black pepper dip and a fiery, fragrant som tam papaya salad stood out.
Super soups followed; Frankie's bracing hot and sour tom yung goong used beautifully fresh prawns while my tom kha gai was about as good as this coconut milk, galangal and chicken soup gets, a sprinkling of crispy shallots adding a smoky bass note.
For our main courses Frankie took the safe route of a green chicken curry which was a fine specimen, the flavour deepened and heat tempered by the inclusion of aubergine. My panang neur, slices of beef in a sweetish, rich sauce was beautifully spiced so as to deliver a rolling ever-present heat in the mouth without pain or perspiration. A lovely slippery knot of mushrooms brought welcome earthiness.
The two real wow-factor dishes of the meal were our desserts. Tub-tim-grob, an iced 'soup' made with coconut milk, shaved ice, water chestnuts, tapioca and jackfruit was successfully both sweet and refreshing, perfect after a rich, spicy meal. Even more unusual was durian ice-cream; unsurprisingly neither of us could guess the flavour but it was pungent, smoky, creamy and completely delicious.
As well as impeccable if at times overly-deferential service, a real highlight of what turned into a long, leisurely evening was exploring the Thai specialities on the drinks list. Starting with cocktails based on Thai spirit Mekhong - somewhere between a whisky and a rum - we moved on to Chang beer, after which we enjoyed Thai wines - who knew? - matched to each course. A light buttery Colombard Malaga, deep Pok Dum Shiraz and a sweet late harvest Chenin Blanc, reminiscent of a Muscat, led us as they would anyone to wonder why the wines of Thailand aren't better known. Fascinating stuff.
Pricing might be a little on the high side relative to portion size - an adjustment to one or other of ten percent down or up would balance things out nicely - but that's really all there is to fault about Ora. The challenge it faces is not in persuading anyone of the quality of the food, drink or service, all of which are above reproach, but simply of getting the word out to enough people who appreciate such things that they are there and that it is worth seeking out their less-than-favourable location, location, location. They are, and it is - now go.
Ora, 6 Little Portland Street, London W1W 7JE Tel: 020 7637 0125 http://www.ora-restaurant.co.uk
I was invited to review Ora.
Posted by +Hugh Wright