With who: The Insiders
How much: Starters around a fiver and most mains are £8 - £9. Very good value for the area
Come here if: the queues are too big for Jamie's Italian and you need somewhere after your Saturday afternoon shopping 'up in town'
OK. It's not a promising start... A newly spruced commercial 'quarter' opens out of the Covent Garden alley between disappointing up-market Mexican Cantina Laredo and Jamie's Italian, the latter begrudgingly acceptable but for the tourist horde on their daily pilgrimage.
Led here by an old friend with prior knowledge, I wasn't feeling it as I walked through the glorified shopping centre and into the enormous black box of a restaurant. The feelings didn't dissipate as I waited in the puzzling space somewhere between a bar, a tourist information centre and a cattle barn. Enormous sacks of different types of Thai rice lie around, interspersed with Thai tourism brochures. Amiable staff mill around with odd cocktails and authentic costumes avoiding your eye, it's like being at giant tourism industry trade fair World Travel Market. Upstairs it's a little more like a restaurant, and a huge one at that. Light beech Carl Hansen chairs add an odd Scandinavian feel to an otherwise quite industrial barn of a space. The staff remain, upstairs many more to service the swathes of empty tables, rabbit in a headlight like gazes while zipping around the space. Suffice to say I'm already not looking forward to this.
The menu goes someway towards allaying those fears. It's (very) cheap for the area and a relatively traditional menu in style. Starters shared included very good chicken satay, with its sticky and spicy peanut sauce covering soft smooth chicken, Thai style calamari and cigars of minced pork and prawn in wanton wrappers. Tastewise the spare ribs were fine, but the watery sauce didn't really work as a shared starter.
I next went for a namtok ped som tum, country style duck served with som tum salad and sticky rice. A neat touch mentioned in the menu advises that you can have it as hot as you like, and, like a boy, I asked for the 'spicy' version. Som Tum salad is one of those fragranced specialities that I tend not to order in Thai restaurants, saving space for a hearty massaman curry instead, but here I'm glad I did. Green papaya salad, made with carrot, tiny dried shrimp, fish sauce and some firey chilli, I wouldn't recommend having it anything other than regularly spiced though, it cut through the rich fatty duck well, along with most of my faculty for taste. It's a shame that despite the 'Rice Bar' moniker and the Visit Thailand display downstairs, there weren't more different styles of rice. A rice tasting menu would have been amusingly different, though not likely to appeal to the legions of tourists and shoppers they need to get through the doors to sustain the location.