Food review: Newbie gets a thumbs-up

It’s not been a great year for Thai restaurants in Shropshire. The county’s best, The King and Thai, recently closed, bringing to an end a glorious era of sensational cuisine from the brilliant Suree Coates. Happily, Suree, a former UK Thai Cook of the Year, re-emerged in Ironbridge with a smaller and more perfectly formed restaurant.

Chicken satay with homemade dip
Chicken satay with homemade dip

In Shrewsbury, the too-big Aroi Thai came to an end just a few years after opening. Its food had been reasonable, its service poor but the numbers simply didn’t add up for a place of that size. As one door closes, another opens – or should that be, as one restaurant closes, another opens – and in Shrewsbury, Pad Thai Café has recently emerged on the town’s Castle Gates.

It’s located in an unpropitious location, just a short walk from the town’s train station and library, in a bijou former shop.

There’s just about enough room inside to swing a cat, though it would have to be a pretty small one that didn’t mind such treatment in these days of anti-cat-swinging protests in local restaurants. Or did I just dream that bit?

The Pad Thai café is just a short distance from the town’s railway station in a former shop

It is the opposite of Aroi Thai. While that restaurant relied entirely on its Friday and Saturday trade and had little chance of making ends meet during the week because of its sheer size, Pad Thai Café feels like a dinner party for friends.

It’s tiny: half kitchen and half seating area. Two chefs were working when I called in for an impromptu Saturday lunch.

It’s part-take-away and part-café. The intention, presumably, is that people phone orders for delivery or collection, while those who’d rather wait can pull up a stool and sit at the bar-style seating inside; though it would quickly become over-crowded.

The team behind the café have every chance of success. The prices are decent, the food not bad and the overheads low – unlike those at Aroi Thai or a couple of other larger restaurants in the county. And most importantly of all, the people who work there are invested in making the business a success.

Stir fried beef with a selection of vegetables including mushrooms

A restaurateur friend recently told me of a visit to a chain restaurant in a location that was to die for. The restaurant was owned by some finance house or other and located in a prime position, with windows flooded with natural light and views across a small watercourse. The chef was fine, the menu on point – what could go wrong?

The answer to that was simple: the staff. Without a hands-on owner, recruitment was poor and the restaurant found itself staffed by people who didn’t give two hoots. The restaurant manager was only there for the salary and things quickly unravelled.

In contrast, restaurants owned independently and with a hands-on gaffer almost always hold the upper hand. There’s an understanding that the pounds and pennies that come through the till matter – and the staff feel as though they have a quasi ambassadorial role on behalf of their boss.

A mouthwatering Thai curry

And that’s true for simple, humble restaurants in provincial towns just as much as it is for big-hitting Michelin-starred eateries in our nearby cities. Staff realise that if they don’t do a good job, the restaurant suffers and so do their career prospects. Or, put more simply, they care about it more. The staff at Pad Thai Café find themselves in that position and so there’s genuine engagement with the customers; albeit it that it’s only a café.

Curiously, the one thing that the team at Pad Thai can and should improve is the food. I ate two courses and both were reasonable, without setting the world alight. I started with a plate of chicken satay.

The homemade satay dip was fabulous though the chicken had been fried beyond comprehension. It was as crispy as a triple cooked chip, golden at the edges and with more crunch than a Dime bar beneath a sledgehammer. The notion that chicken might be moist or tender flew out of the window; this was chicken for those looking to gain weight. And, truth be told, I kinda liked it.

Deep fried king prawns

The main suffered from similarly imprecise cooking. A stir fry chicken dish with chilli and cashew nuts was decent, though the chicken was again a little over cooked, unlike the vegetables which were deliciously al dente.

It was cooked in an umami-rich sauce and the texture of the cashews and their creamy taste provide perfect contrast to the donkey kick chilli. It was served on a cold plate – a failing that always makes me shudder – with a timbale rice. The flavours were pleasant and, let’s face it, we’re reviewing the prospects of a café rather than a restaurant with delusions of grandeur; or is that illusions?

The bill was next to nothing, service came with a smile and there were a constant stream of people either popping in for food or weighing up their options by scanning the menus that were fixed to the glass windows.

I think the Pad Thai Café will do alright. There’s a huge appetite for Thai food in Shropshire’s County Town.

A Thai green curry with chicken

One only has to consider the number of Thai restaurants that have served Shrewsbury’s hungry public over the years to realise as much. And the low costs associated with such a bijou venture mean its owners should earn enough to get by.

They were also thoroughly pleasant during my brief experience there while the café-vibe makes it the perfect spot for quick-and-easy, informal eating. They ought to tighten up on the cooking. For while the flavours and seasonings were all spot on, the food was a little inconsistent.

Cooking a piece of protein ought not to be complicated or provide a margin for error. It’s an exact science that should come easily with hours and hours of repetitive practice.

That criticism aside, the Pad Thai Café is a welcome addition to Shrewsbury’s eclectic and diverse dining scene. The town is well served by its cluster of much-loved independent restaurants.

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