Restaurant review: Bo Tree Kitchen, Belfast - return of Siamese twin will leave you tongue Thai-d
A sister restaurant to the much-lamented Bo Tree Thai is bringing a welcome touch of the far east to Belfast's thriving University Quarter
Ever since the doors closed on the Bo Tree Thai restaurant, Belfast has been left in a kind of Siamese limbo with little if any access to authentic gai pad ped, tom yam het or kung pad prik pao.
Camile opened in the meantime to some acclaim and then gradually sank into the horizon due to over-stretching itself, resulting in poor service, long delivery times and much fire-fighting.
Also, I got tired of the over-reliance on green beans bulking out all the dishes. It's still doing well, though.
Thai-Tanic on Eglantine Avenue is cheap and cheerful but, again, relies too heavily on chopped carrots to fill out the carton.
So, for three or four years, Belfast was a bit of a Thai desert until two things happened: the original owners of Bo Tree Thai returned to the city just before Christmas with a more modest-looking place in the Queen's Quarter of Belfast on the very edge of the Holyland called Bo Tree Kitchen; and Niall Davis of Howard Street, Beringer and Yugo experience, opened Banh, a street food-ish fast lunch place in Upper Arthur Street. We'll come back to Banh next week.
Housed in the former War on Want shop on University Avenue, Bo Tree Kitchen has a brightly lit and upbeat dining room which is democratic and spacious.
Pieces of Thai visual art add to the sense of arrival, and the front of house personnel are as charming, accommodating and pleasantly assertive as any you'll find in the better restaurants of Chiang Mai and Bangkok.
A quick scan of the menu shows the depth of knowledge at work. The exposed kitchen is like a window into any classy capital city Thai restaurant.
From here come all sorts of delights which take you well beyond the well-trodden paths of Thai red and green curries.
The quiet industry in the kitchen, punctuated by occasional rigorous and rhythmic scraping of wok on stove, flashes of flame and hiss and sizzle of coconut milk into hot pans, makes things move swiftly.
This is right and proper, fast and furious - yet nobody feels rushed. Food arrives for takeaways and sit-ins and the mood remains calm throughout.
There's something very therapeutic about being close to people who know what they are doing as they work with vigour and flair.
I went a few times within 10 days, sometimes to sit in for lunch, other times for family takeaways. Each time seemed better than the last. Thankfully, the extensive menu means you'll have to go several times before going back to the start.
There are flashes also of the old Bo Tree Thai. Plar kung, a prawn salad with lime leaves, lemon grass and chilli comes on lettuce and is as refreshing as a dive into the Andaman Sea; sateh, marinated strips of chicken sateh on bamboo skewers, are charcoal-grilled and come with spicy peanut sauce and pickled vegetables; and the tom yam gai - hot and sour chicken and mushroom soup with lemongrass, chilli and lime juice - will have you on your feet again in minutes after a hard night.
There are all sorts of hot, mild, spicy and sour dishes of pork, beef, chicken and seafood, and the flavours are extraordinary in all of them. Dishes featuring chilli, lemongrass, lime leaves and ginger, Thai holy basil, pea-like baby aubergines, fung gu mushrooms and galangal, are incredibly varied and produce flavours many of us haven't experienced before. Many of these spices and herbs are delivered weekly from Thailand straight to Bo Tree Kitchen.
The egg or rice noodles, jasmine rice and that famous Thai sticky rice are all equally authentic. The sticky rice (khao niew) is incredibly textured and rich, with almost a hint of vanilla. Perfect for eating with your fingers if you're expert enough. Also, look out for daily specials on the blackboard - they do a very hearty massaman curry.
If you can't get to Thailand this year, never worry. Bo Tree Kitchen might not be able to offer the beach or the night life, but you'd find it hard to find any restaurant in Thailand much better than this.
Kueytiew nam (rich chicken broth).............................................£5.95
Kueytiew ki mao (drunken noodles)............................................£5.95
Neua pad ped (stir-fried beef with curry paste)............................£6.95
Laab neua (minced beef, chilli, galangal, ground rice)..................£6.65
Bo Tree Kitchen
University Avenue, Belfast. Tel: 028 9050 7544