Restaurant review: Banh
Banh 48 Upper Arthur Street, Belfast. www.banhstreetfood.com
You wait three years for a decent Thai restaurant to open and then two come along at the same time. Towards the very end of 2017, both new restaurants, Bo Tree Kitchen and Banh, opened coincidentally within weeks of each other after a stasis of three years since the closure of the popular Bo Tree Thai in Belfast's University Road.
Both new places have instantly made a deep impression. It was inevitable, therefore, that we should finish 2017 and begin 2018 with accounts of south-east Asian food in Belfast. And thank Buddha for it because while each restaurant is distinct, they are both very good.
They differ in so far as Bo Tree is a comfortable, sit-in canteen which also does take-aways, while Banh is a tiny, street food-ish takeaway with a few tables to sit in. Banh is also punkier and more in your face with loads of attitude.
Immediately evident is Nox Seri, the Thai chef and manager, co-ordinating orders, keeping things on the move, snaking through the crush, making sure no one is kept waiting a minute more than is necessary.
She is at the heart of everything Banh does and that sense of being in the hands of an expert, old-school restaurateur whose main concern is quality, speed and service is incredible to watch in action at close quarters. Any student of catering and hospitality would do well to spend an hour or two in there just to watch how it's done.
If you're lucky enough to get one of those tables and spend a little time soaking up the pronounced downtown Bangkok atmosphere, you'll come away with a real sense of having been transported very far away.
The food is not confined to Thai. As the name implies, there's Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laosian as well as Taiwanese and Chinese influences here. There is chicken katsu curry, salmon teriyaki, green curry beef, dumplings, wonton soup and loads of banh mi, those French-style baguettes filled with all manner of exotica.
It's not for the faint-hearted, or the claustrophobic. An outpost of urban Far Eastern modernism, where a new generation is fusing the best of the West's 21st-century music, fashion and art with the sophistication, complexities and details of Asian hospitality, Banh is almost underground club-like.
The interior is very rock and roll, grafitti'd and distressed. It's where American tattoo art is headbutted by Nang yai (ancient Thai shadow puppetry) resulting in something which fuses East and West, ancient and modern, establishment and street.
This must have something to do with Niall Davis of former Howard Street, Beringer/Permit Room parishes. Davis has an eye for this kind of thing and is as clued into fashion, trends and fussy markets as Nox is good on food and management.
And while all this sounds a bit teenaged, the quality of the operation, the actual offer itself, is top notch. There is a confidence and a relentless rhythm to the restaurant's workings. The dishes are classics and the textures, flavours and balances between sour and sweet, savoury and creamy are clear evidence of expertise in the kitchen.
Hot noodles and rice give off clouds of steam, sizzling woks bang and crash and food comes out quickly. Bowls of perfectly arranged slices of dark duck, or chicken, snuggle up to verdant, crunchy green leaves; crushed peanuts and chopped scallions sit atop and beneath lies your mound of rice or noodles.
It's mouthwatering and instantly desirable. Punko chicken in the katsu comes on rice and something called King Kurry sauce . It is everything you want in a katsu: deep, rich, creamy and spicy. There are other curries. The White Elephant features Mae Kong chicken and fried tofu, crispy shallot with beansprouts and greens.
The beef green curry is a classic and the Sukothai of barbecued and braised pork, crispy wonton, sprouts and greens on noodles would keep you right for a week.
Nox has form, having worked in Paris, Moscow, Bangkok and Los Angeles. Clearly, Belfast's growing reputation as a foody capital is far more widespread than we had thought. How else can anyone explain her desire to be here? Her food is not just authentic; it's invigorating and utterly different to anything we've seen in Belfast.
Go quickly in case she gets itchy feet again.
Jumping Buddha £5.50