One of the memorable aspects from my three-week mini tour of Thailand some years ago was of the country’s affinity with displaying their menus in pictures. Not the salivatory, Photoshopped cookbook sort, but those which provoke the opposite effect through raw pixelated, garish print-outs. Those, along with pan-piped love songs and confusing ordering instructions à la Nando’s, or just the whole Nando’s chain, should be tossed into a restaurant room 101.
Benja Bangkok Table, or BBT as the five-piece entrepreneurial ownership has tragically nicknamed the place, has stayed true to Thai tradition, with a gallery of dishes pinned to the front window. My dining partner for the eve, whose name I shall shorten appropriately to J, had warned me about them, so I deliberately bowed my head as we went in. Inside, the clean, bright and modern dining area met us, a seat at the back conveniently placed right in front of the restrooms, our haven for the next couple of hours.
Behind my head, in direct view of J should he get bored, was a flat-screen TV playing out tourism-type videos of holiday makers splashing about in the sea, arm bands and cheesy holiday smiles donned, and generic travel snaps of places you’re not sure you’d rather be. Televisions in any capacity in a restaurant, unless behind the scenes in a CCTV nature, are a massive no-no. The vibrant and emotive photographs of Thailand dotted around the rest of the walls were far easier on the eye.
In fairness, the purpose of our visit (as for most people, I’d imagine) was to catch up on each other’s latest happenings and fill up at the same time, not sit and look around. And on comfort and taste, Benja delivered. We ate our way through quite a few of its ‘modern Thai’ dishes, each one fresh, flavoursome and spicy, but not nose-drippingly so. The prawn phad Thai, fish cake lollipops and chargrilled beef dish were all particularly good, emitting the potent detoxing flavours and aromas of Thai cuisine, and far better than some of the fare I tasted whilst on my shoestring visit to the country.
The Thai Monsoon Valley white we drank was also good. Slightly sweet, a touch dry and welcomingly crisp, refreshing our palates between bites. No hint of greasiness here, just nice clean flavours that kept our stomachs content while we chatted uninterrupted, the subtle yet attentive waitresses clearing and replenishing effortlessly.
On the way out I had a peek at the images and, not surprisingly, the real-life versions were a darn site better looking; coincidentally, we’d ordered five out of seven of them. If I’d seen the pictures before I would have deliberately avoided them, a shame considering how delicious they were.
What Benja lacked in design taste, it more than made up for with the food, providing a relaxed, reliable and reasonably priced place to fill up. In such a busy and typically expensive area of town, these are welcoming traits.
Benja Bangkok Table, 17 Beak Street, London, W1F 9RW. Tel. 0207 287 0555. Website.