(THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Thailand’s Greyhound Cafe began its sprint in Bangkok 20 years ago and has since dashed to Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore – 17 franchises opened in all.
In December, the race reached London, with its first outlet in Europe.
Greyhound Cafe London, representing a 150-million baht (S$6.3-million) investment, is on Berners Street in the trendy Fitzrovia area, a short walk from Soho.
Executive creative director and co-founder Bhanu Inkawat regards London as “a window on Europe”, so maybe the Greyhound’s not finished running yet. “We want to reinforce our statement here and make it a success to pave a smooth path to overseas ventures in Europe,” Mr Bhanu says.
Industrially chic and mainly trimmed in black, like its sister branches, Greyhound London has walls of mosaic tiles with Thai lettering, rustic brick, corrugated iron and exposed metal ducts.
One wall is a blackboard on which the evolving menu is printed by hand and there is an arty 3m-tall assembly of bamboo fish traps. Pla ta pian wind mobiles shaped like carp – a symbol of prosperity in Thailand – hang from the ceiling. Roomy enough at 600 sq m and ample for 192 diners, the place still feels intimate, and the open kitchen keeps things lively.
On arrival, you first notice the bar, where snacks and pre-meal aperitifs are served. It lures you back later for after-dinner drinks, maybe a Chang beer or a Thai craft beer – Chalawan, Bussaba or Chatri – or one of the cocktails powered by Mekong whisky. Some diners prefer the basement, which evokes a Bangkok street full of food stalls with its mismatched chairs and tables and rough decor.
Mr Bhanu, managing director Pornsiri Rojmeta and international business director Nattaporn Runghajornklin spent nearly two years hunting for the right location and visited Thai restaurants around London to sample the dishes and the action.
“A research firm we hired didn’t think we should open on a major street because that’s associated with chain restaurants catering to tourists rather than locals,” says Mr Bhanu. “Londoners instead enjoy finding good, chic places to eat hidden along the smaller roads. So we chose this place, which used to be a steakhouse. It’s only a short walk to Soho and Oxford Street.”
They also found that the big trend in dining in Europe is authenticity. People these days are well travelled and discerning and will not settle for dishes or restaurants that feel contrived.
“And a lot more Europeans these days can distinguish among northern, north-eastern and southern Thai dishes,” Mr Bhanu points out. “They’ve visited Thailand and are ready to eat even the strong and spicy dishes like pla ra and tom sap.”
Referring to the roots of Greyhound in the fashion trade, Mr Bhanu says it’s “fun” presenting dishes with a creative twist, and the customers love it.
The idea is to give Londoners a sampling – on the plate – of life in modern yet chaotic Bangkok.
“‘Modern Bangkok Cafe’ is the term we use and we offer what modern Bangkokians eat,” says Ms Pornsiri. “We mix and match ingredients and tastes for a different food experience, one that’s representative of Bangkok’s diversity, creativity and chaos.”
While the original Greyhound in Bangkok has 90 dishes on the menu, Londoners get 30 choices, half of them newly conceived for the locale.
The most popular dishes have made the trek there, such as salmon in spicy seafood sauce and deep-fried chicken wings, and the taste is guaranteed to exactly replicate what is available in Thailand.
Reversing direction, until March 31, several of the London outlet’s own signature dishes are being served at all branches in Thailand in a promotion called “Keep Calm & Get Excited”.
These include Todmun Pops (150 baht), which are fried fishcake balls with pickle relish and ground peanuts; and Weeping Wolf (240 baht) – grilled lamb on cucumber ribbons with spicy pesto, holy basil and red shallots.
Then there is Street-style Duck Noodle Soup (200 baht), with thin rice noodles, bean sprouts and a seasoning of yellow chilli vinegar.
Hot Oil Pork Knuckle (720 baht) is the German favourite marinated in herbs, served with spicy tamarind curry paste, jaew dip, pickled vegetables and a basket of sticky rice.
For dessert, Sun-dried Banana Date Cake (180 baht) is a slab of cake stuffed with traditional sun-dried banana, pecans and dates, finished with lime cream sauce. You get a skewer of dried banana with it too.
Among the drinks, Bubble Plum Plum is honey and lime juice iced with frozen Chinese plums, and Icy Lemongrass Juice features lemongrass granita.
Other signature dishes in London are Scallop Pad Thai (£15.50 or S$28), Esarn Chicken served with som tam (£14.80), Panna Cotta Lod Chong (£6) and Palm Sugar Banana (£7).
“We’ve been open two months and have had quite positive feedback from both the customers and restaurant reviewers,” says Mr Nattaporn. “We’re already getting people queuing for seats. So it’s possible we’ll expand into other areas, such as King’s Cross, and nearby cities as well.”