[This venue is now closed]
Imperial Wharf sounds smart and indeed it is. It was for centuries a working-class area with poor housing. My mother’s family lived just a short walk from the new complex and my uncles learnt to swim in the Thames. Things have changed and it’s doubtful that youngsters will be diving off the sides of gleaming yachts into the murky tide. The river bank is now fringed with new and stylish apartment blocks and moorings for those aforementioned boats. There are restaurants, and one of those is The Blue Elephant – tasteful in every regard.
This isn’t a new restaurant but it is a new location for a much-loved establishment. Until recently Blue Elephant called Fulham Broadway home and it was an outpost of Thai refinement there for 25 years or so. But the views from Imperial Wharf are much more interesting and attractive, and now there are tables outside – they will be the ones sought, should we ever have a summer.
Blue Elephant occupies an enviable plot in that new development, but step though those anonymous doors and you are in Thailand; more accurately a traditional house in Thailand. The interior was inspired by the Saran Rom Palace of Bangkok, which was once the seat of Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. It has the ambiance of a home rather than a restaurant. OK, a home with lots of friends over for dinner.
The new Blue is smaller than the original but its intimate proportions add to the cosy atmosphere. It’s designed to give flexibility of seating as well as space for private dining. The restaurant is a testament to Thai craft and continuity. There are carved statues and friezes and a lower ground floor bar which is a shimmering vision of tooled gold. Teak woodwork and exotic flowers make this an unmistakable satellite of mainland Thailand.
The menu has been created by the founder of the Blue Elephant Group, Chef Nooror Somany Steppé. She is one of the most celebrated chefs in Asia and indeed among the most respected woman chefs in the world. She is considered the unofficial culinary ambassador of Thailand.
Chef Nooror was born in Chachengsao province and grew up surrounded by a family that was involved in the food industry. Her mum taught her how to pound spices to make the curry pastes to sell at the market. These days Blue Elephant curry pastes can be found all over the world.
When Nooror was a teenager she moved to Brussels where her brother was studying Hotel Management. She met Karl Steppé there and married him, and a few years later they and a few friends opened their first Thai restaurant in Brussels. There is now a veritable herd of Blue Elephants across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It’s still very much a family business though, with Karl taking care of the administration, daughter Sandra looking after the Bangkok complex, and son Kim is in Phuket at the new branch.
Sunday Brunch at Blue Elephant is a must for any lover of Thai food with midday hunger pangs. It’s also the ideal venue for an introduction to Thai food, as one can take just a little of each dish from the buffet, and decide on one’s favourites. One can graze on exquisitely crafted starters. There are fish cakes with dipping sauce and they are a perfect first taste to provide the novice with a hint of aromatic spice typical of this cuisine: a Thai dish should have hot, sour, salty and sweet notes to create a delicious flavour tapestry.
Spring Rolls offer texture and freshness. This is a ubiquitous dish on many Asian restaurant menus but these were generously stuffed and worthy of a try. Rice cakes are offered on porcelain spoons with a chicken sauce alongside. Thai salads are chopped and crushed before your very eyes. Skewers of marinated grilled chicken partnered with satay dip is bound to be popular as it’s a snack familiar to everyone, but a must-try from the starter station is Banana Dim Sum: strange but true – this is a startlingly simple Oriental nibble of crunchy deep-fried wrapper and sweet banana interior. Banana is, in fact, one of those fruits that work perfectly well in both savoury and sweet dishes.
You will want to take the rare opportunity to try some Thai wine. Monsoon Valley Blended Red (vintage Buddhist era 2553) from the Siam Winery was a revelation. In truth Thailand isn’t a country famed for its wine but this was a creditable bottle and would have passed muster even if it had sported a French label. Siam Winery was established in 1986 by Chalerm Yoovidhya and now has a state-of-the-art winery in Samut Sakorn, 30 miles south-west of Bangkok. They cultivate over 300 acres of vineyards and have a wine tourism and education centre. Siam Winery is surely a producer to watch, and a visit is bound to be fascinating for any wine enthusiast.
Blue Elephant offers an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian main dishes, many of which are unique to the restaurant, along with some traditional soups and salads. The seafood curry had plenty of tender fish, squid and shellfish and an aromatic sauce, but the star of the non-vegetarian selection was the venison with chilli. This was rich and warming but without searing, mouth-numbing heat. Thai cuisine does have fiery dishes but it has many more that are complex melanges of ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and Thai basil. The pineapple curry was outstanding, mild and comforting.
I have one small criticism of Blue Elephant. They don’t supply blindfolds at the door. It’s a great restaurant to go to if you subscribe to the philosophy of eating dessert first: it takes strength of character to stride by that display of cakes and sweets near the entrance. The array of cut fruit might be your salvation and could even persuade the kids that fruit is delicious, although their plates will likely be garnished with a serving of chocolate-fountain-dipped marshmallows.
Blue Elephant introduced me to a new fruit. The salaka looks like a long-faced lychee with a hair-cut but has a taste somewhat between that and a pineapple. The jellies, flavoured with fruit or jasmine, and with a crunchy sugar coating, make an exotic petit four, with a few morsels of moreish Kao Too, rather like a brown-sugar coconut ice which I think this restaurant should sell by the boxful.
This isn’t Indian food with a difference; it’s not Chinese food with a slant. Thai is a classic cuisine in its own right and Blue Elephant is spreading the word. The Sunday Brunch is great value for money and it’s the opportunity to relax and enjoy high-end food with the family. Children are welcomed and will find not only food to enjoy but also face-painting to make their outing even more memorable.
There is an elephant on the Thai flag, and Blue Elephant flies that flag every day to entice us with glimpses of Thai culture and delightful food. Chef Nooror Somany Steppé is an ambassador with some amazing embassies across the globe.
Blue Elephant – London
The Boulevard, Imperial Wharf, Townmead Road,
London SW6 2UB
[This venue is now closed]
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018