It’s a testament to chef Michael Wendling’s confidence that, following the success and continued popularity of his modern French bistro Cuivre, rather than open another venue in a similar vein his next move has been to start a Thai restaurant. And it’s testament to his skill as a chef that he’s been able to make the leap between cuisines without coming unstuck. Wendling spent the last year shuttling between Shanghai and Bangkok diligently learning the cuisine from scratch.
T for Thai continues his penchant for quirky, modern decor. At the top of the brushed concrete steps leading up from beside Cuivre, a glass door opens to reveal two truncated tuk-tuks against background photographs of a Bangkok city scene and elephants in the jungle. Corrugated metal adorns the ceiling inside the restaurant, echoing the Thai capital’s less salubrious areas, while the lighting fixtures suggest parasols. To one side of a glowing green bar wrapped in photos of foliage are hanging wicker chairs, which is about as cosy as T for Thai gets. The whole space exudes an off-kilter minimalist chic similar to that of its downstairs relative.
Stylish touches continue with the plating of Wendling’s takes on classic Thai meals – all are carefully presented in smooth, rounded dishes that offset the harsher lines of the decor. The green papaya salad (78RMB), for example, arrives on a wavy ceramic dish that houses strips of fruit and green beans almost as if they are stamen at the centre of a flower. Yet its artful appearance hides a surprisingly fiery kick that will have even spice fans reaching for a glass of water.
With decidedly less chilli zip are the delicious, juicy pomelo mélange with toasted coconut and roasted prawns (88RMB) and the pork salad with herbs and apple (88RMB). However, while the pork is perfection on one visit, with tender meat mixed with plentiful shallots, on a follow-up trip the meat is heavily over-salted. Make a request to the kitchen to watch for salt levels and this salad is superb.As with the papaya salad, the high level of spice is present in the green curry chicken (78RMB). Yet while the spice is almost overpowering in the salad, with the green curry it provides a tasty backdrop to the well balanced interplay of ingredients in the sauce, which is thick and filling without being overly sweet from too much coconut or having its flavours obliterated by lemongrass, as is so often the case with green curry we’ve sampled in Shanghai.
Even more impressive is the red curry with duck (88RMB), a deep orange sauce topped with wisps of lemongrass and filled with chunks of duck which have been separately roasted and then doused in the rich glowing curry. Another favourite comes from the grill in the form of the tiger prawn satay. At 30RMB for one they may seem a little pricey, but the smoky flavour and excellent accompanying sauces make for a satisfying bite.
Less spectacular, but satiating nonetheless, is the beef with chopped basil (88RMB), a dish of curls of meat, onion and basil leaves that would be somewhat plain if it weren’t for the hint of liquorice that’s laced throughout. Alas, the pad thai gung sod (78RMB), at least in early days, is a gamble. On one visit the noodles are beautifully cooked and coated in a tart-sweet balanced sauce, while on another it’s a let- down, both over-salted and lacking its previous texture and finesse.
Overall, Wendling’s bold T for Thai is a captivating experience with more panache and modern attitude than any other Thai venue in town. Service is already smooth and top-notch from experienced staff. We trust that once the kitchen is fully practiced, it will run just as reliably and fluently as the always-busy Cuivre downstairs.
By Jake Newby