Food review: Sabai Sabai, Birmingham
What would you normally order at a Thai restaurant?,” I asked my friend as she flicked through the pages of Sabai Sabai’s extensive menu.
While I don’t necessarily think you should always order what you ‘normally do’, I thought this prompt may help my pal make a speedier choice – my stomach was making sounds of discontent.
“Hmm,” she replied, returning her eyes to the menu. “Well, the last time I went for a Thai meal was at the Barton Arms with you and Emma.”
I did some quick mental arithmetic. “That was 10 years ago!” I exclaimed.
She nodded in response.
And there was me thinking that Thai had become the go-to cuisine; the Indian of the noughties.
Fortunately, while I waited for decisions to be made, our very attentive waiter delivered our drinks order and a basket of delicious Thai-style prawn crackers.
With appetisers munched and options debated we were finally ready to order. Hallelujah! While we waited for our food to arrive we enjoyed the opulent interior and lively atmosphere.
Sabai Sabai is a small local chain of Thai restaurants with branches in Harborne, Moseley, Stratford-upon-Avon, and this one – in the heart of Birmingham’s business district. Even at 5.30pm on a school night it was a hive of activity with tables of friends and work colleagues tucking into fragrant plates of stir-fries and Thai curries.
Unlike many Thai restaurants it’s shunned the typical restaurant interior, which favours heavy wood carvings and exotic plants, for a modern, sleek feel. The upmarket environment is reflected in the prices with main courses from £10 up to £25 for the Thai-style lobster tail.
Our starters were quick to arrive. For her the Thai fish cakes, for me the tempura prawns. Other options range from the usual suspects such as satay chicken skewers and spring rolls to more unusual choices like pan-fried scallops served in a Thai white wine and lemongrass sauce, and wok-fried chicken livers with crispy garlic.
The sharing platters also sounded superb, most notably the ‘house’ one comprising toong tong or ‘golden bags’, chicken satay, prawn tempura, sweetcorn fritters and fish cakes.
My friend’s Thai fish cakes – which were served as little stacks of round patties complete with dipping sauce looked very authentic – went down a treat, while my tempura prawns were sublime. Hot, juicy and fresh, they were beautifully presented in their own little wire basket and came with a side dish of sweet chilli dip and a Thai-style salad, complete with carved veggies. If I could make one criticism it’s that they were mis-advertised; rather than have a coating of feather-light tempura batter, the outer casing was more like panko breadcrumbs. None the less, it was an outstanding and generous starter portion that could have been shared between two people – making the £8.45 price tag seem more palatable.
The healthy portions continued with the arrival of our main courses. My beef massaman curry arrived in a gigantic bowl emitting a sensational fragrance – coconut, chilli, lemongrass. Stirring through the mass of tender beef and potato chunks, it was clear there was enough to feed a family. Topped with crispy shallots and sun-dried chillies, it was also packed with roasted peanuts.
Earthy, rich and utterly delicious it was food for the soul. The beef was so tender it had clearly been cooked for days, and the sauce was so delicious it begged to be poured all over the sticky Thai rice I chose as an accompaniment.
As well as Thai curries such as penang and massaman, Sabai Sabai offers an extensive choice of main courses such as stir-fries, salads and seafood specials featuring monkfish, sea bass and tilapia. The selection is as much of a feast for the eyes as the food itself. Meanwhile, side dishes include six types of rice, plus noodles and greens such as pak choi stir fried in a garlic sauce.
My friend’s dish – the ped makam, or roast tamarind duck – was altogether a more refined affair. It arrived on a oval platter and comprised elegant slithers of blushingly pink duck breast, with leaves of pak choi and crispy shallots. A side dish came with the rich, sticky sauce made from palm sugar and piquant tamarind – which she described as ‘divine’.
She also chose an accompainment of sticky rice, although she felt it was a tad overcooked.
Neither of us could finish our main course dishes, which raised concerns of our waiter when he cleared away our half-empty plates. We felt almost apologetic but there was was just too much food.
Unsurprisingly, we could not manage dessert. Instead we rounded off our meal with a mint tea for me and a latte for my friend. However, for those with a sweet tooth offerings included traditional Thai dishes such as mango sticky rice and banana fritters with ice cream, or less authentic puds like Green & Black’s chocolate brownie, pecan pie or sticky ginger pudding. I’d love to meet the person who could polish off three courses – the portions were so very generous.
The bill came in at just over £70, which included a couple of soft drinks each. It seemed perfectly reasonable for food and service of such high quality.
With cuisine this superb it definitely won’t be another 10 years before we eat Thai together again. And Sabai Sabai will be our first stop.