My first restaurant job was in a very hip Thai restaurant bang in the middle of the Roaring Tiger years.
It was a brilliant time to work in the hospitality scene, every Sunday night with literally hundreds in tips in our back pockets, we’d close the restaurant and head into the night ready for the after-hours fun, unique to restaurant folk set loose on the city. While Nine-to-Fivers slept off the weekend, ours was just starting – it’s the only consolation for working every weekend, holiday, bank holiday and special occasion all year round. I still hang out with loads of the gang who have mostly scattered into semi-real jobs and domesticity. It was in this restaurant that I met the hot but gormless waiter who would eventually become my husband.
I realised later he was mainly stoned and not (that) gormless.
Maybe because we’d met over green curry shared on the back stairs of the restaurant – if you like eating your meals in under five minutes while standing close to commercial garbage bins, get a restaurant job! – we’ve always had a soft spot for Thai food and when we moved into our first house with the prerequisite burgeoning baby bump and panic in our eyes, we went in search of a new local haunt.
That was when I learned from a new neighbour that we were living within spitting distance of an institution, Baan Thai in Ballsbridge. The OG Irish Thai place, this family-run restaurant opened in 1998.
It quickly became a favourite, so when I brought my friend there for the purpose of this piece, I was madly nervous. Maybe I was the only one charmed by the intensely 90s aesthetic and enthrall to their wok work. I felt protective of my hidden gem in the glare of someone’s expectations. I guess it’s a bit like the stage mom thing.
We arrived on a Tuesday night to a full dining room – never not a good sign for a restaurant. Unless the dining room is full of people just recently felled by a mass poisoning or something. The look in Baan Thai is “90s carpet”. Heavy mahogany furniture fills the modest-sized dining room, the walls and ceiling are mahogany paneling, the carpet is red, some objets sit in alcoves – basically interior design-wise, it slightly feels like someone is about to sacrifice a virgin in there. And TBH I like it.
When approaching Thai food most people have their “order”, you’re a green curry person or a Pad Thai person – like my extremely basic companion (don’t worry, she gets free food on Lovin she can handle a bit of shade). With Baan Thai, I urge you to go off-piste. Trust them, they know what they are at.
For starters, we opt for the Larb Gai and prawn cakes. Thai fish cakes are generally pretty rubbery, it’s just in their nature. They’re not mash-based as we are more accustomed but rather made from fresh fish blended with lime leaves and curry paste. Still, bouncing-off-the-plate levels of rubber, is not good and here the prawn cakes are divine. They are generous and juicy pillows of flavour with some texture left to the mix. A side of sweet chilli sauce is the perfect compliment. Forget the syrupy sweet chilli sauce with which we’ve been crucifying Thai cuisine for the past 10 years, this chilli sauce is lightened up with lime and served with crushed peanuts to add texture.
Our Larb gai was hot, fresh and full of interest and flavour. Minced chicken served on baby gem leaves is a Thai stalwart but the Baan Thai version is a cut above. Eating Thai in Dublin can sometimes feel like we’re getting a dumbed down version of this culinary tradition – as though clever kitchens are wooing us with palm sugar, fish sauce and coconut milk and not much else. Often these McThais just don’t taste very fresh. In the Larb Gai by contrast, there is a multi-part harmony of tastes at play. I sense the prickle of the red chillies, the heat of the ginger, the warm citrusy coriander and the thrill of fresh mint and basil in every bite against an intensely savoury and satisfying backdrop of the meat.
For mains, the Pad Thai and a Sea Bass dish continue to impress. I’m unbearable as the cloying stage mom quizzing my friend on how amazing everything is, but she humours me. And she knows I’m right.
The Pad Thai is an excellent litmus test for any Thai restaurant, it’s practically the Thai food ambassador at this stage. Done badly, you’ve got an oily, clump of noodles that’s potentially too sweet with not enough lime to balance it out with only a fine dust where the crushed peanuts should be. We’ve all had the bad takeaway version of this street food slip out of its packaging still holding the tub’s cylindrical shape. The Pad Thai here is a plate of distinctive tastes and texture – the salty crunch of the peanuts, an answer to the sweet sauce and sharp citrus high notes. Meanwhile, on the branching out side of this dining duo, I order the whole crispy sea bass with sweet tamarind sauce. Fresh lemongrass, ginger and chilli punctuate the mouthfuls of sweet and sour sauce with perfectly-cooked sea bass. It is delicious. End of.
The only downside to Baan Thai is there isn’t a huge emphasis on desserts and regular readers of this column will know that’s a difficult one for me. The dessert menu, I’m sorry to report... has pictures. Of the mass-produced dessert factory variety. Devastating.
We do spy a few unphotographed options tucked away at the bottom which seems to suggest potential. We order the banana fritters with vanilla ice cream with honey and seasame seeds, which completely saves the day.
16 Merrion Road
Wed - Fri: 12.30 pm - 2.30 pm
Sun - Thur: 5.30 pm - 10.30 pm
Fri and Sat: 6.00 pm - 11.00 pm
Sunday: 5.30 pm - 11.00 pm
Sun - Thur: 5.30 pm - 7.00 pm