A couple of hours in a police station on a Friday night is rarely a sign that your weekend has started well.
Oliver’s been in a few over the years, mainly in a professional capacity it should be pointed out. Never has the experience been this enjoyable.
Siam Oriental has taken over what was once Chapel Allerton police station.
Situated on Harrogate Road, at the junction with Town Street, it hasn’t been home to Her Majesty’s Constabulary for more than a decade, but a couple of businesses have tried and failed to reinvent it since the boys and girls in blue moved up the road to Stainbeck Lane.
It’s puzzling that none of those ventures has enjoyed sustained success – in many ways the building offers the ideal combination of location, character and handsome architecture to attract aspiring restaurateurs looking to muscle in on Chapel Allerton’s thriving dining scene.
Having said that, those looking for a place to eat aren’t short of options in this corner of Leeds.
There are already successful Indian, Italian, Mexican and Thai restaurants in the area, as well as a number of pubs and bars providing a range of food.
If Siam Oriental offers direct competition to any of them, it’s Sukhothai – Leeds’s pre-eminent Thai brand.
It’s a bold move encroaching on the territory of such a celebrated culinary behemoth.Perhaps mindful of that fact, while the restaurant has a clear Thai influence, its food is inspired more broadly by cuisine from across the Far East and South East Asia.
The owners have done a classy job with the interior design, making a conscious effort, they say, to depart from the norm.
‘Gone are the heavily themed crimson shades and cluttered environments that are typical of oriental eateries’ according to the website.
There are some eye-catching but not oppressive nods to its Far East heritage in the art work that adorns the walls (one large horse-related relief is especially impressive). The seating areas are warm and atmospherically lit.
But some hints of the building’s former life as a cop shop remain. Our table was in one of the old arched cell rooms – a thankfully cosy and intimate rather than cramped spot to enjoy dinner.
Inspired, in part, by the street food of the Far East, the menu is extensive, offering spicy soups and salads alongside curries and stir-fried dishes.
My dining partner and I had already demolished the basket of complimentary prawn crackers that was on the table by the time we came to order.
We chose one of the set menu options.
Our selection of mixed starters included a prawn and vegetable ‘golden bag’, barbecued spare ribs, chicken satay and vegetable spring rolls.
Attractively presented on a golden tray, it was difficult to fault any of the quartet of dainty appetisers.
The golden bag – resembling a drawstring money pouch – was amply filled with plump prawns and nicely-cooked vegetables. Its rice paper wrapping was light and crispy, as was that of the spring rolls, which were in themselves moreishly crunchy little snacks, helped along by a punchy sweet chilli sauce. The ribs came in a stickily sweet, but not overpowering, marinade and the expertly cooked chunks of skewered chicken breast in the satay were of the highest order, as was the peanut dipping sauce.
My dining partner was so impressed with our entrees that she started tucking into the sculpted carrot that was on the dish merely for decoration. Thankfully our waiter arrived to remove our plates before she began nibbling the serviettes.
If the flavours of the starters were subtly balanced, there was nothing understated about the full-blooded assault on the taste buds packed by the sour and spicy soup that came next.
Mine served with prawns, and my dining partner’s with chicken, this was a truly volcanic dish, the merest mouthful of which was enough to leave both of us in tears, such was the potency of a recipe that combined chilli paste, galangal (blue ginger), lemongrass and kaffir leaves in an explosive cocktail. It was not for the faint-hearted. The dash of evaporated milk failed to take the edge off enough to stave off an attack of hiccups. Had there been a fire extinguisher to hand I might well have turned it on myself. I was just glad of the beer we’d ordered.
Thankfully, the heat level was turned down a couple of notches for the three selected main dishes.
Our prawns in red curry was a delightfully fragrant bowl of coconut-sweet comfort food combining aubergine, bamboo shoots, kaffir lime leaves and cherry tomatoes. It was moderately spiced and beautifully balanced.
There was plenty of tender meat in the beef in black bean sauce that was another expert example of classic Asian cooking. The onion, spring onion and peppers gave a nice bite to a dish that also provided zingy hints of ginger.
The chicken teriyaki was the third of a triumphant trinity of dishes, providing salty sweet mouthfuls of succulent meat that were a real taste of Tokyo. It looked fantastic too.
Our mains were served with a delicious mound of egg fried rice.
There’s a range of desserts on the menu, from ice cream and cheesecake to Thai favourites like sticky rice and deep fried banana. But we were more than happy to quit while we were well ahead.
The bill, including a couple of beers and a bottle of wine, came to £70.
Open for less than three months now, there are promising signs that Siam Oriental could make the old police station an arresting spot to eat for some time to come.
The cell that had been our sanctuary for the evening is one you wouldn’t mind doing time in. And it’s safe to say that prison food has never tasted this good.
Address: 106 Harrogate Road, LS7 4LZ
Opening times: noon-2.30pm and 5pm-10.30pm Sun, Weds, Thurs, Sat; 5pm-10.30pm Mon, Tues;
Tel: 0113 2691151