Thai cuisine seems to be everywhere at the moment and with at least two other establishments in Headingley alone, Thai Sabai has its work cut out.
This diminutive restaurant shoehorned into one of the units on The Parade, North Lane packs a powerful punch. It is well established, having been part of the Headingley dining scene for eight years and, indeed, is a previous Oliver Award winner, scooping the Best Oriental award in 2010, the certificate for which is there for all to see on the walls of this really rather enchanting little escape from the hustle and bustle of what has to be one of the busiest little suburbs in Leeds.
It’s easy to walk past Thai Sabai and miss it but once you do know where it is, it’s worth dipping in just to soak up the ambience.
Inside you’ll be transported into a something reminds one of a little taverna, the kind you might chance upon down a side alley while on holiday in some exotic resort.
There are trinkets and reminders of Thailand hung all over the walls and the lighting is low and relaxing.
We pitched up pretty much as they opened at 5.30pm one night and grabbed ourselves a table. We were warmly greeted and drinks orders were soon taken. While my partner stuck to her usual house white (£4.75 for a 250ml glass), I ordered Chang, which our waitress informed me was a traditional Thai beer. It was a good brew - crisp and hoppy and light on the palate, which is why I ended up ordering another almost straight away and at £2.75 a bottle, you can’t really quibble.
Despite Thai Sabai’s obvious reputation and its numerous awards - because there are others hanging there next to the one awarded by this newspaper - you cannot get away from the feeling that the place does seem in need of a makeover. Beyond the eclectic paraphernalia adorning the walls, among which was a black and white picture of the present King of Thailand - there’s faded wallpaper and some of the menus we were given had to be peeled apart.
It’s worth pointing out that Thai Sabai do a nice line in early bird meals, offering two courses and a drink for £10.95 or £13.45 if you want to add a dessert.
While I dived into the main menu, my partner decided to choose the early bird deal.
To start I ordered what looked to me like the most complicated thing on the menu, that being Peak gai yad sai (£4.50). The description read: “Chicken wings boned and stuffed with seasoned minced chicken, vermicelli and black fungus mushroom, steamed then crispy fried and served with a dip.”
I was looking forward to it too. However, when it was delivered, I was somewhat underwhelmed, as it looked as though I had a small plate of fried chicken wings. So, I took a bit, hoping to sample the seasoned minced chicken, vermicelli and black fungus mushrooms but instead my teeth hit hard bone.
I called the waitress over and mentioned that my order was for the ‘boned’ chicken dish. There was some confusion at this point, as I was reassured I had the correct dish but when I again pointed out it did not fit the menu description, a second lady appeared and when I explained again, she went away to investigate, returning some minutes later to inform me simply that the chef had changed the menu and that they were sorry.
To be honest, so was I. You don’t expect to order one thing and get another and then be told that the menu has changed. To their credit, they did ask if I would like a different starter and also pledged to knock that dish off the final bill, which they did. Even later in the evening, we were also approached by a man I presume was the manager, who was very polite and apologetic and explained they were in the process of changing the menu. In the end, the chicken wings were tasty enough, although nothing that special.
My partner ordered marinated minced chicken and herb toast, which she had no problem with. Both starters were served with a small, undressed salad, which was lifted slightly by the addition of an edible orchid, although I have to say I wasn’t a fan of it. It may be an acquired taste but it reminded me of raw cabbage.
For my main I ordered Weeping Tiger (£10.75), marinated rumpsteak char grilled and served with specially prepared chilli sauce.
Like my starter, it came with a bland salad complete with edible orchid. The steak itself was done as I’d asked (medium) and was smothered in a sweet sticky, slightly fruity sauce, which was nice but completely overpowered the meat, while the dip which accompanied the dish seemed somewhat superfluous given the amount of sauce on the steak.
My partner had the sweet and sour pork with pineapple, tomato and vegetables, again from the early bird menu, which she described as okay - the sauce itself was a little ‘jellified’ and lacked punch with a kind of watery quality, almost as though the main ingredients had split.
To finish we ordered banana fritters from the early bird menu and apple crumble (£3.95) with ice cream from the main menu. The crumble was faultless, but the fritters were somewhat generic and there was far too much of it. When I ordered I was asked whether I wanted two or three and I asked for two but got three and, in the end, ate only two.
Together with drinks and side dishes of noodles (£2.75) and fried rice (£2.25), the final bill rolled in at £43.40, which is not at all bad for the food we had.
There were a few sloppy mistakes with our visit to Thai Sabai and we hate to see such a nice restaurant struggling but were assured by the manager a new menu was on the way and would be in place by the end of January, which is why we view this as a blip - we’ll be returning some time in March.
Address: 2 The Parade, North Lane, Headingley, LS6 3HP
Opening times: Tuesday-Sunday 5.30pm-10.30pm
Tel: 0113 275 8613