It’s four years since Oliver ventured to Chaophraya, so we thought it was time to pay Leeds’s own star of the Orient another visit.
As arguably one of the two biggest name brands fighting it out for the city’s Thai cuisine crown - and its claims to authenticity rooted in the chef’s small village back home - it has a lot to live up to.
Wandering in to the premises on Swinegate, a stone’s throw from Trinity Leeds, we found the restaurant - style-wise at least - has changed almost beyond recognition in the last few years.
The traditional ‘tuc tuc’ rickshaw placed outside the front entrance is a charming wink to the owners’ heritage.
But as you enter, it’s as far removed as it’s possible to get from a remote village in northern Thailand.
The decor is sumptuous and decadent. Walking in, I thought I was in a plush lounge bar in Dubai rather than a restaurant near the dark arches in Leeds.
Cream leather seats and booths are surrounded by modern, Eastern-tinged artwork and the whole space is peppered with a host of representations of Buddha.
Since our last visit, radical improvements have been made, including the addition of a vast ground floor and vibrant, buzzing cocktail bar.
Previously the restaurant occupied just one first floor dining area, reachable by lift.
But having expanded to two floors, both the food and the concept are allowed to breathe freely to generally impressive effect.
My guest and I had arrived at around 8pm on a Wednesday evening without pre-booking.
This turned out to be a risky move, as the restaurant was already full to bursting when we got there, with a mixture of couples and larger groups clearly having a great time.
The Maitre D managed to seat us quickly at a tiny table squeezed in between two large groups, but we had no complaints considering our good luck in getting seated at all.
The menu is vast, with dozens of a la carte and set menu options vying for your attention.
The sheer number of offerings is astounding, with 18 starters and 32 main options covering the range of meat, seafood and vegetarian dishes.
Exotic-sounding dishes like ‘Panang beef curry’, ‘Jungle fish curry’ and ‘crispy pork belly with Thai basil’ were just screaming out to be sampled.
For my starter, I eventually chose the Golden Baskets (£7.55), ‘fill your own’ mini-tartlets with a steamed and flaked blend of cod and coley, flavoured with lemongrass, lime leaf and honey.
Despite the exciting name, I was quite disappointed with this dish.
Although the flavour of the flaked fish was zingy and tasty, the filling itself was very dry.
The tartlet cases too were hard and difficult to eat. It was almost like biting into uncooked dry pasta sheets.
The theatre of making your own tartlets is fine, but in the eating the dish just did not live up to its promise.
My dining partner, who is a vegetarian, chose the sweetcorn cakes (£6.95), deep fried patties blended with red curry paste and served with sweet chilli sauce. Simple as the dish might sound, it was delightful - the little patties were crispy, beautifully spiced and moreish.
We also decided to share a fresh Thai papaya salad (£7.95), which we both agreed was delicious, and in fact one of the best things we tasted all night.
The salad was made up of shredded carrot, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, shredded papaya and fine beans with chilli.
The only slight down-side was a large clove of raw garlic that luckily made itself known before either of us had chomped down on it. The crisp salad was covered in a tangy, tasty, spicy sauce, and the freshness was just delightful. Stunning simplicity which would work as a meal in itself.
On to the mains, and I ordered the grilled peanut chicken (£13.55).
This was succulent breast of chicken marinated with honey, lemongrass and coriander root, grilled and topped with peanut sauce served with vegetable relish and sprinkled with black sesame seeds.
The meat was beautifully cooked, and so moist I could have eaten it with a spoon.
The accompaniments were delicious and the sauce was rich, thick and gutsy.
My only quibble was that it was a little too sweet for my liking.
I would have preferred the whole dish to have much more of a chilli kick to it, although those with a sweet tooth will adore it.
The chicken portion was also way too big for the average person, but that is something many people would not complain too much about I guess!
For her main, my guest chose a vegetarian Massaman Tofu curry (£9.55) with potatoes, onions, carrots, chick peas and cashew nuts served in a creamy coconut sauce.
She enjoyed this immensely, finding it well spiced and cooked to perfection. The tofu pieces soaked up the intense flavours nicely. Tofu tends to be very much a ‘Marmite’ ingredient, in that people either love it or hate it, but my fellow diner loved it and, after stealing a taste, I had to agree.
We shared some jasmine rice and stir fried noodles as our sundries, both of which were well cooked.
As we ate, the atmosphere continued at a buzzing pace, yet service throughout our stay was excellent.
The staff were knowledgeable and attentive without being intrusive. And, despite the restaurant being full and extremely busy, we were not made to feel rushed.
As we enjoyed our food, we kept glancing over at the cocktail bar, where the bartender was in his element as he made various exotic looking drinks. The Palm Sugar bar is an attraction in its own right, with a flow of guests all night long.
We opted to share a dessert, and eschewed dishes like the very authentic sounding ‘Thai mango sticky rice’ for the intriguingly named deep fried ice cream (£5.75).
This was chocolate and coconut ice-cream balls coated in breadcrumbs, deep fried until golden brown and drizzled with mixed fruit sauce. It was a dessert-lover’s dream - like eating a sweet scotch egg.
The strange mix of textures might not be to everyone’s taste but it was a fitting end to a deliciously decadent evening.
Our total bill - with a glass of wine and a coffee each - came to a very reasonable £75.
The restaurant’s motto is ‘Ow Jai Sai’ which translates as ‘from the heart’ and Chaophraya takes its name from the ancient main waterway in Thailand which was considered a vital source of sustenance for families who lived along its banks.
There’s no doubt that spirit of generosity and warmth lives on at this restaurant.
The meal wasn’t flawless, and for me, there’s a little way to go before Chaophraya can aspire to the heady heights of five star gourmet or fine dining.
Then again, the ‘less is more’ concept probably wouldn’t sit well with the restaurant’s ethos, so who are we to tell them to hold back the river?
I’d certainly love to go back to sample more of Chaophraya’s offerings. One visit simply isn’t enough.
Address: 20A, Blayds Court, Swinegate, Leeds, LS1 4AG
Tel: 0113 244 9339
Prices: Three course set menu from £35.50 (min. 2 people); two-course weekday lunch/early bird offer £11.95.
Ratings (out of five stars):
Food: 3 and a half