Every time I visit Sukhothai in Headingley, I am transported to another world. So magical is the interior, so lavish and yet at the same time understated, that you cannot help but fall under its spell.
It feels like stepping onto the set of a Disney movie, with sumptuous dark wood on the walls and floor and exposed roof beams in alternating copper and beechwood, illuminated by the gentle glow of lanterns which seem to hang in the air. Every surface is spotless, glass gleams, cutlery sparkles, even the staff look as though they have come straight from wardrobe, all done out in traditional Thai outfits.
We headed to the Headingley branch, although there are also outlets in Leeds city centre, Chapel Allerton and Harrogate. It’s heading out towards Far Headingley and that little clutch of shops on St Anne’s Road, just a few doors up from Salvo’s. It has been here since 2007.
No sooner are we seated than drinks orders are taken: a bottle of Singha beer (£3.60), crisp and light and then some diet cokes (£1.95). Prawn crackers (£2.75) and dips follow. The menu is extensive and while this might be a negative at some restaurants, here it’s a joy, showcasing the breadth of cuisine on offer - there’s everything from duck to beef and spare ribs to seafood, plus sundries, with amply scope for any vegetarian to become wonderfully lost amid the dishes on offer. Helpfully, too, each dish is numbered, saving you the embarrassment of attempting their proper pronunciation. We begin with Pou Nim, soft shell crab, deep-fried and marinated in oyster sauce and black pepper (£7.75), which is served with a small fresh salad and a sweet chilli sauce dip. It was a delight to eat, the batter having just the right amount of crunch on the outside but still being soft inside, where the crab sang a song of the sea.
There was also Plaumeg Tod, succulent squid, deep-fried in a crispy batter and served again with the almost obligatory (nothing wrong with that) sweet chilli sauce (£6.50). Crucially, the quid was not overdone and hadn’t become too chewy, as it often can.
But by far the best starter was Poh Tek, a hot and spicy, sour mixed seafood soup (£7.95). It was wonderfully light, aromatic, slightly sweet, a thing of joy and the kind of dish you yearn for once the clocks go back. A larger bowl would most certainly do as a main but as a starter it served to whet the appetite.
One of Sukhothai’s other selling points has to be the kitchen, which you can see clearly from the main seating area. It looks (and is) improbably well ordered and clean, with two very busy chefs quietly concocting the masterpieces which are then sent out to tables and even they are immaculately turned out, even wearing face masks. The other thing which struck me is the speed with which these delightfully complex dishes are assembled. Our starters arrived within 10 minutes of us ordering and our mains came within five minutes of the starters being cleared away. This is impressive on many levels, especially given the level of cooking here. However, while this is good in the sense that there’s no clock watching while you wonder when the next course is coming (and no need to bother the waiter to ask), some might see it as just a little too quick, as it is sometimes nice to have a slightly longer gap between courses. That said, it’s a minor point and should not detract from what is exemplary service.
For mains we ordered Gang Paneng, where you have a choice of chicken, pork, beef, lamb, prawns or duck in rich curry with coconut milk and lime leaves (£10.25). It’s a very sweet dish with a decent chilli kick: a triumph, of course, but the sweetness means you can only eat so much.
My main was Pla Yang, a whole sea bass, rubbed with fresh chilli, lime leaves and lemongrass, wrapped in a banana leaf and grilled (£14.95). In short, superb, apart from the odd chunk of quite woody ginger and lemon grass heart.
With that, we ordered sides of noodles (£3.35) and some egg fried rice (£2.95). We had the children with us and (another point in their favour), there was a menu just for them, from which we ordered Khao Pad Khai, a heap of light and fluffy egg fried rice packed with veges and strips of tender chicken and Khao Pad Loong Sam, which is the same just with tomato and sausage, carrot, onion and raisins (£5.95 each). With a black coffee (£2.25), a glass of house white (£5.75) and a fruit sorbet (£4.95), the final bill came to £94.65. Expensive? For four? Not really, considering the range of dishes we ordered.
In summary, Sukhothai has been at the top of its game for well over a decade and it continues to strive for perfection. Everything here has been thought about, staff are the epitome of politeness, the food is sublime, the atmosphere thrilling: this is not just a restaurant, it’s a feast for the senses.
FACTFILE - SUKHOTHAI, HEADINGLEY
Address: St Anne’s Road, Headingley, LS6 3NX
Opening hours: Dinner Mon-Sun 5pm-11pm, Lunch Fri/Sat/Sun noon-3pm
Telephone: 0113 278 1234