I WATCHED entranced as a gorgeous creature in diaphanous robes swam languorously through clear blue waters. Then another and another came into view.
It was then I noticed an equally beautiful Thai girl at my elbow as I gazed at the jellyfish in the aquarium. “Which one do you want?” she laughed.
So where am I? Bangkok? Phuket? Pattaya? Nope. Meadowhall.
Last month we had tickets for The King and I at the Lyceum and wanted to graze ourselves into the mood so where better than at a Thai restaurant?
Somehow I missed out on reviewing any in 2011 so was keen to make up the deficit and had also missed the changes to the food court – sorry, Oasis Dining Quarter.
Orange Square, Marbella, on which it was modelled, was ‘so last year’. Now, some £7 million later, it’s been smartened up and looks like a swish airport terminal dining area and I mean that in a good way. It needed it after looking scruffy.
ChaoBaby, a Thai chain seemed just the place to correct both omissions. You won’t need directions: find the Oasis and you find ChaoBaby, which sprawls like a jellyfish around half the mezzanine level.
The name sounds as if an Italian is being flirty but, and here’s how to improve your geography by eating, the Chao is Thailand’s largest river.
ChaoBaby is one of a group of six in the North and Midlands, half of which are a la carte and the rest, like Meadowhall, all-you-can-eat buffets for £12.95.
I asked my new companion, a waitress called (according to my bill), appropriately enough, Chatup, the Thai word for jellyfish and she replied “maaeng ga phroon.” Before you get too impressed with my Thai I jotted it down phonetically and googled it later.
ChaoBaby uses the jellyfish as a logo and inspiration –the swirly shapes are replicated in the décor – and calls it Charlie. So I’d been looking at a load of Charlies.
The restaurant is certainly swish, with the aquarium as a striking centrepiece, a glass Buddha at one end, long counter with help yourself dishes, a wine wall, slinky lights, sculpted pineapples and baskets piled high with fruit and vegetables, supposed to replicate a Thai street market.
I’ve never been to Thailand so couldn’t say whether it does but I do love the zinginess and freshness of Thai food, a cuisine which has added considerable relish to the Sheffield food scene. I’ve only had one meal in a local Thai restaurant which has been less than good so how would ChaoBaby fare?
There’s no menu. You have whatever is on offer that day but there are usually around 15 or so dishes and you can bet your bottom dollar there will be a green and red curry. You get instructions but they can be a bit difficult to catch so this is what you do.
Proceed to the furthest end of the counter and select your starters. There’s always a soup. I think mine was called Kho Soi. The chef ladled it into a bowl and heaped over crispy noodles and lots of fresh coriander.
It was lovely, slices of chicken in a coconutty broth fragrant with lemongrass. I wish I could say the other starters were as good but a spring roll was, well, a spring roll, and the pork spare ribs tasted like spare ribs do at so many buffets, cardboardy, although the sweetcorn fritters were enjoyed because they had that squishiness you get with Thai fishcakes.
My wife also had a couple of salads, crisp and fresh with that “whoops, I’ve just got a mouthful of chilli” surprise. Grilled chicken with a peanut sauce also went down well.
Plates are small, you can’t really pile it high here so have to keep coming back for more. And they don’t seem to replace your cutlery, which gets stickier and stickier, until far too late.
There was red chicken curry, which was good, and green chicken curry, which wasn’t. “I had a job finding any chicken among the new potatoes and what I got tastes spongy,” my wife said. It did.
I quite liked the chilli and basil stir-fried beef and the slow-cooked pork hock but these dishes, like most on offer, were going on cold. We enjoyed several kinds of rice.
There is also roast beef, nice and rare, which is a Thai dish but it didn’t appear to be marinated. You got your kick from the curry sauce offered alongside.
Sweets are worth looking at: Thai jelly is stiffer than ours, there was a piece of ginger cake, little pancakes like dropped scones and fruit.
ChaoBaby suffers from what all buffet diners do – it depends when the food hits the counter – but is a very decent offering and you can’t grumble at the price, £12.95 (£6.95 for childen under eight). If you do, there are selected dishes to eat in or take away at £7.95.
With a Chang beer (£3.65) and Pepsi (£2.50) we paid £32.05.
The Dawes Verdict
Oasis, Meadowhall, Sheffield S9 1EP.
Tel: 0114 256 8393.
Open: all week 11.30am- 10pm. Licensed. Credit cards. Disabled access. Toilets nearby. Oodles of parking. Takeaways.