THE Thai at the Travellers restaurant in Holmesfield can claim some pretty devoted customers. “We have one man from Lincoln. He passes eight Thai restaurants on the way,” says co-owner Chris Wragg.
“And you’ll love this one, another regular is a pigeon fancier from Wigan who goes down south to fly his birds and pops in with his empty basket on the way back.”
I check the menu. Besides beef, pork, lamb and seafood there is also turkey and ostrich but not, as yet, pigeon. Any chance of that?
“I don’t like pigeons,” says Chris.
Our last visit was at the back end of 2002, when it had just opened in a bit of a rush in the former Travellers Rest pub. It was only the third Thai restaurant in Sheffield and still a bit of a novelty.
Now there are up to 1,500 across the country, including 10 or so in our area.
I recall lads playing at a snooker table in the bar and a small, cold looking dining room although we liked the food.
“You came too soon. We hadn’t got any pictures on the walls,” Chris says reproachfully.
The Travellers is no longer a pub. That snooker table marked the interim period. The room is now a cosy bar with sofas and an overspill eating area behind a beaded curtain.
The main dining room is full of pictures on its purple and white walls, with mannequins in traditional dress, matching the waitresses’, standing to attention in the corners. The restaurant seats 80.
We look at the menu and, as usual in Thai restaurants, there is just too much to choose from, so settle for menu C at £23.95 per person. Like almost everyone else we have the mixed starters and, besides, I fancy the slow roasted duck, sliced and stir-fried in red curry sauce.
Chris bought the Travellers as a business for his Thai wife Keng (pronounced Geng), who leads the service front of house. She is, apparently, very strict on having the proper ingredients, flying them in for Thailand.
Businessman Chris is not one to ask her to go easy when he checks the books. “You can get everything else right but if the food is not right it’s not worth going back.”
Keng is also very partial to chillies. “When we go on holiday in North Yorkshire she gets a bit panicky if she doesn’t get any and has to find the nearest Thai restaurant. I’m getting that way myself,” says Chris.
The attention to detail obviously pays off. The Travellers is one of only 130 British restaurants to get a Thai Select award from the Thai government, not something given lightly.
The ingredients have to be the right ones, there are secret visits from the Royal Thai Embassy (although a party of Thais in suits must raise suspicion) and a grilling by the Thai equivalent of Jeremy Paxman.
It pays off. Our meal was memorable.
The mixed starters, prettily arranged on a plate, followed a bowl of prawn crackers and series of dips. Each one we tasted seemed to be the best until we had the next, but the toong tong, deep-fried parcels of minced pork, and the moo yang, barbecued pork, stood out for preciseness of flavour.
And the goong hom pha, marinated prawns wrapped in pastry, really did taste prawny instead of the cardboard nothingness you often get in Asian restaurants.
It was a great warm-up act for the three main courses which were to follow. Gaeng massaman neua was a beef and potato curry cooked in coconut milk to a thick, sweetish sauce. The chilli heat was gentle but the flavour was full on.
I was so enraptured by this dish that I reckoned if someone could use this as the contents of an exotic meat and tater pie they would be on a winner.
Much spicier was goong pad ho ra par, shell-on prawns every bit as tasty as the starters, stir-fried with chillies and basil.
Phed pad ped was slices of roasted duck pepped up in a red curry sauce. It tasted rich and luxurious.
With all this came a decent sized bowl of sticky fragrant rice and we washed our food down with nothing more potent than green tea.
We didn’t need alcohol. Head chef Aoy Yaemrung’s cooking produces an almost intoxicating succession of flavours and textures. It’s when you finish eating that you really start to notice that your mouth and tongue are tingling but not unpleasantly so.
That said, I am still to be won over by Thai desserts.
They’re in with the price of your set meal but a Thai cake with glutinous rice and pumpkin and coconut steamed pudding left us unimpressed although I suspect that might be a cultural thing. It was a great meal. Service is unrushed and if it can get a little languorous it’s because the place is busy.
Chris is keen to persuade people that not all Thai food is blisteringly hot and get them to strike out and have something different from their usual choices. To that end the restaurant runs regular taster nights.
But if people know what they like he’s not going to stop them.
“Mick and Linda from Mansfield come every two weeks just for the soup,” he says.
Two sets meals cost £47.90 and pre-dinner drinks added another fiver.
Incidentally, Keng has plans to open a restaurant in Broomhill.
The Dawes Verdict
Thai at The Travellers
20 Main Road, Holmesfield, Sheffield S18 7WT.
Tel: 0114 2890446.
Open every evening and Sat-Sun lunch 12.30-3pm.
Licensed. Vegetarian dishes.
Credit cards. Car park.