TIM HUGHES is bowled over by the fresh, zesty flavours of a new restaurant serving authentic Siamese food with a twist

RUFUS Thurston looked at me with an expression usually reserved for the criminally insane. As the co-owner of Oli’s Thai – a place widely tipped as Oxford’s coolest new restaurant – Ru is used to serving up spicy food for discerning customers. But my request that he make his signature tom yam soup “as hot as humanly possible” clearly left him uncertain how far to go. With a mischievous smile, though, he disappeared into the kitchen, where his wife Laddawan was poised with handfuls of red chilies.

Tucked away on Magdalen Road, it would be easy to blink and miss this latest addition to East Oxford’s burgeoning culinary scene. However, the reputation surrounding the place, just months after opening, is such that it is frequently rammed. And, in these straightened times when eating out seems more of a luxury than ever, that can only be a good sign.

New it may be, but this is a slick operation. Both Ru, a Jericho lad, and Ladd, who hails from the steamy deep south of Thailand, are experienced hands, having met while working at Oxford’s Chiang Mai Kitchen. The Oli, in question, is actually the couple’s four-year-old son, which hints at the family feel of the place, as did the presence of Ru’s sister Josie, who was there to help out.

The place manages to feel clean and uncluttered, while, at the same time, cosy, with the impression that one is sitting in the couple’s front room. If it’s busy, as it invariably is, you are invited to sit at the bar – from where tantalising glimpses can be enjoyed of one’s dishes being speedily prepared in the gleaming kitchen.

As for the food, well, at this stage I need to declare an interest. Having spent my formative years in Northern Thailand, I like a bit of heat. And having been spoiled by feasting at little cost on huge bowls of lavishly spiced food, I am not a fan of the fare served up in many UK Thai restaurants, which, on the whole, is overpriced, under-spiced and meanly portioned.

There is no such issue here though. The menu is as pared down and zesty as the brightly-coloured surroundings, with just four starters and five main courses. Portions are generous, most recipes authentically Thai, and prices are reasonable.

Starting off with prawn crackers and a piquant peanut satay sauce, we moved on to a Thai favourite – papaya salad (£4.50) – a refreshing and tangy taste bomb of shredded fruit, lime juice, cherry tomato and chilli. More fiery treats came in the shape of lemongrass mieng (£5.50) – delicate parcels of lemongrass, coconut and chilli served on fresh leaves, accompanied with extra peanuts and dried shrimps – and chilli if you dare.

Then came the tom yam. I had asked for it spicy, and it did not disappoint, being a glorious symphony of fresh prawn, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, basil and red chilli. The heat was tempered by the addition of coconut cream, giving the whole dish a warm golden colour and an irresistible flavour, with a fiery bite. It was sublime.

Coconut cream figures heavily in another signature dish – confit duck Panang curry (£10). Duck is not a common find in Thailand, but, while, not strictly Siamese, this fusion of east and west was similarly divine. The duck was cooked so well it fell from the bone, while its crisp skin was complemented by firm green beans and the smooth warming curry inspired by the home cooking of Ladd’s native Nakhon Si Thammarat. As a winter warmer it is unparalleled.

My friend, who favours milder flavours, went for chicken with garlic, pepper and coriander (£8). Unable to resist, I also dived in. It was light, fresh, sweet and fabulously fragrant.

Pudding, consisted, fairly incongrously, of Portuguese-custard tarts (£2.50). And while they seemed an odd choice, they were the perfect finale for a feast which banished the autumn blues – and gave me a new favourite restaurant.

  • Oli’s Thai is at 38 Magdalen Road, Oxford, OX4 1RB.
  • Call 01865 790223 to book ahead