Having fortified themselves with the most delicate and sumptuous Robert Thompson canapés, plus the ever-scrummy Isle of Wight cheese and Garlic Farm tasties at the WightLife photography competition exhibition, Matt and Cat stumbled out into the dark streets of Newport. Did the grazing satisfy or could the duo go another round? On Cat’s gentle enquiry, Matt beat his manly chest and bellowed “more nammit!”.
Encouraged by a friend to try the new pizza parlour in St James Street, they headed west. Alas, on arriving at Turner’s, they were disappointed to discover that it was take-out only. Tempting as it was to have a pizza to go, the nearest place to sit and eat it would be the bus station. A pleasant enough place during the day – if you can ignore its anachronistic architecture – in fact, quite a functional interchange. However, at night, it takes on a different character as Cat discovered recently. Soggy children sit wedged in the library’s niches out of their gourds on cheap hooch. Harmless to passers by but not really a desirable place for dinner. Matt and Cat moved on.
Having tried – and failed – on several occasions to find Holyrood Street’s Asian restaurant, Mem’s, open during the evenings, M and C decided make like Robert the Bruce‘s spider and try again. This time they were in luck. In the gloom the lights of Mem’s glowed invitingly. M & C stepped into the bright interior of the empty restaurant. A polite waitress greeted them and they sat in what were considerately indicated as the warmest seats – Cat was obviously looking chilly.
Mem’s carefully describes itself as Asian, and instead of the pictures of the Thai Royal Family that typically adorn the walls of Thai ex-pat restaurants, there appeared to be a picture of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – or possibly Phil Silvers. Maybe this would be an opportunity to experience some more unusual dishes? However the menu was entirely typical of a Thai restaurant, so despite the label ‘Asian’, Mem’s can be considered to be a Thai establishment.
Matt and Cat’s experiences of choosing unguided from a Thai menu are quite limited. When they visit the spectacular Khrua Thai Orchid, they usually go with the chef’s recommendations, which have always proven to be exquisite. Without the professional guidance of Pc and Phot, they floundered and plumped for the safe choice of a set menu. There ensued a bit of debate about how hot to have the dishes. The courteous waitress said that the spicy dishes could be made cooler, if required. Cat, whose mouth has the robustness of tissue paper, prefers her food as mild as possible. Matt’s palette is made of asbestos and he thinks nothing of biting into the most tongue-withering chillies. So, despite his entreaties, the order was made for the mildest possible versions of the dishes.
Within moments of ordering, a basket of crackers appeared. Two types nestled within – the usual prawny ones and some exotic-tasting fishy, peppery ones. Crunching their way through the crackers, Matt and Cat watched a chap enter the restaurant, take a menu and disappear again into the night. Other than this brief increase in potential customers, the restaurant remained empty. At least the venue has a sign on the door indicating the opening times (Thursday to Saturday).
The starters arrived. Two lidded tureens with accompanying porcelain spoons were placed carefully in front of the diners. This elegant and colourful crockery proved to be a recurring theme – Mem’s has a charming line in ceramic tableware. Inside the soup-pots was a thick stewy soup of chicken, coconut, mushrooms and tomatoes, topped with a generous sprinkling of chopped herbs. The soup was pretty zingy. However, throughout the meal it was hard not to make comparisons with the Khrua Thai Orchid. In the case of the soup, although it was pretty flavoursome, it did not have the same sublime layering of tastes; Mem’s soup was more homogeneous and curiously powdery. It also featured some substantial chunks of lemon-grass root that proved to be unchewable, and had to be discarded in a rather undignified manner. It was warming though, and a generous amount.
Set meal ‘A’ for two £25.90
The main courses were again well-presented in cockerel-themed crockery. Both dishes were served with plenty of plain boiled rice. The stir-fried beef with oyster sauce and vegetables was a riot of colour; traffic lights of pepper plus mange tout, crunchy bamboo shoots and lean pieces of meat were all enrobed in a sticky oyster sauce. It was a tasty sauce but the beef needed a good bit of chewing.
The Thai chicken green curry with vegetables was much more subdued in appearance. But the taste was certainly not muted. Despite the protracted debate about spiciness at the beginning of the meal Cat decided that this was on the edge of her comfort zone, and although she enjoyed eating it, she found herself entertaining Matt by making that special ‘chilli’ face.
By now, Cat was feeling the effects of having gorged herself on canapés earlier in the evening and, having nibbled a bit of both dishes, she settled back in her chair and announced herself replete. Matt manfully rose to the challenge of finishing of the remains of both dishes and declared them to be decent enough.
Drinks were all part of the set meal, and so coffee followed for Cat with two types of sugar in elaborately gilded containers, with jasmine tea for Matt delivered in a lovely teapot. Matt was delighted to find that the jasmine tea was loose-leaved, with a ceramic infuser inside the pot which allowed him to regulate the strength. In fact, this beautifully-served tea was the highlight of his meal. Matt and Cat sipped their drinks and relaxed. The waitress who, up to this point had been moderately attentive, had vanished leaving her charges to go from feeling pleasantly satisfied to neglected, to impatient to leave. This excessive bill-lag ended with M and C putting on their coats and standing expectantly by the counter. This rather bold move finally earnt them the bill. Having settled up they left to ponder the experience.
Matt and Cat would certainly challenge the rather bold assertion on its take-away menu that Mem’s is “the Island’s finest Thai restaurant”. Harrumph! The service started off well, the prices were very reasonable, and the food was plentiful but the venue interior’s simplicity bordered on starkness and, like Manuel’s, the ceaseless hum of the air-conditioner was an unwelcome drone. It’s likely that had there been more diners the atmosphere would have been livelier. And to be sure, the polite service fell off sharply as the evening went on. Still, as their visit was on a cold December evening, perhaps Matt and Cat were not seeing the place at its best.
As for the food, it does not compete with Seaview’s superlative Khrua Thai Orchid which Matt and Cat cannot help but proclaim the Island’s finest Thai restaurant. However Mem’s can safely claim to be Newport’s finest Thai restaurant.