Food + Drink

The Giggling Squid hits all the right notes

Thai is my favourite food, which makes me a bit of a discerning diner when eating at Thai restaurants. Sadly, so many seem to throw all of the right adjectives at you – ‘authentic’, ‘modern’, ‘fragrant’ – ramping up your hopes, only for you to see those hopes rapidly dashed by a greasy spring roll, or worse still, an apparently spicy curry that fails to excite a single taste bud. Not so at the Giggling Squid – a chain that’s now expanded to 32 restaurants across the country and delivers dish after dish that’s packed with flavour. BY POLLY HUMPHRIS

The interior here gets a firm thumbs up for starters and is a look that’s shared by each restaurant; like a stamp of quality and authenticity. Think sleek dark wood flooring, hints of bamboo, deep green plants that add a sense of life while looking stylish, and soft lighting tucked away behind modern wall motifs made from wood in neutral shades. It looks Thai without screaming an identity at you, which is the welcome sign of a thoughtful interior as opposed to one that looks too dressed or, worse still, themed.

Before we move onto the actual starters, I should probably admit I’m a Giggling Squid devotee and have eaten at the Brighton-based restaurants (as well as Sevenoaks) weekly for years. The menu therefore, broken down into individual Thai tapas, two-dish ‘combis’, ‘one big dish’ options and Thai tapas sets of four slightly smaller dishes served on one large plate, has always made me happy. My go-to order has always been Thai ‘old faithful’, the green curry, which is creamy with coconut milk, generous with vegetables and buzzing with classic Thai herbs and spices like lemongrass and galangal; it’s definitely the best Thai green curry I’ve tasted and isn’t shy with punchy chilli either.

So, when I was asked to come and sample the new menu, my heart sank a little. Why change what isn’t broken, I thought? I’m happy to admit I was way off the mark. The lunchtime menu still sings with Thai classics such as chicken satay, spring rolls and Giggling Squid show-stopper, salt and pepper squid, which is an insanely delicious combination of soft, fresh squid encased in crunchy, salt-and-pepper tempura batter, but has been further enhanced by the addition of authentic dishes such as mah kwan pepper pork belly, which is made with a rare pepper that grows wild in Northern Thailand and has a distinct hint of mandarin about its flavour, and mushroom larb, a specialty from the Esan Province combining juicy mushrooms with a power-punch of mint, chilli and shallot.

The evening menu has received quite the overhaul however, and absolutely not to its detriment. Carefully curated over six months spent sourcing rare and unusual new ingredients to create dishes with flavour combinations that delight and surprise, the exciting new menu reflects the abundance of exotic Thai ingredients found in regional Thai markets, Bangkok’s innovative backstreet eateries and the country’s bountiful coast. What’s more, traditional and authentic cooking techniques have been employed wherever possible.

Delicious new additions include bold krachai prawns – a really robust and flavoursome dish made with krachai (part of the ginger family), galangal, lime leaves, fresh peppercorns and pounded turmeric root, and lemon and lime tuna ‘petals’ – a carpaccio of sliced tuna with lemongrass and shallots cured in a nam pla dressing (fish sauce, garlic, lime juice and chilli), which hugely enhances the delicate taste of the fresh tuna. The betel leaf and ginger lime salmon morsels are nothing short of knockout too – super fresh salmon cubes with ginger, chilli, roasted coconut and a drizzle of sweet-salt dressing, you wrap everything up in the surrounding betel leaf and eat it in one go, but the standout new dish for me is the banana-leaf-grilled sea bass. Winner of the Giggling Squid’s regional chef competition, it’s a sea bass topped with Thai herbs, zest and chilli that’s then grilled inside a banana leaf to retain tenderness; a lesson in simplicity and bursting with flavour, it’s everything a plate of traditional Thai food should taste like.

Thai food is all about that irresistible combination of salt, sour, sweet and spice that dance on your taste buds together, producing a really satisfying depth of flavour and which the Giggling Squid’s new menu delivers with an expert touch. If Thai food is your thing, or if you’re a total newbie to the exceptional cookery that this gastronomic gem serves up, book a table now – you won’t be disappointed.

Restaurants in Tunbridge Wells, Sevenoaks, Chislehurst and Billericay, as well as regionally, www.gigglingsquid.com.

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