Sunday, 3 December 2017

Smokey Phi Phi Thai Street Barbecue at The Railway Cheltenham

I think it's fair to say that Cheltenham's not short of a watering hole or two. There are pubs and bars aplenty, with cafes and coffee shops even offering some booze options now. But what about the food? Many places just seem to serve your average pub grub; there'll be claims of being the best burger in town (it's not), and most dishes come with chips (I'll let them have that - we all love chips). Essentially it's inexpensive (though not always value for money) stodge to soak up the few-too-many post-work pints. Or, if you're lucky, you might find somewhere with stone baked pizzas, 'cause that's a thing now.

The places which stand out are those which play it a little differently, and The Railway was one such place. A lovely pub, a little off the beaten track, down the lower end of the High Street… Behind Waitrose, darling! For years it had been known for it's Sausage Kitchen where you could choose from a variety of sausages, different mashes and a selection of gravies. They even did a sausage roast dinner on a Sunday, kind of like having pigs in blankets - sans blankets - all rear round.

Recently they made the decision to change. I was shocked, as were many, because they had their USP and they were doing it well. That's all we ask for. But then I though to myself, when was the last time that I actually went to The Railway for food?... Quite a few years ago it would seem... Bingo. We all knew it was there, we all knew what to expect, we all knew it was good, but at the same time we're all guilty of chasing the new, exciting places popping up elsewhere in town. Is this why they decided to shake things up a little? Most likely.

The Railway's new venture is Smokey Phi Phi's Thai Street Barbecue. Quite similar to The Vine that does stonkingly good Thai classics on the cheap (I'm guessing they're linked), but here we have hot, smoky, fragrant Thai street food. Think lots of finger foods, with dips and sauces galore, bigger sharing dishes and numerous sides. As with most small plate places, things come out of the kitchen as and when they're ready; it's all about sharing and eating the food when it's at its best.

Last month a whole host of local bloggers were invited to try some of the new dishes from Smokey Phi Phi's kitchen. The menu changes daily though, so what we had that night might not be what you'll be able to get on your visit - and you should visit!

Small plates (£2-6) included rice paper rolls packed full of fresh herbs, veg, noodles and tofu, with a sesame soy dipping sauce. Charred and smoked vegetables (they use applewood and oak), which whilst lovely, were covered in a super spicy sauce that was too hot for most people on our table. Little nuggets of crispy pork belly with chilli sauce, gone in seconds, and chilli chicken wings. Yeah, yeah, everyone has chicken wings on their menu now, but these aren't the Americanised Buffalo kind; they're sweet and salty thanks to that Thai fave, fish sauce. A good contender for best wings in town. The standout for me though was the grilled sriraja prawns with chilli and lime dip. Messy business peeling off those blackened shells, but oh man.

Whilst we all got carried away grazing at the small dishes, the large plates (up to £15) are not to be ignored. Smoked marinated pork shoulder steak, which was juicy enough on its own, but came with a tangy tamarind dipping sauce that made it even better. The whole crispy sea bass with an eastern herb salad looked awesome, but was surprisingly my least favourite. Crispy skin - tick - but the fish was a little over cooked with not enough sauce or salad to remedy it. Some tweaking and the bass will be back in the game.  

The smoked sirloin with lemongrass and chilli salad was breath-taking, literally. There's some serious spice in that one, but with such fresh, clean flavours coating every strip of steak I couldn't leave it alone. A dish to blow away the cobwebs *mops brow*. The winner of the night was without question the smoked pork belly rendang. A big piece of pork belly, which you have to portion up yourselves - crackling n'all - in a soul-soothing coconut based sauce. Not as punchy in the heat department, but rich, aromatic and oh so good.  Parcels of sticky rice and bowls of coconut rice were a good accompaniment - sides are £2-5 - but the rotis were where it's at. Perfect for scooping up the leftover rending sauce.

With no Thai Green Curry or Pad Thai in sight, The Railway has found its new niche. The food is interesting, and daily menu changes will keep it from going stale. I can see Smokey Phi Phi's Thai Street Barbecue being a hit... What sausages anyway?

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