DID you know that lots of people from the Far East are alcohol intolerant? For someone running a licensed restaurant this is like being a landscape gardener with hay fever or a pilot with vertigo.
The night we went to Utong in Newcastle the owner had three new wines and neatly solved her problem by asking customers to taste test them. We chose white and were rewarded with a blended number that worked well with everything. It’s something when, unknown to the restaurateur, a reviewer is treated to not only a free glass, but the rest of the bottle as well.
However, despite the bubbly good humour with which this tasting was conducted and the owner’s largesse, my opinion remained steadfastly independent.
We crunched the prawn crackers, which came with a robust dipping sauce, skipped the banquet options and chose dishes scattered through the menu, starting with hoy shell neung, which is steamed scallops with garlic and coriander sauce.
A mini-altar, supported by four columns, held pearly scallops lying in their shells under shredded spring onion greens. A dish of hefty-hot dipping sauce played fast and loose with the taste-buds to create a deliciously dramatic dish.
The second starter, kai haw bai teoy, was equally good. Five pieces of marinated, softly roasted chicken breast, wrapped in dark green pandan leaf, were served with sweet and sour dipping sauce. The leaves were unfurled gradually to reveal the creamy meat. The experience was a delicious process of anticipation followed by equally delicious eating.
By the end of this course the plates were covered in twirling leaves and glory. For main courses, we chose keang khew wan kai, a typical Thai green chicken curry cooked with coconut milk, Thai fresh herbs and aubergine. The creamy-rich sauce had flavour layers of star anise floating above fiery chilli and globules of meat juices glistening on the surface. The milled, purple skin of the aubergine, red capsicum and white bamboo shoots made this attractive with sticky coconut rice.
The second main course, a gentle dish of pla pad kern chai, cod with preserved soya bean and celery, was at the other end of the culinary spectrum and deliciously different with the mellow, stir-fried fish and peppery shards of celery in a salty-sweet sauce. All the sauces had a glowing quality. The glow came from the balance. None was too salty or too fiery or too sweet. Each had character and went well with the dominant feature of the dish and every dish was beautifully garnished with ornate chrysanthemums and decorative motifs carved from vegetables, as is typical of Thai food.
Desserts, however, are not a strong feature, as the laminated selection proved, but my companion’s eyes were drawn to a gaudy, plastic penguin, called Punky, filled with vanilla ice cream. With his crimson spiked hair-do and ridiculously amazed expression, she could not resist. We’d come across this character a while back in another restaurant and she’d kept that one as an ironic memento. This one would be a fitting companion.
He emerged from the freezer, his red, spiked crest erect and black plastic body glistening. The ice cream was almost irrelevant, so great was her joy at finding a shelf-mate for the lone Punky she’d adopted all those years ago. Some people never grow up, or is it that they never grow old?
My Thai pancakes, a more mature dish, were the Thai version of the dish. Saturated with honey syrup and served with vanilla ice cream, they made a sweet finish to the meal.
Returning to the alcohol allergy, Utong’s owner confessed that, although she might be a “cheap date”, (her words not mine), she more than made up for her drinks economy with her taste for expensive shoes! Now, where have I heard that before?
Address: Utong Thai Restaurant, Nexus House, 33 St James’ Boulevard, Newcastle
Tel: (0191) 261-9080
Open: Seven days noon-2pm; 5pm-11pm
Where is it? In spite of the address, the entrance is round the corner in Westgate Road.
First impressions: Unmistakably Thai with Oriental motifs everywhere.
Welcome: Warmly demure, in keeping with the cultural conventions.
Style, design and furnishings: Traditional Thai with ornamental plaques with elephants.
Cuisine: I think you know – it’s Thai.
Wine: Monsoon Valley 2007. Pale, vino grigio. A new latitude wine from Thailand. A blend of Malaga Blanc with Colombard grapes. Although on the house for us, it’ll cost you £14.95.
Service: Well-managed timing and easy grace delivering and clearing away.
Value: £54.65 (£69.60 including wine)
Parking: Street parking round the corner and in Bath Lane after 6pm
Disabled facilities: Fully accessible