It is high time that I write a negative review. After my gushing fascination with Peppers, infatuation with Pan Pan, and absolute satisfaction with Jee Saheb, I’m sure some of you are wondering if there is any restaurant in Oxford that I don’t like. Yes, of course there are, and someday I will review one of them. But today will not be that day, because today I’m talking about Oli’s Thai.
I feel somewhat guilty about reviewing Oli’s Thai because so many of you will be unable to go. In fact, just before a fortuitous invitation from a friend, I had booked a table for two at Oli’s Thai at the nearest possible date. This paper would have withered away, its fragments floating down St Giles, by then. Just joking: I managed to get a table on the 2ndMay. Nevertheless, May?! Three months down the line our Prime Minister will have probably expended all our capital on jet fuel for her flights to and from Brussels, and there will be 1000 more compilation videos of John Bercow bellowing ‘Order’. Far too long to wait.
So how lucky I am to find myself in this tiny little restaurant in East Oxford, that everyone, from your tutor to the bouncer at Bridge, has been talking about. Rufus Thurston, who runs Oli’s with his Thai wife, Laddawan, has stated that “a lot of my favourite restaurants are in Brooklyn, and it’s not obvious where they are, they’re plain, food-focussed and the customers are people who walk there.” Upon entry, one can see that Rufus’s aims have been fulfilled. No more than six tables scattered all around, a soft glow illuminating everything: Oli’s could not be more welcoming. The attitude of the customers reflects the Williamsburg ideal too. Entirely nonplussed, very few students, one must assume that these are regulars. But even if they come to Oli’s every week, every day even, to not betray at least the slightest indication that what they are eating is something extremely special is an impressive feat. For the food at Oli’s is so stupendously extraordinary that one is left simultaneously pleased and astonished that such an institution can retain its effortless charm.
Where to start. Well, a chickpea salad came out first. You may be asking yourself how exciting that can really be. Really fucking exciting is the answer. At Oli’s the simple becomes the sublime, and such an ability to transform a simple chickpea to an entity of such flavourful depth is something to be marvelled at. Crunchiness and heat surge to the fore before being cooled off by perfectly juicy tomatoes. Next up is another salad, this time with cod as its centrepiece. Again, so so good. Flaky cod melts in your mouth, supplemented by fiery red chillies, onions and a wonderfully punchy, tangy sauce. The understated star of the dish, however, had to be the miang leaves. God, why do we not eat more of this stuff. Salad leaves simply won’t do any more.
Then it was time for the main event: confit duck panang. Confit initially confounded me – surely more Paris than Pai? But it works ever so well. Like the cod, tender, juicy pieces of duck fall off the bone and then dissolve in your mouth, its softness balanced out by the crispiness of the skin. The heat is there too, bubbling under a sea of warm coconut. Subtly magnificent and totally heart-warming, it just does not get better than this.
I simply could not stop there and opted for Oli’s take on a pastel de nata. A Portuguese delicacy in a Thai restaurant? Anywhere else I’d be apprehensive, but at this point I was far too smitten to care. And I had little to worry about. Creamy custard bursts under flaky pastry, bringing my tastebuds back to earth in the most satisfactory manner possible. Flawless.
I should also add that the service is pretty much faultless too. Supplies of water inconspicuously provided at all points, all questions regarding the spice of this and the spice of that handled with precision, knowledge and a charismatic lack of condescension. What was most striking, however, was the reverence for the food on show, and rightfully so. At Oli’s, food is nothing short of a pure expression of life. Is there any better restaurant in Oxford? I really don’t think there is.