I’ve written before about how London Victoria has been transformed over the past few years and never was that more apparent than tonight, as Claire D. and I scoured the area, looking for somewhere to enjoy a chinwag and a bite to eat – ideally, not in one of the chain restaurants which proliferate in Cardinal Place. Nothing whatsoever wrong with them, of course, but we both like trying new places and are quite adventurous with food, so we were keen to avoid the likes of Browns and Zizzi.
As for Create Victoria: well, my feelings remain mixed. On the one hand, I love what they’ve done with the place.It’s vibrant and welcoming, featuring a good mix of bars and restaurants and it’s clear that its management are keen to make this area as appealing as possible (hence the recent ‘Hamilton’ talk, for example). But – and it’s a fairly big but – it ain’t cheap. Nice though they are, the likes of Hai Cenato and Stoke House are aimed at the more well-heeled among us; you’ll be lucky to see change from £50 for a couple of courses and a (shared) bottle of wine.
One of my Create Victoria faves is Greenwood, a sports pub-bar which serves tasty and reasonably-priced food, as well as offering one of the best whisky lists I’ve ever seen (and there’s no obligation to watch sport; there are plenty of tables seated well away from the TV screens). I’ve been there a number of times, but tonight it was RAMMED. I’ve no idea why – I wasn’t aware of any special sporting event taking place – but it was just that bit too busy for a quiet catch-up with a friend.
And so it was that we found ourselves on Wilton Road. It’s been a long time since I frequented that part of the world; back in the day (OK, about 20 years ago), I knew all the roads around SW1 like the back of my hand – but life, and London in general, has moved on. Fortunately, Claire works in Westminster and is far more familiar than me with the “must go” places. We both love Thai food, so it was with a spring in our step that we arrived at Rosa’s Thai Café.
Rosa’s may be situated on one of Pimlico’s less glamorous roads, but it is clearly a locals’ favourite: it was heaving. Thankfully (by now it was raining), they found a table for us and we proceeded to tuck into one of the most delicious Thai meals I’ve sampled in quite some time.
Before I talk about the food, I must share some of Rosa’s history, which is equally engrossing. Its founder, Saiphin, grew up on a mountain farm in Khao Kho, northern Thailand, where she learned to cook with ingredients brought straight from field to wok. Aged 18, Saiphin left Thailand for Hong Kong where she worked as a nanny. It wasn’t long before she started cooking for her employers and their friends. While stocking up on ingredients for family meals and dinner parties, Saiphin befriended the market traders and shopkeepers of Kowloon City, or ‘Little Thailand’.
A local grocery store asked Saiphin to open an in-store noodle shop and this, in turn, led to a part-time role in a Thai restaurant. Saiphin spent the next two years fitting catering jobs around her babysitting duties, often cooking from six in the morning until nine o’clock at night. In 2001, she met Alex, who was running a digital marketing business. Shortly afterwards, Saiphin opened a Thai takeaway, followed by a sit-down restaurant named TukTuk Thai.
In 2006, Saiphin and Alex moved to London. Life in the UK took a bit of getting used to, says Saiphin, but she soon started exploring new techniques and ingredients. It wasn’t always easy to find authentic Thai ingredients, but that didn’t phase Saiphin, who went wild mushroom picking and acquainted herself with the Jersey Royal potato (now a vital ingredient in Rosa’s beef massamon curry).
Saiphin challenged herself to cook authentic Thai dishes with seasonal British ingredients and this reminded her of being back in Khao Kho, where her family used whatever produce was in season. Eventually, Saiphin started selling home-cooked meals at offices and markets. Although she made quite unusual dishes (fermented pork with crispy rice and red curry paste was a favourite), she’d often sell out before lunchtime.
In 2008, Saiphin and Alex took over the lease of a traditional British caff on Hanbury Street, keeping the name ‘Rosa’s’ on the door out of respect to the history of the area. The rest, as they say…
Our hearts won over by Saiphin’s story, Claire and I chose the same starter: Summer Rolls, soft rice paper rolls with peanut sauce, herbs and mixed vegetables, served with sweet chilli sauce. The portions were generous – four chunky rolls each – and we wolfed them down, enjoying the crunch of the vegetables against the softness of the rolls, both of which were brought to life by the kick from the chilli.
Our main courses were equally good. Neither of us eat meat, and it was a joy to find a menu that caters so well for vegetarians. I plumped for “Thailand’s best-loved curry”, in other words, Rosa’s Green Curry with tofu and vegetables, pairing it with a portion of sticky rice to mop up the gorgeous sauce. Claire also went down the traditional route, opting for a Pad Thai. This jewel of a dish features stir-fried rice noodles in tamarind sauce with palm sugar, eggs, crushed peanuts and vegetables – plus deep-fried tofu.
Tofu isn’t to everyone’s taste, I know, but we both loved our dishes and would order them again. Carnivores need not fear: chicken, beef and steak all make an appearance on the menu, as does seafood.
I should say, also, that although rushed off their feet the restaurant staff, as well as being highly knowledgeable about the food, could not have been friendlier or more helpful. They accommodated all our requests, including moving to a window seat, charmingly and ensured that we had a wonderful evening.
In total, we paid £27 each for two courses plus a very decent glass of house wine – and that included service charge. You would be hard-pushed, in central London, to find better value – or food of a higher standard. How I wish that Rosa’s had been in existence when I was a hungry 20-something working in the area. Still, demonstrating that it’s never to late to make up for lost time, I have just discovered that Rosa’s has a sister restaurant in north London, walking distance from where I live. How I didn’t already know this is beyond me but, rest assured, I shall be paying it a visit very, very soon.