At one point I wasn't sure whether to write this review up at all, as there's not that much to say about my visit to AT Thai: we didn't order a wide range of food, and with one exception what we ate was neither outstandingly bad nor particularly good. Those who would like detailed commentary or profound insights into Thai cuisine should probably stop reading now. But I'd like this blog to become a kind of directory of as many Oxford restaurants as possible, and as I ate at this one, and took photographs (even though the low lighting means that they didn't come out very well), and I'm unlikely to rush to return, I see no reason to 'waste' my visit.
AT Thai is on the first floor above Northern Rock, although there is a screen at street level with pictures from an interior camera, rather oddly trained on the empty part of the restaurant the night we were there. The menu is long but quite predictable: it's divided into sections for duck/beef/seafood etc. dishes, or you can have a Thai curry (green, red or panang), noodles, or soup. There were some quite interesting-looking specials, mainly involving pork belly and sticky rice (though the fact that they were listed on a printed menu card makes me think that they can't change that often), but on this occasion neither the Photographer nor I was in the mood for anything too exotic. As a starter, he had the spring rolls (£3.95). Their paler than normal colour meant that they certainly weren't overcooked. They had a tender, tasty filling, although the accompanying sauce was apparently not as addictive as the one at Red Star.
I had the dim sum (£4.50). Perhaps the waitress' confused reaction when I ordered should have made me dubious: 'Which dim sum?'. Yes, I know that dim sum is an umbrella term for lots of things, and doesn't belong in Thai cuisine either, but 'dim sum' was what the menu said and, as I like dumplings, I wanted to try these ones. What arrived, however, bore little resemblance to any dumplings I've seen or eaten elsewhere: lukewarm lumps of spongy, off-white filling that included odd bits of unidentifiable vegetable, surrounded by a soggy sort of pastry and tasting processed. A bit of internet research tells me that Thai dumplings are meant to look like this, but I don't think they should taste as these did. Perhaps I would have done better with the fish cakes or spare ribs, but if you can't serve vaguely authentic or at least appetising dumplings (other restaurants in Oxford can), why even put them on the menu? I'm even more annoyed because the relevant page of the website is illustrated with what is clearly a library photo of real dim sum.
Our main courses were more or less fine. I had Pud Si Lew (rice noodles with chicken, vegetables and egg; £6.95). The fresh vegetables had a nice bite to them, there was plenty of chicken of an apparently decent quality, and the egg made for a pleasing (especially to me) omelette-y flavour, although the lack of other notable seasoning gave it a certain blandness after a while. The Photographer chose Chicken Chilli (£6.95) with steamed rice (£2.10). He were surprised at its low level of spiciness, and apparently the chicken 'could have been better cooked', although otherwise it was tasty enough.
I'm aware that the tone of this review is a bit grumpy, and perhaps that's unfair. What we had was entirely edible and, apart from the egregious 'dim sum', reasonably nice; it was all very nicely presented. The waiting staff were polite, if a little awkward at times, with serving dishes dumped on top of dinner plates and cutlery held back for the next course unceremoniously moved onto the table (this brought out my inner hygiene obsessive). There was also a 10% service charge added, although the meal was in general reasonably priced. But there were no exciting flavours or unusual textures, nothing especially enjoyable or memorable, and I left with no sense that I'd been sampling distinctively Thai cuisine. In fact, you could eat better Thai food for about the same money at Oxford Thai (at least when I last went there), or for slightly more at Chiang Mai (despite its inconsistency, as this review shows); you could have more generic but probably more interesting Asian cuisine at Red Star for less.
Perhaps AT Thai doesn't see these establishments as competitors: they seem to have a thriving takeaway sideline as well as a number of lunch deals, and may simply be aiming at the tamer end of the oriental restaurant market. There's fair enough, I suppose, but it still felt as if they weren't really trying (they certainly weren't with my starter). Or perhaps we should have ordered more adventurously - one of the specials, or the duck tamarind, or a Thai salad - but as I said that isn't what we wanted on that day. Anyway, I'm not convinced that the results would have been more impressive, and surely basic dishes are as good a test as any of a restaurant. There is nothing exactly wrong with AT Thai, but I'm struggling to think of a positive reason to go there.
126 High Street, OX1 4DH