Thom Archer visits an authentic Bangkok night-market inside Leeds' Grand Arcade.
There was a bit of a running joke in the world of digital development a few years ago, where seemingly every new app or website was pitched as “LikeAirBNB, but for...” cars, algorithms, dogs; you name it, some seed investor probably handed over the capital for a - now worthless - stake in it.
At a recent, unrelated restaurant opening, the owner made no secret that he wanted his new venture to be “what Bundobust has been to Indian food”, and you can’t help but suspect that a similar phrase played a key role in the proposals for Sukothai’s casual dining branch-out, Zaap Thai.
An idea will occasionally come along and rock the boat so much that for the next few years people will try and replicate its success by applying their service to the formula - in casual dining in Leeds, that’s been The Bundobust Formula. Take a regional cuisine that customers are familiar with, and present it in a way that they’re not; in contemporary surroundings that reference the cuisine’s homeland, but avoid old-fashioned cliches.
Zaap’s decor resembles a season's worth of Mekhong-blurred Thailand traveling memories, recounted all at once
Adopting the hodge-podge, shanty vibe of Bangkok street markets, Zaap’s decor resembles a season's worth of Mekhong-blurred Thailand travelling memories, recounted all at once, and interpreted by Gaspar Noé. An onslaught of signs, seating, props, and even different sections of the restaurant seem to overlap. A thousand lights battle to wash faces and fittings in their not-totally-illuminating glow, it’s always - always - busy, and tables are packed in tight, meaning you’ll make eye contact with no fewer than sixty strangers while glass noodles sweep across your chin.
It’s as frenetic as your mind is when your boss asks what you got up to while travelling, and you try desperately to draw on a memory of something - anything - that doesn’t involve getting a questionable tattoo or attending a sex show. How they’ve managed to achieve this in a former cupcake shop in Leeds Grand Arcade is quite an accomplishment, and no small factor in why the place is always (and I do mean always) busy.
The menu is similarly frantic, big enough to double as a tablecloth, it’s an odyssey ranging across dim sum, street food, starters and snacks, noodles, soups, and stir-frys, further distancing the dining experience from the usual fishcakes-for-starter-green-curry-for-main format.
Dim Sum pans the furthest across Pan-Asia, from fine Japanese fried vegetable gyoza (£4/4) to very good Cantonese-style steamed buns (£4.25/3) - pristine white squidges, erupting out of themselves like popcorn and filled with pillar box-red barbecued pork - and an anglicised sesame chicken toast (£4), which lacks the sweetness of its prawny counterpart, allowing the oil to overwhelm.
Sai grog (£5.46/6) - Thai sour sausage - are tight balls of spiced pork and rice; the casing snaps and the meat crumbles satisfyingly, but they could’ve been left to ferment for a couple of days to give the acquired-taste of lactic acid to establish more of a presence. The overwhelming flavour of all the smaller dishes ends up being aggressive vinegar of a sweet chilli dip.
A roasted, sliced duck breast (£8.45) comes with a fruity, homemade green chilli sauce that does a much better job of balancing hot and sour, and - along with a syrupy, aged soy - makes eating the layer of fatty, pimpled skin more enjoyable than is likely good for you. By far the star dish of the meal. Pad Kee Mao Gai (£7.50) is a tangle of flat, waxy noodles in a sauce hot and sweet chilli-basil sauce, with golden crispy clouds of fried tofu on top.
Two dishes don’t get finished; we pick the mussels out of Hoy Tod (£7.95) but leave the greasy pancake, too thick to cook beyond “gummy” stage, and Som Tum (£5.95), a masochistically hot (by farang standards), fresh papaya, prawn, and fish sauce salad - one of the dishes to judge any Thai restaurant by - doesn’t even get started, the kitchen forget to send it out and I only remember ordering it when I look at the bill on my way out.
I might have mentioned that it’s always, always, busy - on our way out at 6pm on a Friday there’s a queue snaking out of the door (it’s a testament to the interior designer that people are willing to stand in the rain while Thai A Roy Dee is just over the road stares back at them, serving food as good if not better than Zaap’s) - it’s a lot to ask of four or five servers, to handle so many covers.
It seems bizarre that a restaurant would devote such an investment to cultivating an atmosphere that gets people queuing out the door, only to not devote that same attention to detail when actually serving them their food.
Zaap might have created their own condensed version of a trip to Thailand, but it’s not a “Like AirBNB, but…” just yet.
Gyoza 6, Steamed Bun 7, Sesame Chicken Toast 6, Vegetable Spring Roll 6, Sour Sausage 7, Som Tum 0 (Might have been nice, if it arrived), Roast Duck 9, Hoy Tod 6, Pad Kee Mao 7.5
Did you even read the review?
Not the servers’ fault, there just needs to be twice as many of them