Following a stylish refurbishment and impressive expansion project, Eileen Leahy finds out if Thai restaurant the Giggling Squid has still got what it takes to put a smile on discerning diners’ faces
OVER the years 57 Calverley Road in Tunbridge Wells has been a number of things: A rustic Italian trattoria, a quirky Mongolian BBQ restaurant and an upmarket Indian, to name but a few of its numerous gastronomic guises.
Rather curiously though none of these had any real staying power with most closing down within a year of opening. So what has its current occupier – the Giggling Squid, aThai eaterie – got that has eluded everyone else?
Keen to find out, I booked a table for my husband Steve and I at the restaurant which is part of a small but ever-expanding chain run by Pranee Laurillard and her husband Andy.
The couple, who came up with the quirky Giggling Squid moniker after a family fishing trip with their three children inspired the name, opened their first restaurant in Brighton in 2002. They now have over 15 in the south east including the popular one in Tunbridge Wells.
Unlike a lot of businesses which have been hit by hard times, the Giggling Squid seems to have defied the current economic climate. Not only does it continue to open more restaurants – four more are planned for early 2017 – it’s also enhancing its existing ones. The Tunbridge Wells branch has just undergone a costly refurbishment and extension in order to accommodate more diners.
As well as expanding upstairs and into the former premises of Calverley Dental Practice, the owners also burrowed into the basement in order to create a superior dining experience and better facilities for its customers.
When we arrive one rainy evening in early January the place is buzzing. As well as the appealing aromatic smell of exotic spices wafting around there’s the clatter of action going on in the small kitchen, just visible near reception, and also the loud chatter of the many guests having a great time despite it being the notoriously ‘bleak for business’ month post Christmas.
Yet while the Giggling Squid may have that all-important ambience going on, has the quality of its food been compromised for the newly decorated premises?
As we squeeze past fellow diners happily tucking into dishes of spicy curry or snacking on the tapas style starters it is renowned for it would appear not.
Sitting down at our table located in a cosy corner gives me the time to properly clock the cosmetic makeover.
The dining area is lighter and more attractive than before and boasts hints of Asian heritage courtesy of its weathered wooden walls, exotic orchids and bamboo baskets artfully displayed about the place but overall the mood is cool and contemporary. It’s a bit like it’s been styled on an OKA catalogue – in a good way.
We’re presented with a basket of prawn crackers and a petri of piquant sauce to snack on while we decide what we’re going to eat. Unlike the anaemic looking ones served up in some establishments these crackers are beautifully golden in colour, a little spicy and – as June, the Assistant Manager June who shows us to our table attests they really are ‘hard to stop eating.’
My only small criticism so far is that our menus are horribly sticky – mine even has a splodge of sauce on it – so perhaps a quick check on the state of them before each sitting wouldn’t go amiss.
Despite this minor blip my husband and I enjoy reading founder Pranee’s informative introduction on page one, which recalls her childhood spent in Thailand where she discovered a love of eating chillies and hanging out at food markets and being thoroughly absorbed by all the exotic smells and colours.
Most of Pranee’s restaurant dishes are Thai classics – think stir fries, dumplings, pad thai and noodle soups – with some of the food descriptions accompanied by witty comments or culinary tips if you fancy trying the food at home.
When I read her blurb on the DIY Bundles (£7.95) and how they got their name due to husband Andy’s dislike for doing any home improvements I decide that assembling little towers of chopped tiger prawns, shallots, lemongrass, lime and salad leaves sounds like a fun way to start our dining experience. But then I spot the steamed mussels with mixed Thai herbs and green curry (£6.95) and decide to opt out of doing any DIY.
Steve can’t make up his mind between the salt and pepper squid (£7.25), the Tom Yum ‘addictive’ spicy vegetable soup (£6.95) and the Seafood Streetfood appetisers (£7.50). Encouraged by our friendly waiter May he goes for the latter which is the Giggling Squid’s version of the Thai staple ‘Lab’ – a confection of prawns and scallops in dried chilli, roasted rice, mint leaves and nam pla fish sauce.
He orders a traditional Thai Chang beer but for me it has to be the exotic sounding Hibiscus spritz gin-based cocktail – but these are downed pretty swiftly due to the onslaught of chilli and spice included in both starters. I’m all for a little hit of heat but in mine it’s quite overpowering and eventually defeats me. I’m suddenly guzzling glasses of water to neutralise my tastebuds. Steve is obviously made of far more robust stuff and finishes both dishes off – clearly enjoying the heat rush.
Thankfully the two mains we order are a far more subdued and subtly aromatic affair. Although I found it tricky to choose between the Stand Up Sea Bass (£15.50) – a crispy golden fillet enhanced with shallots, ginger and peanuts – and the Red Squid Curry (£13.50) a traditional offering that makes Pranee think of ‘Grandma cooking for her family’ I eventually decide I want something just a little bit different so opt for the Red Duck Curry (£15.50) – Pranee says she ‘lives on this’.
The inclusion of sweet lychee and pineapple in this interesting seared duck dish tempers the curry nicely, although there’s just a little too much sauce for my liking and I’m not sure the cherry tomatoes work with it.
Steve’s main of Beef in Oyster Sauce (£10.50) served with sticky rice is a triumph and rather impressively, when ordering, he gets to tell the chef how he likes his meat cooked. The slender strips of perfectly stir fried beef are coated in a delicious Thai spice infused gravy and come with florets of crunchy broccoli and chunks of colourful peppers. The sticky rice absorbs most of the moreish sauce which I can’t resist sampling.
The portions are very generous and as a result we both struggle to finish everything on our plates but we do feel pleasantly satisfied.
While we’ve been savouring our food the restaurant has showed no signs of slowing down. People are clearly enjoying the good quality, reasonably priced food and also the pleasant ambience here. And so are we, which is why despite the fact both of us could roll out of the restaurant, we are still persuaded to take a cursory look at the dessert menu.
Thankfully the majority of sweet choices are light ones such as Lemongrass and Basil sorbet and the rather intriguing sounding Black Sesame ice cream (both £4.95) and are unique to the Giggling Squid, made exclusively in a ‘tiny shop’ in Pranee’s home town of Brighton. Despite Giggling Squid becoming such a big success its founder has clearly stayed true to her roots – both in Thailand and here in the south east.
We finish our palate cleansing desserts and head off into the early 2017 drizzle. For a couple of hours we’ve forgotten about the miserable New Year weather and experienced the magic of the Far East courtesy of some full on flavoursome food – and that’s probably why such a success has finally been made of 57 Calverley Road.