One of the many reasons why I love taking Maddy out to dinner is because she will try anything that does not conflict with her ethics. Before she became a fully automated vegetarian, she would have a go at most cuisines, though some requiring more persuasion, from squid ink to offal, and come to a decision only after a few contemplative chews. I’d be apologetic if she grimaced, resigned if she scrunched up her nose, and unquestionably overjoyed by her realising gratification. She is the perfect dinner compatriot, and no one else comes close.
So, as we edged up Tombland towards Giggling Squid, a restaurant Maddy suggested we visit with friends of ours, much to my surprise, I prayed to the culinary gods that the Thai food served at this restaurant would show her the light. Thai cooking has been a favourite of mine since I was little, so when she told me she did not like coconut curries, and in particular, green Thai curries, I looked for every opportunity to change her mind (because I knew I could).
Upon first mention, I must admit the Giggling Squid sounded like the name of a pub. Much like the dancing pig, the waltzing carrot, or the flying squirrel, not that any of these are real names. I suppose in some ways naming a Thai restaurant in this fashion does away with dangerous pretensions of authenticity, and thus limits the capacity of snobbery. You find these names dotted all over the place, as if the names of animals will somehow dignify the indiscriminate boozing, sleazy solicitations and drunken meanderings that take place within such establishments. But in the case of this particular Tombland Thai restaurant, for it is a restaurant and not a pub, it is appropriately memorable for the name of a chain.
The décor of the place is irrefutably pretty. Its affectations of rusticity and the wooden craftsmanship that structures the Giggling Squid does not appear tired and trite, but calmingly hospitable in the way you feel when entering a vineyard or barn conversion. Plants snaked through and around wooden beams and frames, kitsch pots and lanterns lay besides wooden furniture in an ambience that is evidently contrived by a team of experts. Flowers in a restaurant, fake or real, have the same perky effect on their surroundings as they do outside. I wonder if my first impression would have been made better by some lilting background music. A finishing touch of sorts.
We sat in the central dining area, by one of the pillars in front of the bar. There were a few occupied tables, but not as many as I am sure there would have been later in the evening. The glasses and cutlery were clean, and so were the table mats, but this cannot be said of the menus. These pieces of card were absolutely repulsive, each stuck together with curry and sweet chilli sauce, and stained until glossy under the light. Some of the edges were even wrought in grease.
Getting used to the ripping sound as we pried the menu pages apart, we settled in denouement for some of the more traditional Thai dishes, bar a recognisable crispy chicken stir fry that Claire fancied, and a mundane selection of starters to ease our guests into relatively exotic cuisine.
The starters that came admirably quick were not impressive. Spring rolls, though crisp and flaky as they should be, were bland on the inside and were barely saved by the generic sweet chilli dipping sauce. The pork dumplings that came in their own little ceramic cups half submerged in soy sauce and topped with a slice of pickled chilli, were nothing that warranted retrospection. The salt and pepper squid, a fan favourite by its mention on the menu, was a dish of savoury breaded squid, crunchy in the way that toast can be with squid cooked beautifully, soft and yielding, an easy copout starter that is hard to mess up.
I was astounded by the portions of the mains at Giggling Squid: large platter sized plates forced the re-placement of cutlery and the manoeuvring of water jug and glasses as they were set before us. Tiny yet deceivingly abundant bamboo cylinders of sticky rice and small bowls of coconut rice were placed in and amongst it all. It was a sight to behold, with an aromatic effulgence that was familiarly disarming. The vegetarian dish came in an iron pot, the smallest of the dishes on the table, but just as bountiful.
Maddy’s vegetable massaman and Nick’s lamb massaman curry were similar but intriguingly different. The vegetable was sweeter, an almost floral effusion, with the soothing thickness of coconut cream. Absorbent, cushiony pieces of tofu floated like dumplings in a hearty stew. The lamb, a shank placed as centre piece engorged in and surrounded by blonde sauce, was exceedingly tender, with the evident differences in curries being the influence of the rich fat rendered into the sauce. Both Maddy and Nick were taken by their mains, and became one of the reasons why Maddy and I decided to return.
My sea bream in green curry (much cha rung ra), a large fillet of crispy fish whose texture withstood the sauce it was served with, was probably the single largest portion of a Thai fish dish I’ve had. Nevertheless, the protein was cooked immaculately in a sauce that was significantly milder than what is expected, tasty but would have pushed me towards a state of ennui if it were not for the addition of green beans, uncharacteristic yet pertinently refreshing additions that brightened the dish with luscious texture and vegetable sweetness.
I was surprised by the Giggling Squid, more so by Maddy’s desire to go back so quickly after our first visit. I was not too keen, it must be said, but I am glad I did in the end. The second experience irrevocably tipped me off the fence and into the mud.
This time we ordered the Giggling Squid vegetarian sharing platter of soy marinated baby gem hearts, crunchy corn fritters, mushroom tempura and spring rolls. The tempura was light and savoury, the corn fritters crisp and sweet, with the spring rolls remaining blandly consistent. The gem hearts, not so much hearts, as the whole damn lettuce, was still hard at its pith and soggy around the edges – a harbinger of things to come.
A little note about duck skin is left under the duck section of the menu: ‘We use roasted duck with the skin on. People often think the skin is the best bit but if you prefer to have it without, just let us know.’ Yes, the duck skin is indeed the best bit, but also the most temperamental part of the duck. The only reason why someone would want the skin off is because they are either worried about it being undercooked or have been traumatised by the aforementioned in a prior experience. I can guarantee that if a person is served a duck dish, with the skin perfectly cooked, fat properly rendered that none would complain. Just because of this little message I ordered the red duck curry with skin on.
Low and behold, undercooked (dare I say uncooked) duck skin attached to reasonably done duck meat, palpably white, like slimy, membranous slugs, floated in a red curry steeped in peppers. If the duck breasts were roasted at all, it was either for too short a time, without the skin rendered in a pan or put into the oven wrong side down. It was absolutely revolting and vaporized my appetite in the process. When I called the waitress over, I gave her a short treatise about how to cook duck before it is put into a curry and asked her to relay as much as she could to the chef. Needless to say, the dish was taken off the bill.
The vegetable pad-thai and paneang curry we’d ordered besides were packed up and we left immediately after. When hunger returned later that night, both vegetarian dishes were pleasant to eat though distinctly unremarkable. I would challenge you to tell the difference between the Giggling Squid’s offering and one from one of London’s Itsus. It was a lesson learned, money badly spent against my better judgement. It only goes to show that all second visits serve to do is cement my original assessment of a place, if not to emphasize it.
Location: 24 Tombland, Norwich NR3 1RF