It is not far from East Oxford’s hip, studenty Cowley Road, but hidden amid houses on a suburban street, Oli’s Thai is deliberately discreet. ‘
We wanted a traditional neighbourhood restaurant,’ explains Rufus Thurston, who runs Oli’s (named after their son), with his Thai wife, Laddawan. ‘A lot of my favourite restaurants are in Brooklyn, and it’s not obvious where they are, they’re plain, food-focussed and the customers are people who walk there.’
It is ironic, therefore, that in the last two years, this bright, simple canteen has become Oxford’s hottest restaurant – such is the power of Ladd’s cooking. The shelves are decorated with Thai groceries, but she is no slave to tradition. Instead, Ladd uses Western techniques confidently (confiting duck for the panang, slow-cooking pork for the green curry), to bring a new maturity and depth to dishes beyond their radiant Thai seasoning.
The oven-roasted pork belly on rice in a dark soy broth – its glassy crackling smothered in a magical fresh paste of chilli, lemongrass and much, much more – is a glorious example of this East-meets-West process.
Others may have buckled under all this attention and clamour for bookings, but the Thurstons, who have worked in several London restaurants, have retained a clear certainty of purpose. Prices remain affordable, they still only serve one dessert (Portuguese custard tarts) and the service retains its easy charm.
In keeping the bar-counter for walk-ins, Rufus says Oli’s has achieved the perfect balance: ‘People can have a nice dinner at a table where they’re not rushed, but, equally, you’ve got that tapas bar bustle with a constant flow of people coming in and out.’
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