Working (lunch) on the chain gang – Busaba Eathai, Cardiff City Centre.

With my work wife, Rachel, back in the office after having fully recovered from a short bout of the plague (I dunked her in sheep dip and made her wear a hazmat suit  – can’t be too careful can you) lunch seemed in order.

Having recently visited Malai (very good it was too) on Caroline Street and referred in my review to its rather swankier looking fellow Thai neighbour, in the form of Busaba Eathai, it seemed sensible to give Busaba a go. Rachel was keen and happy to sit 5 tables away in her hazmat suit 😂.

Whilst I tend to favour independents over chains, I am not one to completely diss a place just because it is a chain. As with indies there are good ones and bad ones,  with Honest an example (to my mind) of a decent chain.

In terms of where Busaba Eathai sits, a   small mainly London based chain (it did have a pretty short lived Manchester branch), it has a pretty decent pedigree with the founder (Alan Yau – now only a minority shareholder) also originally behind both Hakkasan and Wagamama. It does, however, seem to have expanded rather rapidly with the help of VC finance by the look of it – which often opens the door to the bean counters and the maximising of returns mantra – got to pay the tally man. Reviews I have read suggest a trend of ” It’s not as good as it use to be” – an oft valid complaint as chain expanded.

It is in the old Bistrot Pierre unit, a big old space with a fair amount of covers, and it is a nice looking venue from the inside and out.

On our visit on a Tuesday lunchtime (in half term) it was pretty quiet, with the waiting staff close to outnumbering the punters. Early days I suppose, it having just opened

Personally the asthetics of a place mean very little to me (being an unkempt, scruffy bugger myself at the beat of times – my beauty is definitely on the inside, hidden very deep beneath the surface), with the quality of the food the key issue.

The food

The menu is split into various sections

with some elements seemingly edging more towards the pan Asian than traditional Thai (not seen Katsu on a Thai restaurant menu before, but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough?), which suggests a bit of all things to all people (are the sweet potato fries a nod to its Chippy Lane location I wonder).

I was torn between the £10 lunch menu (any rice bowl or pad thai dish – with these ranging in price from £14.5 down to £11.5 normally)

and the small plates (the calamari sounding very nice, the soyamari on the other hand can get in the bin).

As I was (sort of) comparing it to the Malai lunch time deal (£6.99) it made sense to go for the lunch deal here too

I was, however, keen to try their signature calamari dish. I am very picky when it comes to squid, with the best I have had caught and cooked in minutes on a dive boat in the Andaman Sea. It either has to be cooked very quickly or for eons to avoid chewiness, but I have heard consistently positive reports in terms of this dish.

Decent size portion, which was fine to share, with the squid retaining just a bit of bite but not being chewy with a decent light batter. Well cooked I would say.

Spicing wise is was OK, if lacking a bit in terms of exciting the tastebuds. I didn’t really get the peppery or ginger hit I was expecting and there wasn’t much in terms of distinct Thai flavours in my opinion. 

The chicken satay similarly slightly disappointed.

The chicken was nicely charred and the peanut sauce quite punchy, with enough chilli heat, but the chicken lacked depth of flavour and didn’t seem to meld with the peanut sauce. I wonder how long the chicken had been pre – marinated and in what prior to being put on the griddle?

The satay was a second preference as we had initially asked for the som tam salad, which wasn’t available. Shame that.

Slightly underwhelmed we moved on to the £10 deal, with Rachel going for the chilli prawn rice bowl and me the classic pad thai.

My pad thai was a decent portion size,

but again it lack pizzazz.  Tofu and egg, with not much discernible flavour, far outweighed the prawn element (which, based on the menu description, I would have expected to be a bit more abundant) and it all lacked that tamarind zing of sourness.

Nice enough, but if I had eaten it blindfolded I very much doubt I would have said it was Thai food. It was just missing that blend of sweet, sour and savoury I expect from a good pad thai. Bucket loads of garlic (Mrs. SF said I reeked of it when I got home and consigned me to the spare room that night), but all a bit one dimensional and generic “any old noodle dish” I thought. 

Rachel’s rice bowl looked the part and

got the thumb up from her, but I had a taste and whilst the prawns were nicely (not over) cooked (I looked on in horror, as she discarded each and every shell on tail end with the meat still in it –  wondering how we have been friends for so long 🤔) the rice again lack the punchy flavours my palate craves from Thai food or much of the advertised chilli.

Fine to fill you up, but not much that really tantalised the tastebuds.

I thought it odd that there were no condiments on the table, which would have at least allowed me to add a bit of self administrated extra zip to my dish.

We passed on the puds from the short menu.

Can’t say anything particularly appealed.

The drink

On the drinks front, there are the ubitquous cocktails (the naga fireball sounded horrific) and a very meagre and rather “by the numbers” wine list.

No riesling and a big oaky shiraz is not my idea of wine for Thai food and, perhaps luckily, we weren’t drinking booze. Probably would have chosen the chenin or the rosé if I had to, but would likely stick to the singha if on the booze.

Mark ups on the wines on the list are a bit all over the place. The malbec retails at below £7 but is on the list at £27, whereas the Shiraz is around a tenner retail and £25 on the list. Similar story re the whites, with the chenin £7.50 retail and £23 on the list and the pinot grigio under £6 retail but £25 on the list. Smacks of a bit of gouginess re the wines a lot of people tend to default to.

We decided to eschew the standard sodas and ordered the apple kick (me)

and the koh phi pi (Rachel)

The apple kick tasted disconcertingly like an appletiser with a large dollop of mint sauce in it – frankly it was a bit weird.  The koh phi phi had a distinctly strawberry angel delight vibe to it (without the advertised coconut being discernable). I actually quite like angel delight (guilty pleasure from my school days), whereas Rachel is very adverse to it, but I am not sure it pairs that well (in liquid form) with Thai food.

At £4.60 a pop neither of us were particular fans of our respective drinks.

The verdict

All in all a bit disappointing, if perhaps predictably so. I didn’t actively dislike any of what I had, but it was all just a bit lacking in the bold flavours I associate with Thai food.

It is early days and perhaps the kitchen is still bedding down or maybe I just caught them on a bad day? Were my expectations following my trip to Malai too high?

In terms of cost, we did go large with a couple of small plates on top of the lunch deal and had the quite pricey soft drinks. This took the bill up to nigh on £50, with service automatically applied (grrr – service was good mine),

To be fair, if we had just had tap water (supplied and filled up without us having to ask, which I like) and 2 lunch offer mains, it would have been £22 (inc. service). This is still on a like for like basis 40% + more than Malai (which was much tastier, if in less decorus surroundings). Someone has to pay for the swanky decor I suppose.

Would I go back? I don’t think so. Whilst it is swankier inside, to me Malai ( just across the road) beats this place hands down where it really matters – on the flavour front. Add value to the equation and it is a very clear win for the indy to my mind.

So not for me, but it is all a matter of personal taste and I am sure many will disagree with my view and prefer Busaba.

Rachel quite liked it, but after prawn tailgate I think we can safely discount that view! There is also the fact that she likes the Ivy to factor in😱.

The details

Address:  Caroline Street, Brewery Quarter, Cardiff, CF10 1FG

Website: https://www.busaba.com/

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