Bring up Thai cuisine, and most Singaporeans share both a love for and the common perception that it is cheap. Not simply affordable, but cheap. Perhaps influenced by stalls along the streets of Bangkok, or the hawker-priced Thai-operated restaurants in Singapore, the popular belief is good authentic Thai food is not - and should not - be anywhere close to pricey. It is this very view that Cha Thai challenges.
A glimpse into its menu would instantly label Cha Thai as an up-market Thai restaurant. Thai owner Leah explained that this is not without reason: Thai cuisine is characterized by an interplay between numerous bold spices and distinct cooking techniques, the result being a medley of complex flavours; genuinely good Thai food is therefore neither cheap nor simple to recreate. Both receiving culinary training from France, Leah and her head chef felt there felt there wasn't a truly authentic and excellent Thai restaurant in Singapore. Cha Thai was thus set up with the conviction to use the best ingredients and not sacrifice quality to reduce cost.
Cha Thai Toast (S$8++) - Golden brown toasted bread cubes with Thai tea dipping sauce
Their Toast is a clear example of their commitment to quality. Made famous by peers like Tuk Tuk Cha, this cubed rendition of the much-loved Shibuya brick toast was actually pioneered by Cha Thai's sister restaurant Loaves Me. While low-quality bread Thai locals nicked fish feed is often used by competitors, Cha Thai bakes theirs in-house to ensure consistency.
Indeed theirs is the best we've tried. The housemade bread is lightly slathered with luscious butter, then toasted to a perfect golden crisp while retaining a fluffy and moist interior. What clearly sets Cha Thai apart is the Thai tea dipping sauce its served with. It's thick, rich, fragrant, and nothing like the watery sauces served elsewhere. Maddeningly addictive and perfect as dessert, for tea, or even a snack on the go.
Cha Thai's savouries are as - if not more - impressive. Thai cuisine can taste overwhelming due to its liberal use of spices; where some fail to calibrate their recipes to the local palate while simultaneously reflecting authenticity, Cha Thai succeeded in seamlessly adapting the flavours.
The ubiquitous Sautéed Kai Lan with Roasted Pork (S$18++) Cha Thai did exceedingly well. A generous portion of huge slabs of roast pork, lean yet moist, stir-fried with crunchy greens and lots of garlic. We were especially pleased that the dish had just enough sauce to taste, instead of being drenched in it. Meat lovers would be delighted with their Sautéed Grilled Pork with Basil Leaf (S$22++). Instead of the usual mince, thick slices of pork loin are instead grilled and cooked with tons of fragrant sweet basil. What most impressed was Cha Thai's Crispy Prawn Cake (S$15++) which, though pricey, comes packed with chunks of fresh, juicy prawns.
Cha Thai's specials of the month, featuring unique Thai dishes, are also worth looking out for. December's Nam Prik Khai Pu (S$12.90++) for example is rare in Thailand due to the exorbitant prices of crab roe, an essential ingredient for the crab meat and roe relish.
For curries, have a go at the Fish Ball Green Curry (S$18++). Apparently a more common option when dining in Thailand, fish balls are added to the traditional green curry instead. Cha Thai's rendition is intensely aromatic and the thickest we've had yet - wonderful eaten with rice. Our favourite however has to be the Signature Tiger Prawn Panang Curry (S$28++). The Thai saffron curry is naturally sweetened with lychees and drizzled with coconut cream, resulting in a super creamy and rich dish. With 4-5 big tiger prawns per order, it's a real bang for your buck.
If spicy food's your thing, Cha Thai's Tom Yum Soup (S$28++) would more than tickle your tastebuds. It comes either clear or red, packed with tiger prawns, mussels, fish balls and mushrooms. The former is much spicier, reduing us to tears in minutes; while the latter's thicker and sweetened by the seafood stock.
Cha Thai also offers a variety of rice and noodle dishes, for those who prefer a simpler one-dish meal. Several are available as Set Meal (S$25++) options, inclusive of a drink and fruits. We tried the Baked Pineapple Rice (S$18++) which came with cashews, raisins, chicken, and chunks of pineapple; as well as the Thai Train Fried Rice (S$18++) with kai lan and tomatoes, topped with roasted pork and a side of fried egg. Both, though fragrant, were hardly memorable. The Baked Olive Rice (S$18++) however was a huge surprise. Cooked with diced black olives, lots of minced pork, and served with a fried egg, the olive rice was flavourful, perfectly seasoned, and light on the palate. It's good on its own, and even more amazing enjoyed with the luscious egg yolk.
The single one item we'd say to be definitively unique and never-before-seen, would be Cha Thai's Baked Tiger Prawns Glass Noodle Claypot (S$159++). While we were amazed at Cha Thai's generosity in serving large crunchy tiger prawns in all their seafood dishes, those paled in comparison with the ginormous ones served here. The head alone longer than a middle finger, these giant tiger prawns were each larger than our palms. Freshly supplied by kelongs, the prawns are fairly hard to come by and certainly not cheap when they do. Despite its size - thus risk of overcooking - careful cooking kept it moist while crunchy, flavourful and tender. The bed of vermicelli was nothing short of delicious in itself, having absorbed the remaining juices and aromas. Of course there's nothing wrong going for the good ol' Pad Thai (S$22++); but if ever one feels like splurging, this would be it.
A meal like this is a big hit on the wallet; yet what we observed over dinner more than justified the pricetag. The ingredients were top-notch, execution was perfect, and flavours reflected authenticity without being overwhelming. We will still head to places like Spicy Thai-Thai and Thai Gold for our daily Thai fix - but for the best, Cha Thai will be our first pick.
80 Telok Ayer Street
#01-01 Far East Square