Regular readers will know that I have always had a mild distrust of those restaurants which purport to specialise in the foods of more than one culture. You know what I mean – those places offering up dim sum alongside sushi, or Thai food with Japanese soba. So I went to Asia, up at the Catholic church end of Regent Street in Cambridge, with a bit of trepidation. (Full disclosure here – I’d been invited by the owners and got a free meal.)
Asia (the restaurant, not the continent) is smart enough not to try to do Japanese food, but explores Chinese, Thai and Indian foods in a very similar way to that you’ll find in Malaysian cuisine, with food from all three cultures served up alongside each other – and thankfully, they do it all very well indeed. This is actually a combination of cuisines that makes really good sense. It can be a bit disconcerting ordering Indian and Chinese side dishes to go with a Thai main course, but once you get into the swing of things, the flavours – aromatic lime leaves here, Goan curry spicing there, oyster sauce and fermented beans over there – gel surprisingly well. Ask the very helpful waiters if you’re trying to work out some good flavour combinations; they know the menu backwards and are very ready to help. Ingredients are fresh and, where possible (obviously, you’re going to run into trouble sourcing mangoes in East Anglia), local.
It’s a big space, and just avoids that hard-surface thing where restaurant interiors become loud and boomy. It’s all handsome, contemporary dark wood and marble juxtaposed with Indian and South East Asian artifacts – a Thai screen, an Indian limestone frieze – and the odd bit of upholstery. It’s spotlessly clean, it’s a very pretty room to eat in, and the welcome and service, which was warm, friendly and helpful, didn’t seem to be at all different from what the guests around us were getting. So far, so splendid – and did you know that Kingfisher, the Indian restaurant lager people, are also doing a very good fizzy mineral water now?
We opened with my favourite Thai salad, Som Tum, all green papaya, sour lime, savoury fish sauce and dried shrimp, with two fat prawns. Dr W went for scallops, and the restaurant must be proud of these, because they’re stupendous and very unusual – sweet Scottish scallops, seared to a barely-cooked wobble with a coriander crust, served with salted yoghurt and, right out of left-field, olive purée. (They say the purée is Peruvian. No, I have no idea either, but it was good, and perfectly salty against the sweet flesh of the scallops.)
Mains are served individually, not family-style. This is not the Upton way of doing things, especially when everything on the table is so interesting, and we wanted to put the dishes in the middle so we could share. Waiters swished around elegantly as soon as I asked, conjuring hot, clean plates out of nowhere. And just as well too, because Dr W’s Goan halibut curry in a lovely rough tomato and tamarind sauce was a firm, moist beast, so there was no way I wasn’t going to eat half of it. We’d also gone for a dish of Kai Krob, a Thai chicken in pieces, cooked in a light, floury coating that was halfway between chewy and crispy – fabulous – with a good hit of sweetness and a scattering of intensely aromatic kaffir lime leaves.
Presentation’s great here, such that we found ourselves remarking that one of the side-dishes (shitake and oyster mushrooms with home-made garlic chilli sauce and yellow beans) was much less pretty than the other things on the table, particularly the Bombay potatoes, all scattered with crispy vermicelli and punctuated with bright green coriander. But beauty’s only potato-skin deep, and the Bombay potatoes tasted pretty ordinary, while those mushrooms (must have been the home-made sauce) had us wiping the empty bowl with a naan. A naan, I will have you know, that was studded with dates – if you get that Goan halibut curry, the date naan is a brilliant foil to it.
A short pause for hot hand towels soaked in eau de cologne. Rumpole of the Bailey once bit into one in a dark Chinese restaurant, mistaking it for a spring roll. You will know better.
The dessert menu is short, especially when compared to the pages and pages of mains and starters that go before, all divided up by origin and method (so tandoor dishes are listed on one page, classical dishes on another, noodles on another). To be honest, it was a bit of a relief; main courses and starters were so generous we were pretty stuffed by this point, and weren’t up to hard decision-making. Dr W nearly went for something called Funky Pie, then changed his mind (if you go and order a Funky Pie, do let me know what it is – I’m intrigued), settling for Indian carrot cake (Gajar ka Halwa), all dense and moist and achingly sweet. I went for the crème brûlée, thrilled to see that they’d got the accents in the right place on the menu, and ended up wishing I’d had the saffron-poached pears instead – it tasted beautiful, but the acid from the mango had turned it into watery whey and curds under the crisp sugar crust. A single dud in an otherwise really enjoyable meal.
There are currently some promotions on the restaurant’s website (click on the ‘information’ tab), which include a 10% discount for students. Without discounts, you’re looking at around £5 for a starter. Mains start at £7.25 – the price rises steeply once you get into things like lobster, but starving students looking to impress attractive art historians should head on over, try for a table by the huge window so you can people-watch, tell them I sent you, and get ordering.