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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 31st October 2003

Blue Elephant

ES Magazine - 31st October 2003

by Toby Young

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Sloane Ranger, so help me God.

How do I know this? Well, for one thing I went to a North London Comprehensive. For another, I've never owned a Barbour. But my main reason for saying this is that I've never been out on a date to the Blue Elephant.

For Hooray Henrys and Henriettas, no assignation is more romantic than a trip to this Thai pleasure dome on the Fulham Road. With its over-the-top, Bounty Bar theme and smiling, servile staff, it's like some wonderful fancy dress party. As you step through it's doors, you can't help but be charmed by the contrast between the windswept pavements of Fulham Broadway and the lush, tropical interior. You won't for a second imagine you're actually in Thailand, but if you screw up your eyes and tune out the braying City boys you might just be fooled into thinking you're in a Las Vegas production of The King and I.

The Blue Elephant's popularity with Sloane Rangers dates back to when Thai food was still considered a posh alternative to Chinese or Indian. In 1986, when it first opened, there were less than 50 Thai restaurants in London. Now there are closer to 500. But the Blue elephant has retained its flagship status thanks to its first-mover advantage. It was recently selected by the Thai Government to spearhead an initiative to promote Thai cuisine throughout the world.

Does it still deserve its posh reputation? If you judge that on the basis of the food, the answer's probably no. The Blue Elephant isn't a posh Thai in the sense that Hakhasan's a posh Chinese or Tamarind's a posh Indian. It may be the proud possessor of a Thai Select--which the restaurant's publicist describes as "a Michelin-style award"--but it's never going to win a bona fide Michelin star. Something tells me that Roman Abramovich, owner of the nearby Chelsea Football Club, isn't a regular at Blue Elephant.

I had chicken and coconut soup followed by fried lamb, while my wife made do with stir-fried tofu and vegetables. It was perfectly adequate, but not significantly better than the Thai food you can get in any number of pubs up and down the country. At the conclusion of our meal, my wife declared it the McDonald's of Thai restaurants, but I thought that was a little harsh. Given the high-concept theme, it's more like TGI Fridays.

It was only when I got home and did a little bit of research on the Internet that I realised my wife's description was, in fact, quite accurate. Blue Elephant is a chain that started in Brussels in 1980 and now has outlets in Paris, Copenhagen, Dubai, New Delhi, Lyon, Malta and Kuwait. While there are currently only 11 outlets, the group has plans to open a further 90 in the next few years. In case there's any doubt about how Blue Elephant sees its future, the Group's vice president, Thaviseuth Phouthavong, was recently quoted saying his ambition is to turn the chain into a "Thai luxury McDonald's".

One thing the Fulham Road branch isn't short of is atmosphere. As my wife and I sat there, pushing bits of food around our plates, there was a party going on behind us where a table of Australians were celebrating the Wallabies record-breaking win against Romania. Elsewhere, local estate agents were toasting rising house prices while a hen party got underway with a round of Mai Tais. It's obviously an extremely well-run place that can contend with anything the denizens of Fulham Broadway are likely to throw at it. There must have been upwards of 200 people there, all demanding more prawn crackers simultaneously, but the staff remained completely unfazed.

All in all, not a particularly memorable experience, but if you're looking for a place to take a horsey, 21-year-old blonde who's just graduated from St Andrew's it's probably still capable of working its magic.

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