Is there a more interesting shopping street anywhere in Scotland than Edinburgh's St Stephen Street?
I certainly can't think of one. Only 0.2 miles long, it packs in an exceptionally rich and original cluster of around 40 one-off businesses. It's not some quaint retro theme park reserved for sedate over-60s who want to relive the good old days either. Nor has it gone all gifty and twee, that other retail hazard. Do we really need any more emporia selling knitted hot water bottle covers in pastel shades and candles that smell like fruit gums?
On St Stephen Street, you can track down things that are devilishly hard to find elsewhere: chalk paints, 78rpm records, a pre-Second World War gramophone, baby clothes made with Fairtrade cotton, bespoke handmade jewellery, textiles made on Bute. You can view paintings, even buy one, gawp at room-filling chandeliers, take dance classes, have a Shaitsu massage, get your nails done, browse vintage clothes. It has congenial pubs, a posse of intriguing restaurants, and a coffee bar that refers to itself as "an Italian latteria and deli". Thrillingly cosmopolitan, in aspiration if nothing else.
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To be honest, the newish Suree Thai restaurant is, on the surface, one of the least noteworthy enterprises on the street. It has that totally standard Thai restaurant look, right down to the pot-bellied golden Buddha sitting in serene yoga posture in the window, and the lotus leaf crockery on the table. Suree looks as formulaically Thai as most other Thai restaurants in the UK.
The menu has no surprises, except for larb, which I'll return to in a minute, but otherwise, you're presented with the usual tick box exercise of dish X, say green or red curry, made with Y: you select chicken, pork, beef, king prawns or vegetarian as appropriate. It's not exciting.
That said, I wish that before I visited I had read the note on the website which reads: "Our desire is to present authentic Thai cuisine to high standards at sensible prices. Those familiar with the greater variety of Thai dishes are encouraged to request dishes not published in the Basic menu".
I would have done precisely that, although it's easy to be wise after the event. But this raises the question of why Suree, like so many of its compatriot establishments, doesn't put even a sprinkling of more recherché dishes on its menu. Without some development in that direction, Thai restaurants will soon be as typecast as generic Chinese ones.
Sampling the starters, it seemed like we were in for a poor meal. Kanom jeeb, pleated dumplings filled with rather plain minced pork, had an oddly sour taste, while the texture of tod mun, firm fried prawn and chicken cakes, evoked crepe soles. Both were served with those sticky, sugar bomb chilli sauces that mask natural flavours. But things brightened up with the arrival of the larb, warm minced pork fried with plenty of vivacious lemongrass, lime leaf, shallots, tossed with a clean, fresh lime juice and fish sauce dressing, all served on a lettuce leaf. OK, it was the dreaded iceberg - the world of salads has moved on - but this larb was animated and stimulating.
From then on in, we were on a roll. The title of Panang medium hot curry didn't say much to me and the description "made with famous Panang taste coconut milk and fresh lime leaves" didn't add a fat lot more either. But it was a hugely likeable dish and quite a bargain at £9.25, a seriously generous amount of tender beef, easily enough for two people, enrobed in velvet sauce underpinned by well-orchestrated spices and aromatics. Sticky rice, herbaceous-scented from being steamed in bamboo, was glorious dipped in nuggets into this soothing but broad-shouldered gravy. Abundance was a theme repeated in the pad Thai. Gummy, flat rice noodles were matched, weight-for-weight, by plump prawns - the expensive sort. The holy trinity of tamarind, palm sugar and fish sauce had been employed in a perfect ratio to deliver the desired sharp/sweet/salty effect.
I'd go back to Suree, and next time, I'll order off-menu.