Pan-Asian food definitely Toomai liking
Toomai was a long time coming, with delays over both planning permission and building works (an entire wall had to be reclad). When it opened it was overwhelmed with customers and the service groaned under the weight of expectation. Now, several months in, and having finally formalised its menu, has it found its feet? It’s definitely popular; it’s busy every night with a youngish crowd taking advantage of the relatively low prices and the obligatory jam jar cocktails. But is it good?
The industrial pared back design works well in what is a surprisingly large space. As with sister restaurant Guglee, the kitchen is visible at the back, which is always a nice touch. The Moroccan tiles on the floor are very Instagrammable and a mix of individual tables and shared seating helps create a buzzy informal atmosphere.
Any attempts at reviewing incognito didn’t last long as Toomai kindly gave us a welcome drink on the house. I can confirm that they make a good vodka martini. We ended up trying pretty much all the starters between us, with the chicken satay and the paneer chilli being the stand-outs, though I have a soft spot for the pepper chilli lamb too. Service was prompt and friendly, even if some customers can be hard to reach depending how packed the restaurant is.
The main course options are reasonably limited, allowing for the fact that many come with the usual beef, chicken or prawn options. I went for chicken thai chilli kaprow, which had a kick but nothing overwhelming.
Toomai likes to big up its streetfood credentials, which always implies fresh, hot and cheap. It is, whatever it claims, a restaurant not a food shack on the Khao San Road. Nevertheless, the food definitely has fresh flavours, the place is bustling and open enough to make it lively rather than staid, and with not a single dish over £7 it’s not going to break the bank. It’s a great addition to West Hampstead, and I’m glad to see that it doesn’t seem to have hurt Banana Tree either.
Toomai combines all the essential ingredients for a good night out with a group of friends. There’s a list of good strong cocktails (and fresh fruit smoothies for the abstainers), a great selection of appetising and very shareable dishes, and a relaxed-but-buzzy ambience. Why take a group? That way, you get to sample as many of the tasty little morsels as possible. My highlights were the fresh papaya salad – crisp slivers of fruit anointed with a spicy dressing; fiery paneer chilli; and green curry with tofu and vegetables. Grab five of your best friends and go.
This was only my second visit to Toomai and my first since they’ve expanded their menu so I was keen to find out if the quality of the food that made my first visit so enjoyable had suffered at all now that they have more dishes on offer.
Just to prove the point about the size of the new menu our first course was very much a shared dining experience as we managed to end up with every available starter on the table in front of us. A personal favourite was the Honey Chilli Veg, bite size vegetable patties with a wonderfully sweet and sticky coating – these were balanced out well by some suitably light and crispy vegetable spring rolls.
For a main I opted for the red curry with vegetables and, for the second time in as many visits, was suitably impressed. As a non-meat eater you often have to contend with vegetable curries that mostly rely on carrots and whatever tinned veg happen to be to hand. Happily this is not the case at Toomai – my curry was reasonably mild and jam-packed with both flavour and copious chunks of fresh veg. I counted at least six different types of veg in there – happy days indeed! If you want a bit more of a kick then a taste of Nicky’s green curry proved that to be the spicier of the two.
Our hosts were determined not to let us leave without sampling dessert which was just as well, the delicately battered apple and accompanying coconut sorbet was a very light and refreshing end to what had been another hugely enjoyable and flavoursome meal.
Eschewing the selection of beer, wine and martinis I started my evening with a fresh green smoothie (I’m taking my reviewing seriously here!). It was served with the flourish and care usually reserved for a signature cocktail and the concoction is well balanced and delicious, a theme which continues throughout the evening. Since its opening weeks, Toomai now seems to have got into its stride and found a welcome niche in West Hampstead. My calamari starter is a beautiful bowl of crisp and succulent bites which I am enjoying until I discover the paneer chilli and realise that this is a real winner. I went for the Penang chicken curry for my main. A good sized portion with a lovely thick fragrant sauce, the crunch of the green beans makes a pleasing contrast and stops it feeling too heavy. The menu describes this dish as ‘hot’; mine was more on the mild side and could have been spicier, but it was still enjoyable. I will happily be making this a regular destination. Toomai offers a good selection of dishes with great flavours and an enjoyable atmosphere with professional and attentive service at a reasonable price.
You visit for the tiles but you stay for the food. Toomai has already established itself as a Whamp landmark due to the imported Moroccan tiles that decorate the floor. These colourful tiles contrast well against the stripped back walls and industrial (yet stylish) lighting.
A particular highlight for me was the paneer chilli starter. I’m a fan of paneer but had never tried it combined with chilli which is an interesting blend that works really well. I was also impressed that the calamari and chicken satay were both tender and each cooked “a su punto” as we say back home meaning, tender and cooked to their optimum point. Honourable mention goes to a rather moreish chilli lamb starter. I had a red curry main with equally tender chicken and vegetables. Portions were generous and the staff friendly and attentive. The fact its location is very convenient is not the only reason I’ll be going back.
First thing to comment on is the design inside Toomai; it is absolutely superb. The subtle lighting in the ‘bar’ area, the filament bulbs all over a maze of piping on the wall (brilliant!), the modernity offset by colourful floor tiles (which Mark learned were from Morocco)… all genuinely impressive.
Equally so, the starters; lots of variation, vibrant colours, satisfyingly unctuous textures, and a feeling that everything had been cooked with enthusiasm and panache (even though that’s “pan ache” if split into two words). My favourites: the paneer dish and the veggie fritter type things. Delicious.
Pad Thai was nice, with fresh, soft prawns. Flavours were subtle, and I’ll perhaps try something spicier next time. Enjoyed the house white, too; a South African Chenin Blanc which worked with everything. A clever dessert of lightly-battered apple and a soothing sorbet rounded things off very nicely.