Review of T for Thai, a Thai Restaurant in Shanghai helmed by a French Chef

Oct 14, 2014

T for Thai is a Thai restaurant located on the west end of Huai Hai Rd near Wulumuqi Rd. Chef Michael Wendling is the head chef and co-owns the trio of restaurants in the vicinity with partner, Fanny; Cuirvre, the french restaurant downstairs and newly opened CU2+, a modern burger joint just beside.

Entrance of T for Thai

It is said that Chef Wendling travels to Thailand very often, and had spent awhile mastering the traditional Thai recipes there, before bringing them back to Shanghai, into T for Thai.

Before we proceed, I would like to state that this was an invited tasting. A big thanks to Chef Wendling for the invitation, and operations manager (Yuun?) for the warm hospitality.

Chef Wendling had invited me a couple months back, but my visit had been procrastinated until now. Coincidentally, both Chef Wendling and I were in Phuket for vacation at the same time in early September. I thought it would be interesting to visit T for Thai after my Phuket trip, to compare tastes and authenticity, since my palate for Thai food would be fresh from the trip.

Collage of T for Thai's Interior

The Decor

T for Thai was quite empty on a Saturday afternoon. I hear the place comes to life in the evening, when the almost neon lit backdrops really shine. The restaurant is located on the 2nd floor of their French establishment, Cuivre. Upon reaching the 2nd floor, you would notice two halved tuk-tuks; — A 3 wheeled scooter that is unique to Thailand and is the official non-official taxi — Set against a lit backdrop of a street in Thailand. I think this is probably the only place in Shanghai where you would find 2 tuk tuks.

The general ambience is very modern and clean, juxtaposed against some rustic south-east asian elements. For example, you have the electrifying banana leaf digital backdrop on the bar, but on every table and ceiling, you have organic plants. It’s a very interesting contrast.

One minor nitpick I had with the restaurant was that the cutlery were quite heavy. Of course I don’t mean heavy like 1kg heavy, but the fork and knives had quite a heft to it. As a result, they would clang loudly on the tableware, and we found ourselves handling the cutlery very precariously throughout the meal so as to avoid making a lot of noise.

The Service

Because this was an invited tasting, I will give the service a standard average rating of 7 since I have preferential treatment. Menu came in the form of iPad gallery photos that featured all the items in a handwritten font. There was also a separate gallery that showed photos of featured dishes. I felt that unless you have a custom interactive iPad menu, you should really stick to a well designed printed menu instead. This manner of presentation via the iPad felt a little cheap, even though the original idea was probably to look more sophisticated.

The Drinks

Lemon Grass Mojito @ T for Thai

I had the signature lemon grass mojito.

Very lovely flavours. Mint and lemongrass both have that pronounced flavour that simply worked together harmoniously. I did feel that it could have used a wee-bit more rum; It was one of the less alcoholic mojitos I have tasted in recent memory. 8/10

Young Coconut @ T for Thai

The coconut here is imported from Thailand. So are the lemon grass, galangal, coriander, amongst others. Bad coconut water tastes like water. Mediocre coconut water tastes sweet with a subtle coconut taste. The coconut at T for Thai was of exceptional quality, the water within was not only sweet, but also had a very robust coconut flavour. 

That said, it was a major shame that the coconut was not chopped open, but instead drilled. As a result, we could not taste the tender flesh within. 8.5/10

The Food

Like my other invited restaurant visits, I had already done some homework prior to coming. Generally it seemed like there is a proportionate mixed of audience who liked and disliked the food at T for Thai. What was really interesting for me, was the fact that we have a French cuisine trained chef taking on very rustic, ‘go by feel’ Thai food. Would I be getting Thai food cooked with French techniques? Or was it going to be French-infused Thai food?

Let’s find out!

Chicken Satay @ T for Thai

Chicken satay.

This was creatively presented with half a stalk of lemongrass and very tasty. Infact, it was better than any of the chicken satays I had in Phuket. Chicken thigh pieces with skin intact, marinated and grilled. The meat was tender, juicy and flavourful. A slight hint of smokiness was detected, but I would have liked there to be a bit more charring on the meat for the maillard reaction. While I felt the accompanying sauce could be richer and thicker, with more peanuts like a Singaporean satay sauce, all in all, this was a very decent chicken satay that didn’t require any sauce at all. 8.5/10

Green Papaya Salad AKA Yum Sum-O @ T for Thai

Yum Sum O AKA Green papaya salad.

A thai classic and staple. Always deceptively refreshing, and light-looking, this  salad is likely one of the spiciest salad dish in the world. The version at T for Thai didn’t disappoint in the spiciness department. However, this is a very complex and difficult dish to execute, because there needs to be a perfect balance of spiciness, saltiness, sourness, sweetness. I felt the flavour was a little more towards spicy and salty, and could use a little bit more acidity to really give that electric jolt when you first taste it. I also felt the accompanying lettuce and long beans were a little redundant. I think this dish can still be tweaked a little more. 7/10

Som Tam Gung Sod @ T for Thai

Som tam goong sod, AKA pomelo salad with prawns.

This is another staple that you find at probably every Thai restaurant. Generally the idea is tasting sweet and ever-so-slightly bitter pomelo pulp mixed with a lime and chilli vinaigrette together with large succulent prawns. T for Thai’s version is excellent, mainly because of the exceptional pomelo and prawns used. I’ve never seen such fat pomelo pulp used in this dish! Most of the renditions I’ve had always had thin slivery pomelo flesh, but the ones at T for Thai at fat and juicy. The large grilled prawns were also perfectly grilled with a slight bounce on the bite, and very lovely grilled prawn flavour. My only quirk was that I didn’t detect any sauce or vinaigrette used, or very little was used anyway. I would have liked something along those lines to hold the components together. But otherwise, this was still a very impressive dish. 8.5/10

Tom Yum Goong @ T for Thai

Tom yum goong.

That’s Thai for Tom yum soup with prawns. Goong = prawns.

Of all the dishes we had that day, this was the dish I had the most trouble photographing. Even when I was choosing and processing photos for this article, I also had a lot of trouble getting a good photo and making it look presentable. Unfortunately, the fault was largely with the dish; It had too little in it, but at the same time, too much in it. Care to explain?

Tom Yum Goong @ T for Thai

The soup essentially only had 2 prawns and a few pieces of shitake mushrooms in it. Kaput.

This was one of the most simple tom yum goongs that I’ve had.

What did I meant when I said it had too much? There was a lot of grounded and chopped spices in the soup. Most of it was not very texturally pleasant in the mouth. 

Tom Yum Goong @ T for Thai

Unfortunately, spices like lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves are quite tough, and not suitable for eating. Unfortunately, there was a lot of it in the soup, and having some in every spoonful was quite unavoidable.

I would have expected Chef Wendling to have this soup strained, French style, and then maybe have a stalk of lemon grass and sprig of kaffir lime leaves deliberately placed as garnish, and easily removed by the diner. I would also have preferred the soup to have a bit more variety and quantity of ingredients. Some squid rings, pieces of fish would have been nice. 

The flavour of the soup itself was de rigeur. Not a bad tom yum, but not fantastic either. Quite mellow, which is not the correct description of a tom yum soup. It should be like the papaya salad, spicy, salty, sweet and sour at the same time. 

I was later told by the manager that originally they had served the clear version of the tom yum soup, which had the characteristics that I had described. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very well received by the local clientele, and thus they switched to the creamy and more toned-down version of the tom yum goong. He told me that I could actually request for the clear version, and the kitchen would be able to make it. I suggested in return that perhaps they should add that option to the menu, so diners would know and could choose. All that said, my earlier complaints still stand, and the dish can be certainly be improved on. 6.5/10

Roasted Duck Red Curry @ T for Thai

Gaeng phet ped yaang AKA roast duck red curry.

I have heard of Thai duck curry long ago, but have never had the pleasure of trying it. On paper it sounded interesting, rich fatty roasted duck with a nice roasted skin, cooked in a rich spicy red curry. The version at T for Thai was unfortunately a little underwhelming. The duck pieces were quite irregular and in small pieces, as opposed to uniform thick cuts. The pieces of meat could have been roasted chicken for all I know. The tomatoes and long beans in the curry basically outnumbered the duck, making the protein feel more like a condiment instead of being the main star. The spice and flavour of the curry itself was decently rich, leaning more towards the sweet side. 7.5/10

Massaman Lamb Curry @ T for Thai

Gaeng massaman nong gae, AKA Lamb massaman curry.

I’m not a lamb/mutton eater, however I was glad Chef Wendling made me taste this dish. It was sublime. This dish is a very good example of what the previous duck curry should have been, where the protein is the star with some accompanying vegetable. The lamb as I am told, was imported from New Zealand, hence this dish is slightly more expensive than the others. The lamb was cooked to perfection, falling off the bone but still retaining its muscular bond. The lamb had little to no gamey taste, and had absorbed the curry very well. This was definitely one of, if not my favourite dish of the day. The accompanying potatoes were very tasty too, and like the lamb, had absorbed the curry flavours. 9/10

Massaman Lamb Curry @ T for Thai

While we are on the subject of massaman curry, I would like to say that this is not an authentic massaman curry, but it is more tasty than an authentic massaman curry. I had tried many versions of massaman curries during my 7 day stay at Phuket, and all of them shared the same characteristics: Watery, cooked fresh, not stewed and contained fried peanuts. I was honestly very disappointed with what I had in Phuket. Maybe the reason why they cook their curries on order was to avoid wastage, incase they couldn’t sell off a big pot of curry. However, that meant that the curry would always be ‘immature’. The best curries are stewed the day before, and then left overnight for flavours to mature and absorbed by the ingredients.

Pad Thai Goong @ T for Thai

Pad Thai Goong.

How can we miss the iconic and overly-ordered fried noodle dish? Infact, during our stay at Phuket, we had pad thai almost every day. Why? Because in Thailand, you could go wrong with the chicken satay. You could get unfresh seafood. You could get the freshest of seafood, but cooked abysmally. However, you can never go wrong with Pad Thai. Being a staple dish, it is practically impossible find a Thai chef who can’t cook a decent Pad Thai. 

T for Thai’s version was unfortunately, a little lacking. On paper, it looked fine, with all the correct ingredients and presentation. However I felt it lacked the Thai essence. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a passable Pad Thai. The noodles were fried just nice, neither soggy nor mushy. However I felt it could have been a little bit sweeter, and infused with more tamarind juice for the sourness. This Pad Thai tasted like a decent plate of chinese stir fried rice noodles, as opposed to a Pad Thai. 7.5/10

Beef Pad Grapow @ T for Thai

Beef Pad Grapow AKA Stir fried beef mince with Thai Basil.

This is a very homely Thai dish, usually had with a bowl of rice, topped with a fried egg. T for Thai’s version used Australian beef, and the quality of the beef was obvious. The fried basil leaves were mainly for garnish, because basil loses all flavour once fried to a crisp. That said, the beef still had a good amount of basil flavour and beefy goodness. This dish looks deceptively simple, but like many dishes, the simplest looking is often the most difficult to get right. Luckily, this dish is a winner. 9/10

A bowl of white rice @ T for Thai

All in all, some hits and some misses. Chef Wendling told me that previously, the recipes were more authentic. However after opening for awhile, he realised that the local clientele didn’t like the authentic recipes very much, and thus he tweaked the recipes to suit the local palate. While I can understand the reasoning behind that, I don’t support it. Places like Home Thai @ K11 and Lemongrass @ Novel Place served pretty decent Thai dishes with smack in the face flavours, and they are constantly packed. I think the moment you try to mellow out Thai dishes, you start to lose their essence, and the people who know Thai food start to label you as being unauthentic. Perhaps the current food is being targeted at the wrong clientele, and they could try going back to the authentic recipes, with French presentation and finesse, targeted at real Thai food lovers. Otherwise, why bother cooking Thai for people who don’t like Thai food? 

Just my 2 cents.

All that said, with a few tweaks to the current misses, T for Thai does serve some very decent Thai fare, especially the Lamb Massaman which I highly recommend making the trip for. Prices are only slightly above average, with the ¥108 lamb massaman curry being the most expensive dish on our table that day.

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