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Led down a stairway to heavenly Thai food

Published 21 January 2007
News Review
705th article

Michael with Joanna at the Papaya Tree (Songpol Chonysuwan)

Jimmy Page, leader of Led Zeppelin, the heavy rock band, came out of his astounding William Burges "castle" next to my house, turned left with his handsome son and headed towards Kensington High Street.

"Where are you going, Jimmy?" I asked, coming out of my front gate.

"We're going to the Papaya Tree Thai restaurant," he said.

There aren't many Thai restaurants left round here now. There used to be one in St Albans Grove but that closed down. It was run by a couple of beautiful Thai people who split up some years ago and the restaurant closed.

Jimmy is a good neighbour. He makes no noise. He keeps his house immaculate. He's a great expert on Victoriana. He has a second legendary Victorian house in the country.

Led Zeppelin were recently inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame. Jimmy's performance on Stairway to Heaven was voted the best rock guitar solo ever by readers of Guitar World magazine, and a few years back a live Led Zeppelin album, released 23 years after the band split up, still managed to reach No1 in the US charts.

We exchanged a few more words and Jimmy padded off towards the Papaya Tree, which is between some rather uninteresting shops on Kensington High Street. I decided that, if it was good enough for Jimmy, I'd try it too.

One of my lovely receptionists is Joanna Kanska, once a famous actress starring in a television series called Capital City. We went together to try the Papaya Tree.

It is not imposing. A white basement, pleasant, flowers on the tables. But you have a feeling they know a thing or two about food.

The waiter who looked after us was Songpol Chongsuwan. Unfortunately, I had left my glasses at home and so had Joanna. It was the blind leading the blind.

I said to Songpol, "We can't read because we didn't bring our glasses. I'm going to review the restaurant for The Sunday Times so I've got to know what I'm eating but I can't choose it."

I added, "Who owns the restaurant?"

Songpol said, "Sam. He's from Hong Kong. He's not here."

"Bring us quite a lot, Songpol," I said. "We'll have at least four dishes. One chicken, one pork and then three other things that you choose. Actually, we'll have five dishes."

"Five dishes will be too much for you," said Songpol.

"It doesn't matter," I said.

We got round to the subject of my weight loss. Joanna said, "Before it looked like if you'd put anything sharp next to you, you'd explode." She now thinks I look very handsome. Very intelligent girl. Her job is secure.

I'm hopeless with chopsticks. Joanna is used to using them very well. She took something out and said, "This is a bit dodgy, I'll give it to you." It was pink. A bit of fish or shellfish. In fact, it was very good. We also had pad krapow beef in a basil, garlic and chilli sauce - and some steamed rice.

It's a simple place but the taste of the food is excellent. We then got a green chicken curry. Joanna said, "There's one more dish coming. Can we take a doggy bag?" The chicken curry was in a coconut sauce and I had some white rice with it. Then we had some sweet and sour pork. There really were some very nice tastes.

Joanna said, "They're very pleasant, they smile. It makes such a difference when somebody smiles." She's absolutely right. Songpol started to tell us about the desserts. He listed mango and sticky rice and golden banana. The latter is deep fried with flour and topped with syrup. He also suggested sticky rambutan, which is like a lychee.

It started to get a bit cold. I was sat in a short-sleeved shirt. I thought I was going to have to put my heavy leather jacket on but then Joanna came round and put some pink flossy thing around my shoulders.

"It's mink," she said. I sat there hoping that I wasn't about to meet some animal rights people while wearing this cape. I imagine that they were all eating salad somewhere rather than Thai food.

We finished with the mango and sticky rice. I wasn't mad about the rice but I was starting to feel quite full. I'd had a lot of those banana things, quite a lot of the mango, the ice-cream and six dishes beforehand. Joanna ate some of the sticky rice. "This grows on you actually," she said.

  • PS I have been in hospital since January 2 in Barbados, from which I took a Swiss Air-Ambulance to the London Clinic. I have had two operations (both serious!) but such is my dedication, I shall continue to amuse unless I kick the bucket!

    Michael filed this column from his hospital bed - we all wish him a speedy recovery

    Winner's letters

    Surely you meant your millionaires' call last week to be, "We have nothing to lose but our chins"!
    Andrew Siddons, Walsall

    So you think the Sandy Lane New Year's Eve buffet "was literally the finest buffet I've ever seen in my life". I'm scratching my head to fathom in what other sense than the literal sense you might think this to be so. As for your millionaires' protest placard based on "We have nothing to lose but our chains", a neat alternative might be, "We have nothing to lose but our brains", if you hadn't already done so.
    Stuart Robertson, East Yorkshire

    I was similarly dismayed to read that Mr Langlade, manager designate of the Sandy Lane hotel, plans to abandon the sumptuous New Year's Eve buffet because "the guests could not get to the food (and) the tent was a great nuisance". Does he not realise you've lost weight and are no longer in danger of overshadowing the other revellers?
    Lulu Larkin, East Sussex

    How wonderful to see the great man on television doing the job he does best . . . selling insurance. But where have his teeth gone? Not a sign of them. Has he worn them out or just forgotten to put them in?
    Mike Clement, Suffolk