Few cities in the world depend so heavily on hotels as much as Doha. These properties are major players in town; they employ thousands of highly visible hospitality professionals, manage royal functions for visiting dignitaries, and more pertinently to me, feed the city’s rapacious diners.
Up pops The Westin Doha, a sprawling oasis of zen in the bustle of Bin Mahmoud. Walking from the lobby to the outdoor pool gardens, I can’t quite place where I am. The landscaped grounds and tranquil ponds put me in a happy, relaxed, vacation mode, a feeling Thais would describe as “sabai”. How apt as I head towards Sabai Thai the restaurant.
I know I’m on the right path as the sounds of the ranat ek grow more distinct. The musician playing modern tunes on the traditional instrument is a clever touch, as is the massive gong by the entrance. I dare you not to hit it to announce your arrival (or at least take a selfie/snapshat/social-media-what-you).
The initial impressions are beyond promising. I like the wooden furniture accented with Thai fabrics; the strategically placed columns; and the terrace tables set over the water. The décor is warm and tasteful, as though beamed from the exotic resorts of Hua Hin and Koh Samui.
The atmosphere echoes the food, too… traditional dishes, unexaggerated in taste but generous in portion. The pomelo salad receives highest praise. Crispy shallots and toasted coconut twirl playfully with the citrus segments and prawns.
My dining party agrees that the pad thai with prawns and bean sprouts is as classic as it gets, slightly tangy with tamarind and pleasantly sweet from palm sugar.
The one curry I sample could do with a bit more kick. The roasted duck and lychee combination is a staple from the Thai palace kitchens. It’s exceedingly mild here. I am one of the biggest hot pepper pansies I’ve ever met, but find myself yearning some chili index. The flavours are all there, I just need to sweat.
My favourite dish of the evening is the steamed sea bass. It’s so fragrant I smell the trinity of lemongrass, ginger and lime the whole time the dish is on the table, like some kind of herbal marine aromatherapy. The flesh is tender and plump. And at QR60 for the whole fish, the price seems too good to be true.
Speaking of threes, I’m a fan of the triumvirate of Thai desserts: mango sticky rice, water chestnut rubies and coconut ice cream. They all veer on being teeth-clenchingly sweet, but that’s Thai cuisine for you. Of the three, the mango dessert is prettiest. Glutinous rice is naturally dyed with Asian pigeonwings to take on a muted blue hue. Perhaps just an aesthetic enhancement, but one I appreciate.
As with every new restaurant, the big question everyone wants to know… would I go back? That would be a very loud, unabashed “Yes.” We have a slew of Thai places in Doha, but none quite like Sabai Thai, with its genuinely lovely setting and effortless cooking that will leave you feeling very sabai indeed.