The hippocampus (there's one in each hemisphere of everybody's brain) has a lot to answer for. It's responsible, see, for helping us to form long-term, declarative memories – the ones that contribute to the personal autobiographies that we all carry around in our heads.
The hippocampus is particularly good at helping us link emotion with taste and smell, which is why certain tastes or smells can trigger a sense of recall in all of us, sometimes even before we consciously remember the particular event in question. Heck, Proust's hippocampus turned a miniature sponge cake dipped in tea (y'know, that madeleine?) into one of European literature's most powerful metaphors, while thousands upon thousands of writers, poets, musicians et al have turned personal backstories triggered by food memories into tangible, artistic flesh (I'm not sure that Millie's My Boy Lollipop fits into this category, even though I like to believe it does.)
But okay, here's one for the boffins to sort out: my most recent food memory doesn't even involve actual food... but a table. A table. A table? Yup, a table: a small, heavy table with intricately-carved wooden legs and a polished glass top, beneath which a detailed snapshot of Thai family life had been reconstructed through the medium of intricately-decorated, chiselled, sculpted wood: busy fisherman, hardworking farmers, beautifully-dressed ladies, lapping waves, the leaves of trees wafting on a breeze... that table told a story.
And in its own way, that table (or perhaps the one next to it, or the one behind that; there are many tables in the little pageant I'm describing here) told part of my story too, because I'd sat at it before, many, many moons ago, when gorgeous little Thai restaurant Mai Thai used to be in Bath city centre on the corner of South Parade and Manvers Street, which is now all part of the Hotel Indigo complex.
To get all lit-ref again, the past is a foreign country... but I'm not sure that I did things differently there, even 25+ years ago. I'd go to Mai Thai as a fledgling Bathonian on my own when the mood took me and, later on, with friends, or colleagues, or even the odd date as Bath began to morph into home rather than somewhere I had only just started to dream of laying my hat. Why Mai Thai? Because it was familiar but a little bit exotic; because it was supremely affordable but still felt special; because it was welcoming, not snooty.
When Mai Thai closed its doors on its city centre incarnation, I felt like a little part of me had closed with it; the thought of never allowing those fascinating tabletop glimpses into a magical otherworld to distract me even from the joys of a Thai menu (let alone good company) was too much for my hippocampus to deal with. But then...
Towards the end of 2017, Mai Thai did the phoenix-from-the-ashes thing and opened up in a cosy neighbourhood location on Chelsea Road (Weston), where the legendary little Indian restaurant Desh once held court. Okay, many of us also mourned the passing of Desh, but look at it this way: a glossy coffee conglomerate tried to take over the very same premises but weren't fast enough; small mercies, eh?
And so it came to pass that, five years since Mai Thai reopened and almost 30 years since I first took a seat at one of those tables, I took a seat at one of those very same tables for a trip down memory lane that led to me celebrating the right here, right now, with a glass of very agreeable Chevanceau Blanc from an equally agreeably-priced bottle in hand and a former Mai Thai date that turned into an affair of 17+ years (and counting!) across that table from me.
It being a chilly Monday evening n'all, we were the only people raising a glass in the dining room; everybody else, it seemed, were opting for Mai Thai to-go. But we stayed put and allowed ourselves to be wrapped up in a warm fug of glittery, Thai-trad surroundings (so much subtle bling to choose from!), the tantalising smells from the little open kitchen beyond the sparking bar further nudging the hippocampus into gear.
Our Mixed Starter Platter brought spicy chicken satay, delectably saucy marinated spare ribs, moist Thai fishcakes, heavenly pork/shrimp dumplings and crispy Thai spring rolls together in one super-vibrant, super-fresh flavour party for just £8.50pp. Portions are generous to say the least, and even the dinky little pots of dipping sauces were super-pretty; attention to detail definitely goes large here... and most definitely wasn't overlooked in our main courses.
Prawn Pa Nang (panang, phaneng, phanaeng?) is my go-to Thai dish of choice regardless of how the menu spells it – and the Mai Thai version is a corker: huge, juicy prawns bathed in a thick, semi-dry, salty/sweet peanut sauce zhuzhed up with galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, coriander, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste and white pepper, that intrinsic, subtle complexity amped up to the max. Mr Pig's Chicken Pad Cha ticked all those 'complex' boxes too, bringing wild ginger, Thai peppercorns, more lime leaves and sweet basil to a very sophisticated plate-party that couldn't have been bettered. We shared a huge, overflowing bowl of coconut rice, and we had plenty of that wine, and even with a tip for lovely service our bill didn't scrape past the £60 mark.
Familiar but a little bit exotic; supremely affordable but definitely special; welcoming, and definitely not snooty? Tick, tick, tick, all these years on. As for those tables that tell a story... priceless memories recalled, new memories made. Gotta love that hippocampus, eh?
- Mai Thai, 10 Chelsea Road, Weston, Bath BA1 3DU Tel: 01225 445557 (closed on Sundays – you have been warned) https://www.maithaibath.co.uk/