I first visited Iyara Thai Restaurant a few weeks ago with a friend who lives locally. She had never been, but had heard good things about it, so we decided to make it the venue for our long-overdue catch-up dinner. Since I hadn’t intended to make Iyara the subject of a restaurant review, I had left my camera at home. But I was so blown away by the excellence of the food and the friendliness of the service that I just had to return the following week with my regular dining partner so that I could put pen to paper. Situated a few minutes’ walk from South Wimbledon tube station, Iyara is a small, pleasantly decorated local restaurant with a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. It’s family run, with the owner acting as bartender, maître d’ and head waiter all rolled into one. That can mean some long-ish wait times between courses at busy times, but never detracts from his enthusiasm. On both my visits, he came over to chat when we paid our bill, keen to share his passion for authentic, fresh Thai cuisine and making much of his ability to tailor his dishes to cater for diners’ allergies if necessary.
I was keen for my dining partner to experience the starters I had enjoyed on my initial visit, but also wanted to sample some of the other tempting items from the broad starters menu. It therefore seemed only logical to splash out and share the Iyara Mixed Starter Plate – a generous selection of Fish Cakes, Chicken Satay, BBQ Honey Pork, Duck Spring Rolls, and Tempura Prawns all served with a variety of dips. Every one of them was a delight. The fish cakes were firm textured, not too fishyand had a brilliant twist of lemongrass which really lifted the flavour. The chicken satay was perfectly chargrilled and had a delicate but defined kick of spice, especially when topped with a dollop of the accompanying sticky peanut sauce. The “tempura” prawns were coated in golden panko breadcrumbs rather than actual tempura batter but the slight mislabelling didn’t make them any less enjoyable and they went perfectly with a spiced plum sauce that was one of the four accompanying dips. My two favourites on the plate though just had to be the BBQ honey pork – wonderfully succulent skewers of grilled pork, marinated in a sweet yet tangy barbecue sauce, and the duck spring rolls – fantastically flaky thin layers of pastry cooked to give an audible crunch when bitten into and stuffed to bursting with tender shredded duck and mixed Asian vegetables.
Moving onto main course, I was tempted by several of the traditional Thai curries (red, green, massaman and more), and some of the slightly more unusual seafood dishes (like the deep fried crispy whole seabass with chilli sauce and sweet basil), but I just couldn’t quite resist the call of that old favourite, Pad Thai. A good Pad Thai is often the mark of a very good Thai restaurant and Iyara’s was no exception. The flat rice noodles were served just al dente, with the crunchy beansprouts providing a satisfying contrast in texture. The sauce hit just the right balance between sweet and sour with the distinct tamarind flavour tempered by the soft, smooth pieces of egg that were scattered through the dish and the accompanying smattering of chopped peanuts. The whole thing was really brought together by the sharp juice from the fresh lime wedge which I squeezed liberally over the top of it all. I had gone for prawn Pad Thai (chicken, beef and veggie options are also available), and the central feature of the dish was beautifully presented – butterflied and cooked to perfection, served peeled but with tails on for visual effect. My only slight criticism was that I could have done with a couple more of them – four prawns don’t quite make a main course in my book. In presentation as much as in taste, Iyara really takes pride in its food – both our starter plate and my Pad Thai were garnished with intricately hand carved carrot flowers. Unlike many such garnishes in other restaurants, Iyara’s carrots were just as fresh as the dishes they accompanied and I thoroughly enjoyed crunching my way through them as a sort of palate cleanser at the end of each course. My dining partner’s main of choice was an enormous bowlful of red chicken curry. The sauce had a proper kick of spice from the dried long red chillis used in the cooking, but this was tamed by a generous dose of coconut milk and, together with the bamboo shoots and basil leaves, the overall effect was a delightfully delicate, fragrant dish. A simple side of Thai fragrant rice was all that was needed to soak up the sauce and make an excellent meal.
Drinks-wise, Iyara offers the standard soft drinks, a couple of different Thai beers, and a short but well-chosen and reasonably priced selection of wines. Having thoroughly enjoyed an aromatic Gewurztraminer on my first visit, I decided this time to sample a rose – the Torre Alto Pinot Grigio – which was pleasantly soft with distinct strawberry notes, but managed to avoid over-sweetness. Iyara’s dessert menu is remarkably brief, offering just one Thai dessert (mango and sticky rice, only available in season), or handmade ice-cream from a small company based in Kent. My dining partner and I had thought to try some ice-cream (honeycomb flavour did sound enticing), but in the time we waited to give our order, changed our minds and decided just to get the bill instead. Another point in Iyara’s favour is the value for money it offers – despite having really gone to town on the starter plate, our bill came in at just under £23 per head including tip for two courses and a drink each. So, with fantastically flavoursome, authentic Thai food that’s simply bursting with freshness, friendly service and a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere, you’re definitely onto a winner with Iyara. Final rating? A fabulous four and a half Forks-Up. (Add an extra couple of prawns to the Pad Thai and you’d be looking at a full five)!Iyara Thai Restaurant 136 Merton Road Wimbledon London SW19 1EH T: 020 8543 6213