ADAM COURTNEY eats at Nipa at the Lancaster London hotel in Bayswater
I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with Thai food. Ever since I threw up a particularly rancid Pad Thai in one of those cockroach (and backpacker) infested holes on the Khaosan Road, I've struggled to muster much enthusiasm for a cuisine that, when I have reacquainted myself with it, has been mainly cooked badly by friends.
My experience in restaurants hasn't been up to much, either - I was once very nearly ejected from a bring-your-own establishment after the batty woman owner took umbrage when I politely mentioned I'd ordered a red, not a green, curry.
But I'm not one to hold a grudge, and it would be absurd to damn an entire cuisine, so, on recommendation, I headed to Nipa on the first floor of the Lancaster London hotel with a mind that had been well and truly opened by the knowledge the restaurant has won approval from none other than the Thai government.
Apparently, when they're not dispatching soldiers to knock off demonstrators, the country's politicians dish out 'Thai Select' awards to what they deem to be the very best eateries, and Nipa is one of only 15 Thai restaurants in Britain bestowed with this seal of quality.
You can feel it as soon as you exit the lift. Dominated by teak panels, the restaurant's furnishings and fantastic ornaments are unmistakably authentic and took me back a decade to a particularly lovely eatery in Chiang Mai. The difference, of course, was that I was now in London but the glorious view of Hyde Park was no less impressive.
The fresh flowers dotted around the dining room added to the warmth, while the staff were disarming, friendly and welcoming.
After some delicious spicy crackers, I was definitely excited. We decided to share a mix of starters, featuring fishcakes, chicken satay, dumplings which you could wrap in lettuce and add coriander and chilli, and other assorted morsels.
It was all good, particularly the dumplings, but what came next bordered on perfection, and there was a lot of it. Soft shell crab with spicy mango salad, dry red curry with chilli and Thai basil leaves, pad Thai, stir fried mixed vegetables. It was almost too much, both in terms of quantity and the depth and variety of flavours, which bombarded the senses, leaving me needing to stop but being unable to do so.
The quality of the food was extraordinary - the crab, amazingly fresh, was wrapped in batter that was light and airy, and it was complimented brilliantly by the fruity, spicy salad, which was an aromatic delight.
If my previous Pad Thai memory left me feeling nauseous, this one ensured future recollections of the famous dish will be altogether more pleasant. It had that perfect Thai balance of sweet, hot and sour and the prawns were soft and juicy.
The flavour assault continued with a strong chilli and garlic hit from the vegetables, while the tangy spice of the red curry, which had just the right chicken/sauce ratio, hit the throat hard but didn't leave that unpleasant lingering heat of a dish too heavy on the chilli.
I'm exhausted just recalling it all. It's not for the faint-hearted, but for those that like their cooking packing a punch - or more like a knock-out blow - it's a dream. The head chef, the 65-year-old Mrs Toopchoi, is a genius.
We shared, somehow, banana fritters at the end, which, you've guessed it, were great, if way too much after the feast we'd just devoured.
They say you can't trust a politician, but they must be cut from a different cloth in Thailand because Nipa was every inch as good as the government award promised.
* A two-course meal with sides costs about £27 per person.
* Nipa, 1st Floor, Lancaster London, Lancaster Terrace W2 2TY
Call 0207 551 6039 or visit www.niparestaurant.co.uk