In spite of their laid-back charm Rufus and Ladd are the sharpest knives in the block, having made a huge success of their compact Thai family bistro in Oxford’s once arid culinary landscape.
Oli’s Thai has become so popular that you can’t just walk in. Regulars plan weeks in advance, with military precision, cunningly block booking to make sure they will get to savour their favourite dish- prawn crackers with a zingy peanut dip (“We’re not like other places- we don’t charge if you want more small extras”), Thai fish cakes, crispy chickpeas with spicy salad, Aubergine curry, confit duck panang, prawns with sweet chilli and cashews, seared beef with garlic, various small salads, sweetcorn fritters, slaw and sweet chilli, Portugese custard tart. Nice little wine and beer list and that’s it. Every mouthful cooked with care and finesse by Ladd, dishes served by Rufus and his staff who are trained “ruthlessly” by Rufus. “The things I make them do,” he shakes his head.”Clean skirting boards, walls, keep a sharp eye for customer’s needs, think one step ahead, anticipate…”
That’s just what’s wanted from a neighbourhood restaurant: personal service, a predictable, small, excellent menu, acknowledgement that you’re there from deliberate choice, and that proof of your loyalty is that you show up on a regular basis.
Rufus explains, “There were two models to hand- the classic small Italian family place and the other which kept repeating its successful formula and expanded into branch after branch- like Byronburgers. Oli’s Thai is more like a local Brooklyn eatery. I was going to cook and Ladd was going to wait at tables. But reversing it works much better- our customers like to see Ladd cooking through the hatch and they feel comfortable with me serving.”
The two met at the famous Chiang-Mai Kitchen off the High Street, which was owned by a family friend of Rufus. He has had the most astonishingly varied catering experience in London and Oxford which has taught him almost everything he knows about the business. Then one day David Blake asked them both to come and cook at Worton Organic Farm’s original weekend field kitchen, which was a thumping success. “That gave us the confidence to start our own. I never set out to make money as such. That’s the wrong attitude as far as I’m concerned.”
So what is the secret of their incredible reputation?
“We know what we want. We waited until we found a site on Magdalen Road, round the corner from our home. We didn’t want a Thai ambiance, but a cool minimalist interior. We work to suit ourselves. I have to be very strong-minded and bypass what people would expect us to do- not everything is organic for instance- we don’t allow prams or children in the evening among other things. It has to be system that fits in with who we are.”
Why Oli’s Thai? Oli is their 7 year old son who used to serve at Worton Farm when he was a chubby-cheeked 4 year old.
Don’t be huffy about the booking policy. Either become a regular, booking ahead of course, or show up at lunch time. You can grab a stool at the bar and eat there. While you wait for your meal sip a glass of fresh lime, chock full of lime quarters, mint and ice. Wonderful stuff.
38 Magdalen Road, Oxford OX4 1RB