David Thompson's enduring love affair with Thai cooking shows at his first Bangkok restaurant
In the homeland of the characteristic, unequivocal and "highly treasured" Thai cuisine, to seriously discuss why one should check out a Thai restaurant run by an out-of-town chef, especially when he's a blue-eyed, brown-haired Australian from London, may sound paradoxical.
David Thompson is the founder and head chef of The Halkin London hotel's Nahm, the first and one of only two Thai restaurants in the world to have been awarded a celebrated Michelin Star.
After nine glorious years since receiving the star in 2001, Thompson decided to go for a new, pivotal challenge: opening an authentic Thai restaurant in the Land of Smiles.
The overseas extension of the globally famous Thai eatery opened last month in Bangkok (this sounds ironic already) at the chic Metropolitan hotel on Sathon Tai Road.
As a food writer and sometime trend-watcher, it would be inexcusable for me to miss out one of the most talked-about restaurants of the year (yes, I've heard enough of the controversy) simply because it's not run by locals.
And, as a native who now has the prerogative to comment after a three hours dining there, I believe that Nahm will impress foreigners and Thais alike with its wider view of Thai cuisine where originality and authenticity are valued as the key to good practice.
Thailand's version of Nahm, on the Thursday evening that we visited, looked more like a casual cosmopolitan eatery in the West than a typical upper-class Thai restaurant in Bangkok.
No visual elements of Thainess, for examples, glittering ornaments, valuable antiques or ceremonial costumes, were found in this 95-seat, waterfront space. The crowd was a mix of expatriates and local executives. But what's more remarkable was what on their tables - the kind of humble dinner setting you'd usually find only in Thai family households.
Unlike those with beautiful presentation, Nahm's fare came ungarnished in simple-looking, lightweight diningware. That was to make it easier for the guests to share the food, which is a common eating style among Thais, and a highly recommended dining manner for Nahm's customers.
Dinner here begins with complimentary canape. That day, ma hoh, or ancient-style savoury snack served on pineapple slices, was presented.
Every single item on Nahm's decent-size menu is a character. From the four-item appetiser list, I was most impressed with the southern grilled mussels (250 baht). Prepared in korlae-style with curry-infused coconut cream and smoked with coconut husks, the shellfish offered a delightful mouthfeel while yielding a slightly sweet curry flavour and pleasant smoky fragrance.
Mee krob (200 baht) was also worth having. The treat unified all the essential ingredients and flavours of the Central Plain's popular sweet and crispy noodles in an ingenious bite-size portion.
Meanwhile, nam phrik noom, or smoky Chiang Mai chilli relish (150 baht), served in petite morsels on pork scratchings and quail eggs, scrumptiously represented the cuisine of the North.
Not many restaurants serve gaeng jued, or Thai-style, mild-tasting clear soup, and certainly none offer the rare selection Nahm does. The crab and snake gourd soup with egg, pepper and coriander (200 baht) and the clear soup of roast duck with Thai basil and young coconut flesh (200 baht) tasted good both by itself and with rice.
And if tangy and spicy is your preferred cup of soup, then order tom yum kai, or hot and sour chicken soup with clams, straw mushrooms, lemongrass, chilli and lime (220 baht).
Because rice is the most significant part in Thai gastronomy, the restaurant serves warm jasmine rice at no charge when you order any entree.
Also great with rice were khruang jim and nam phrik, local-style spicy relish and dipping paste usually accompanied by a platter of vegetables and other side items.
I recommended you try nam phrik makham on, or young tamarind relish mixed with minced prawns, pork and shrimp paste and served with braised mackerel, sweet pork and vegetables (400 baht). The sour, sweet and peppery relish intermingled perfectly with the accompanying assortment of veggies, which featured young olive leaves, young honey cucumber sticks, and deep-fried crispy acacia tips.
One dish you'd likely not find at a fine restaurant, especially one run by a farang, is pla ra. This northeastern-style cured fish has a reputation of being so smelly that non-Isan people often refuse to even try it.
Here, the homemade pla ra by chef Thompson comes in the form of lon - a sweet and creamy dip. The cured fish was simmered in coconut cream with minced pork, prawns and grilled catfish meat (360 baht). The strong and salty flavour of the fish was nicely toned down by the sweet cream as well as by aromatic herbs including lemongrass, krachai, shallot, kaffir lime skin and leaves.
As timid first-timers, my three dining partners and I amazingly found it difficult to stop emptying the chef's lon pla ra. So, out of his own curiosity, one of them asked what Thompson's choice of fish for making pla ra was - to which he politely replied in his rough-accented Thai: "It's pla kradi from Sing Buri krub", and that has given us a verdict.
As our dinner warmly progressed, we passed some ancient and eccentric dishes like gaeng khi lek kratai yang, or grilled rabbit curry with cassia leaves, and gaeng tai pla, or fish kidney curry, in the restaurant's collection of curries and settled for a less challenging one.
The coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab, or gaeng kati poo ma (500 baht), offered a creamy sweet taste with a touch of fieriness. The curry was perfumed by calamansi limes (som sa) zest, and can be enjoyed with khanom jeen (fermented rice noodles) or rice.
Phad phed kob na (400 baht) was our choice of stir-fried item. As a person born and raised in a big city, I found this rustic dish, featuring frog meat stir-fried with chillies, turmeric, holy basil and cumin leaves, though, enjoyable, a bit too earthy for my "urban" tastebuds.
Before continuing to dessert, the restaurant offered, as equivalent to European sorbet, a small portion of green mango, laced with calamansi lime-infused salt and sugar, as something to cleanse and refresh the palate. The fruit - crunchy, fragrant and zesty - was addictive.
Nahm's repertoire of sweets, artistically created by a Thai chef, Thongsak Yordwai, Thompson's kitchen partner and dessert master, is to be changed from season to season.
Full review at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/leisure/cuisine/201484/star-quality-knows-no-borders