Bangkok Post reviews
Tantalizing Italian-Thai cuisinology transfer
- Writer: Bangkok Post Editorial
- Published: December 13, 2011 at 9:54 am
da Vinci bids 'Buon Natale!' with absolutely first class Italian festive fare by Somchai
The proof, as they say, is in the panacotta. I've been lucky enough to enjoy some of the best Italian food at many of Bangkok's top Italian restaurants over the past several years, and I've become pretty picky as a result.
But when I recently dined at da Vinci, The Rembrandt Hotel & Towers Bangkok's consistently upper echelon Tuscan villa style Italian establishment, on a dress rehearsal of the longer of two special set menus it is offering, lunch and dinner, on this coming Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I was completely confounded.
Having mentally attributed straight As to the array, from the amuse bouche trio to the trio of fomaggio, I was very pleasantly surprised when afterwards introduced to Chef, who goes by the single moniker of Somchai. For this tall, switched-on, determined-looking Thai chef incontrovertibly belies the notion widely held that only thoroughbred Italians, and possibly a few Americans, can really do Italian.
On closer questioning I began to understand how it happened that Somchai came to be not only in possession of the recipes and techniques but a vividly apparent empathy, nay passion, for Italian cuisine. And, what's more, such mastery as to even be able to innovate creations that actually add to the opus; the surest sign of all that one has gone beyond being merely an imitator and really goddit.
It appears that Somchai, straight out of catering college, found uptake for his nascent skills in a top-end hotel's international restaurant, wherein he instinctively gravitated to the Italian kitchen, and has never looked back. Along the way he was mentored by the legendary Luca who, knowing a bit about raw, hungry talent himself, inspired and encouraged Somchai to become a star Italian chef in his own right.
"With Luca I got to the point where I started to develop my own style which I wanted the scope to put into practice," he recalls.
In seeking a worthy vessel that would allow him chef de cuisine freedom of the kitchen, Somchai's odyssey next led him to West Coast America which he, in turn, parlayed into a sufficient reference for da Vinci, closely supervised by the hotel's affable GM Eric Hallin, to become interested. No mean achievement in itself.
The meal began with three exquisite flavours that eloquently captured the true spirit behind the chef's amuse bouche tradition: an expression of chef's welcome and desire to please as well as an introduction to his philosophy and a tantalizing foretaste of the pleasures to come.
Here the protocol was entrusted to three mouthful-size morsels: chicken consomme in a shooter, a particular labour of love when you consider the effort that goes into what in the end is no more than a punctuation mark, crossed with a crispened sage leaf that set up a fine flavour dynamic; Hokkaido scallop, subtly infused with the essence from a lemongrass skewer on which it was pan-fried, and dressed with mildly spiced salsa and micro greens, another tour de force, and; fresh crabmeat salad with capsicum, onion and lime juice_sheer delight.
The complimentary basket of mixed bread rolls and grissini also satisfied, not only with their crisp outsides and cotton wool insides but with the accompanying infused olive oil selection: a choice of chilli, lemon skin, garlic, rosemary, or parmesan, which was the one I chose and transpired to be a pungent but very palatable complement to the aromatic bread.
And so to the antipasti; another three-piece suite, this time of octopus, salmon and chorizo sausage. This was a very artful plate where the disparate main ingredients were harmonised by their shared affinity with the sweet 'n sharp salsa verde, fresh herb leaves and thin strips of mild red chilli. Marvellously firm and succulent sausage, surprising salmon (because though house-smoked it was served as a steak rather than gravlax), and exotic pickled octopus accentuated the sense of exclusivity.
And so to the soup. By its orange colour and furry texture it was obviously cream of pumpkin but the extra sheen transpired to result from infusions of precious saffron and truffle oil which also enriched the flavour, as did a sprinkling of crispened pine nuts. But the thing that really made the dish out of the ordinary was the addition in the middle of shrimp wantons, without cases, seasoned with fresh coriander. Such adornments are not uncommon in festive dishes and this one turned the basic broth into a dish that needs another name to express its delectable singularity.
A good start, then, and time for another punctuation mark; this time an intensely pallet-refreshing sherbet. This, too, excelled. Orange was a good choice both for its colour and awakening properties but the flavour needed to be special, and was, thanks to painstaking reduction of large volumes of juice down to an intensely flavoured concentrate that was well set off by what Somchai described as "a sprinkle" of dark rum.
All set then for the main event: tournedos Rossini, again executed with cordon bleu finesse. The 150 day grain-fed Australian wagyu fillet, marbling score 6, was perfectly medium rare and wonderfully tender and of course the French foie gras atop could do no wrong. Ensuring that it was as comforting as it was impressive were creamy mashed potatoes, Japanese edamame beans, baby carrot, roasted balsamic shallots onions, thyme jus and a decorative sprig of rosemary resting appositely like an uprooted Christmas tree on the steak. Hallelujah indeed!
By this time, I was struggling a bit but at least we were coming into the home straight.
Next was a plate of excellent artisanal Italian cheeses - Gorgonzola, taleggio, pecorino pepper, with prune, dried apricot, dried fig and walnuts as fruity, nutty sounding boards and counterfoils.
Dessert turned out to be chocolate torsion, like a large chocolate brownie without the nuts and with warm, molten Valrhona chocolate oozing out of the middle. Dusted with snowy icing sugar and complemented by almond nougatine crisp, vanilla sauce and milk ice cream, it was a suitably grand finale.
Not bad for Bt1,599++!
As mentioned, this is very good food and the same presumably applies if you opt for the shorter menu (Bt999++) which comprises: Homemade Italian style bread with infused oils; bruschetta, ricotta wonton, shrimp dumpling; Antipasti of marinated salmon, tuna tartar, Citrus dressing, carponata; Beef consomme, chicken tortellini, tio pepe; Orange sherbet & dark rum; Honey duck breast, spinach frittata, Mash, marsala reduction, and; Tiramisu.
da Vinci's decor evokes a rural Italian manner house rather than the more prevalent these day Milanese minimalism. Stippled white plaster walls, flagstone floor, wooden beams across the ceiling capture a cosier time and place. But it is not without sophistication; ranging from excellent prints of some of the great eponymous Leonardo's drawings to the odd antique frame without a picture in an enigmatic bow to modern mores. Should your attention wander to outside, your gaze will be greeted by the deep aquamarine of the hotel's swimming pool which is actually quite refreshing.
Most of all, one feels that da Vinci wants to make you feel welcome. The soundtrack helps to achieve that by insouciantly mixing impassioned Italian pop with garter-busting arias, though fortunately not at concert volumes.
A richly deserved standing ovation, then, for Khun Somchai and a very tempting festive dining proposition for the rest of us.
Rembrandt Hotel & Towers Bangkok. 19 Sukhumvit Soi 18, Bangkok. Tel. 02 261 7100.