Fine (Thai) dining in Bangkok

High end dining in foreign countries can be tricky.  Reading reviews is of no help – there’s always an equal balance between those who loved it and those who thought it was over priced, over-hyped and not worthwhile.  Make up your own mind.

I had wanted to eat at Nahm for a long time.  I’ve been a fan of David Thompson ever since he first came onto the Sydney food scene, way back when.  My sister gave me a copy of his first cookbook back in the early 90s and it has become one of my favourite recipe books.  I’ve learnt a great deal from those recipes but I’ve also enjoyed the experience of eating at his earlier restaurants, Sailors Thai and for more causal bites, the Sailors Cantina.  I also jump at any opportunity to make a booking when he arrives in Sydney a guest chef at the likes of the Bentley Bar.  Rare treats.  So I was not surprisingly very excited about the prospect of eating at Nahm (I’d also read and seen interviews with him in Bangkok talking about what it’s like to be a white person cooking high end Thai food: the Thais don’t like it – something to do with grandmothers and eggs.

Interestingly, the reviews on TripAdvisor were on the whole, not positive and then again there was that whole hype about eating at a restaurant that had been named World # 1 (now knocked back to #2).   But I had asked some people who are foodies what their experience of Nahm was and they advised that we go – that it was an experience not worth missing.

Whilst browsing the best places to eat in Bangkok I also came across the Issaya Siamese Club.  This place got very good reviews so I uhmed and ahhed about which place to go to and then decided to book the Issaya.  Also they were very prompt in their reply, which Nahm wasn’t.  The other thing that made me wonder about Nahm is that it seemed very formal – in the Como Hotel – and had a strict dress code.  I was planning to travel very light – no heels or silk dresses.

I was also considering Bo.Lan.  Again this place resonated with me because of their use of sustainable ingredients and the fact that both chefs Bo (Duangporn Songivsava ) and Lan (Dylan Jones) who are a husband and wife team had worked with David Thompson – Jones back in Sydney and Bo in London.  I’d also seen an interview with them and was impressed with their attitude to food and Thai culture. Bo is a native Thai and has been presented with the inaugural award for Asia’s Best Female Chef, as part of The 50 Best Restaurants in Asia Awards 2013.

So I was tossing up.  Finally, I decided that my husband’s birthday would be celebrated with lunch at Issaya and then we would have dinner at Nahm just before leaving Bangkok.  And then I thought, what the hell, here we are in Bangkok with some of the best Thai fine dining restaurants in the world, we’d be crazy not to try them all, so I booked Bo.Lan as well.  And so glad I did.  While the Issaya Club made my heart sing – such a joyous experience in a gorgeous setting – Bo.Lan’s food was sensational. 

It strikes me as very odd that the most negative reviews came from Asian people.  Theyir comments generally were that you can get the same food at street stalls much cheaper.  I think that they not only miss the point – you just don’t get this calibre of food on the streets – but there seems to be reluctance to pay for high end Asian food (barring Chinese).  Whist most of these people would not bat an eyelid at paying exorbitant prices for Italian or French food (some of it very ho hum), somehow paying the same for Thai is unthinkable. Plus, I don’t think they fully appreciate what constitutes a fine dining experience – it’s not just the setting and the great attentive service, it’s the play of ingredients, of textures and tastes; its taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary that sings in your mouth, scintillates your taste buds and keeps you wondering how the hell they did it. Worth every penny (or baht) in my book. 

So although I’ve yet to eat at Nahm I have packed my heels and silk dress and look forward to the experience. Meanwhile, I can thoroughly recommend splurging out on the food and wine at both the Issaya and Bo.Lan.

Bangkok traffic – an exercise in patience

Enduring a long slow taxi ride when you arrive in a foreign country can be frustrating, especially when it’s made longer due to traffic not moving. We once hit KL late at night and sped our way out of the airport only to have the taxi slow as though it was winding down. It always amazes me that there never seems to be any visible cause for the congestion – just too many cars – and then suddenly it all opens up and we speed away once more. This particular night we were finally within sight of our hotel but it took another 20 minutes to travel the few blocks to get there. Had it not been for our luggage I would have hopped out and walked. It was so frustrating. Especially at the end of a long flight. When flying into KL we now ensure that it’s not on Saturday: seems like everyone and their kid(s) are out and about in their cars crawling along at a snail’s pace. 

But nothing prepared me for Bangkok traffic. The roadways are blocked with cars; they have major works in place but I understand that this is generally the case and a friend of mine said that she used to leave home at 5am to beat the traffic and stay until after 8pm for the same reason.  

We were on our way to lunch at the Issaya Club and GoogleMaps informmed me it would take about 20 minutes. Our driver colleted us at 11.30. At 12.18 we were still sitting in traffic moving at less than 5kph. That’s when we were moving at all. Our trip took us over an hour. The thing that amazes me is that Thai people accept this as the norm. Perhaps they are a more serene people. There doesn’t seem to be any road rage (well not that I’ve seen). And they don’t seem to get frustrated either. As a passenger I feel like reaching for a Valium to still my frustration. Strange really; here I am on holiday with nothing to do nowhere to go (I called the restaurant and advised them of the delay so all was good on that front) yet I’m annoyed. Obviously it’s time to chill, take a breath and let go of trying to change the things I can not. So deep breath and focus on the glass of champagne awaiting me.  All will be well.

Eating our way around Bangkok

Our visit to Bangkok was primarily to eat:  at street stalls, markets and high end restaurants.  One of the joys of being in Bangkok is that there seems to be someone cooking something at even turn.  Down the little alleys and side streets, along the tiny canal walkways, at the many markets and along the main streets. And then there are all the food malls with their more up-market offerings – essentially the same but also more expansive and encompassing a greater range of international food.  These food malls seem to the place of choice for locals – clean, exotic and, importantly, air-conditioned.  We steared clear of these – they’re jut too busy – but we did find ourselves one day sitting at an oyster bar at the very up-scale Paragon food court, enjoying a glass of champagne with a section of very fine oysters from around the world.  This was a bit of  treat for us in lieu of my birthday non-dinner.  It felt very much like sitting at the oyster bar at David Jones in Sydney – a nice little interlude whilst shopping. The interesting thing at this place was the clientele, not just the well-to-do tourists eating lobster from Maine but also a group of young boys (they looked like students) who were were tucking into a range of dishes accompanied by glasses of coke.  We chatted a while with a nice Japanese couple – he had been living in Bangkok for 8 years and was showing his friend around.  He was stumped about the white wine selection and was about to agree to an Australian wine when I strongly suggested he choose something else (it was a very poor Australian wine at a very high price and there was a much better American Chardonnay and French Chablis on the menu).  He tasted the wine and was very grateful and hence the conversation began.

I tend to favour the little food places (to call them cafes is a bit of a stretch) that serve a limited range of dishes, with plastic chairs and formica topped tables, the kitchen right there in front of you, lots of noise, steam and generally no English.  It’s  a matter of pointing.  One of them around the corner from where were were staying became our local breakfast haunt – pork noodle soup and an iced coffee.  We then found a great little stall in a nearby side street that had a small selection of traditional Thai food.  We had no idea what they were but pointed to them and had them with rice.  They were excellent.  Then there was another stall that served a very fragrant spicy soup, usually full of offal (especially pork kidney) but I think the owner sized us up and just put in a small sample and gave us more duck. We were grateful.

We tried to sample all we could but could only eat so much (more’s the pity).  It was great fun going to markets and not knowing what/how to eat and having the locals help. At Or Tor Kor market (q fresh food and wholesale market where my of the restauranteurs go) we wandered the aisles marvelling at all the produce – so much beautifully fresh fish and seafood, the range of exotic fruits (which stall holders kindly allowed us to sample) and all the varied and many curry pastes and bases.  It was a bit like being in heaven for me and I discovered an exotic fruit that has become my favourite (although I’ve only seen it in Bangkok).  It’s called Bouea burmanica – Marian plum -and is the colour of an apricot and the shape of a  tamarillo (and about the same size) with bright green leaves similar to an orange.  The stall holders peel the skin away and deftly remove the inside stone stone so that you’re left with a whole peeled and stoned fruit. And it tastes like a cross between a mango and a mangosteen – two of my favourite fruits.  Mangosteens used to be what I considered the king of fruits but they’ve just been knocked off their perch by these wondrous fruits. They’re sublime. I am now (in Laos) constantly on the lookout for them.

Marian plums

 

Street food stall