Krung Thep

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nahm_crab curryIn the monster 1980s pop hit “One Night in Bangkok” (which came from the equally monster Broadway musical flop Chess), Murray Head sings “One night in Bangkok makes the hard man humble.”  The city of Bangkok is indeed humbling for both first-time and returning visitors– with its dense urban sprawl (it’s in the top 20 biggest cities in the world); with its frenzied, often gridlocked traffic; with its pungent, lively, cacophonous city life in which you can get anything and everything your heart desires, it is a city like very few in the world, fascinating, mesmerizing, discomfiting. Bangkok is also universally acknowledged as one of the great dining cities in the world, especially when it comes to its deservedly-famous street food.  The culinary-focused flock to Bangkok and find themselves in street food nirvana, slurping beef noodles in the narrow alleys of Bangrak, tearing into skewers of grilled pork along Sukhumvit Road, sweating through the spiciest duck curry they’ll ever have on backpacker ground zero Khao San Road. I love visiting Bangkok and I’ve chowed down its sois during past trips (the memory of the gloriously crisp, sweet-salty fish cakes I had in a no-name stall along Sukhumvit Road in the mid-nineties continue to ruin any pleasure in eating  fish cakes in Thai restaurants in the US) . But two weeks ago, in early January, coming back to this great enthralling city after more than a decade, I was determined to experience the thriving fine (or finer) dining scene that many “foodie” visitors overlook. I was specifically interested in finding out what the big deal was about Nahm, recently anointed as #32 in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and #3 in its satellite Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, helmed by controversial chef David Thompson.  So despite being tempted by all the grilled and fried delights so easily accessible even right outside my hotel on Sukhumvit Soi 24, I reserved my stomach (anxious for potential regrets if Nahm turned out to be a dud) for Thompson’s white-table cloth shrine to Thai cooking.

When Thompson opened the Bangkok outpost of Nahm in 2010 (the original Nahm, now closed, in London was the first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in the world), the controversy around an Australian chef cooking Thai food and proclaiming himself to be a Thai food authority was so heated, even the New York Times wrote about it.  In 2012, Nahm debuted at #50 on the World’s Best List; last year it impressively jumped to #32. I’ve heard mixed reviews from friends whose palates I respect; New York City-based BFF Rene disliked it; friends in Southeast Asia were divided between ecstasy and scorn.   I was initially very skeptical – how do you (and why should you) elevate the centuries-old food of the streets and of village grandmothers when it is already culinary greatness personified?  And secondarily, should a non-Thai be the person to do it?  I had the tasting menu (and asked the kitchen to select the dishes given my preferences of pork and seafood), a steal at Baht2000 or roughly around $ 60, and man, it was the quite the stunner – audacious, thoughtful, authentic yet contemporary, one of the most memorably delicious meals I’ve had over the past couple of years.

nahm_pork cheeksThompson’s food is elevated and refined, but definitely not dumbed down for foreigners – his use of chili is ferocious, of fish sauce assertive, of the uniquely Southeast Asian ingredients like betel leaf, calamansi and pennywort confident, employing the same flavor notes from the sois’ stalls.  I loved most of the tasting menu, all served family style: a canapés course of four appetizers (including a memorably muscular, sweet-spicy grilled mussel on a skewer), soup, salad, curry, relish, stir-fried or grilled, and dessert.   The soup was lusciously comforting: big, bold, pungent flavors of squid stuffed with homemade pork and prawn sausage ensconced in a robust stock of pork, onions, and cilantro.  The curry dish was probably the best curry I’ve ever had in my life (and that isn’t hyperbole):  blue crab curry with calamansi line and garnished with a dollop of coconut cream was thick, sumptuous, and fiery, with hints of sweetness from the fresh crab and the cream and a brilliant sour-tart finish from the calamansi. The grilled dish was pork cheek, marvelously silky-fatty, with just the right flavor of charcoal-sear, and served with a refreshingly sexy tomato sauce spiked with fish sauce, lime, and chilies which cut the fattiness of the pork.  The relish dish was decadent – intimidatingly spicy peanut relish served with heads-on river prawns that I enthusiastically sucked (at which other World’s 50 Best restaurant could you do this?) and okra and baby corn poached in coconut cream, the heat excitingly co-mingling with sweetness and saltiness.  I also loved the detail of an accompanying tea-infused water to wash your hands in after partaking of the prawns.  The dessert was a showstopper – a composed plate made up of three parts: an earthy, gut-punching bowl of pandanus “noodles”, black sticky rice water chestnuts, corn, taro root, and tapioca smothered in coconut cream; the two key ingredients of this dish, the tapioca balls and coconut cream, in a banana leaf that you unraveled, and then a sliver of juicy mangosteen, the most luxurious of Southeast Asian fruits.  Although at a certain point, I felt there was a little too much tapioca on the plate. The only dish that I thought fell flat (although not a failure) was the salad dish – bland pennywort with an ordinary vinaigrette and deliciously plump but uncomplementary crayfish, sprinkled with deliriously crispy shallots. Compared to the rest of the meal, this was probably the most restrained in flavors and conception, so it was my least favorite.

I love what Thompson is doing at Nahm, faithfully observing the legacy of Thai cooking, demonstrating its complexity, showcasing its unique ingredients, but also infusing it with a contemporary sensibility.  Thai cuisine is one of the world’s great cuisines, with so many layers of flavors and textures. Thompson (who has a Thai partner and has relocated to Bangkok after decades of back-and-forth from  London) proclaims that greatness at Nahm, and pairs it with modern, sexy presentation and polished service (impressively, when I was sweating buckets from the blue crab curry, a glass of milk, universally acknowledged as the one thing that could temper spice, unobtrusively appeared on my table. That is five-star service).   Unfortunately, I didn’t think Bangkok’s cultural elite agree with me; there was probably just one table of Thais in the restaurant the night I dined there (as compared to former NYC-based chef Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club which seemed to be one of the see-and-be-seen places for moneyed Bangkok denizens), almost everyone were foreigners, from Europe and Asia, and some North Americans.  Even my hotel, one of the Bangkok locations of a global brand, hesitated to recommend Nahm, and the concierge was surprised that I secured a reservation by calling them weeks ahead from Chicago.  It looks like despite all the acclaim from the West, Thompson still isn’t embraced in Bangkok (which isn’t surprising since Southeast Asian diners in general don’t really care what the rest of the world say about their restaurants, a marked contrast from Latin America, for example).  It’s a pity because Nahm is serious cuisine, not just serious Thai cuisine, able to truly go head-to-head with the best restaurants in the world.

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