new Things I Ate in Cambodia: Nahm Bangok: Thai Food by an Aussie? Trust Me.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Nahm Bangok: Thai Food by an Aussie? Trust Me.

Nahm Bangkok
Metropolitan Hotel, South Sathorn Road
Tungmahamek, Sathorn, Bangkok
+662 625 3388

World's gone insane when an Australian has one of the most popular Thai restaurants in Bangkok, right?

David Thompson is, occasionally, tongue-in-cheek referenced as the guy who "invented" modern Thai cuisine. He opened Nahm in Bangkok after winning a Michelin star for his restaurant in London - and immediately inserted his foot into his mouth by saying that Thai cuisine was "decaying," drawing the ire of many Bangkok residents.

But he's not a fly-by-night faux Thai chef either. Thompson speaks fluent Thai, appears to have done some interesting research into historical recipes that no one else was willing to do, and is committed to taking a stab at the real-deal when it comes to Thai cooking. (He's in the kitchen, too! We totally saw him!)

Nahm is set in a small and minimalist dining room in the painfully chic Metropolitan Hotel. It's an intimate and quiet space. The tables are a little long, which is good for holding a ton of food but necessitates a bit of shouting while conducting hushed, witty, dinner conversations. The clientele seems to be composed of slightly hip foodies on vacation and rich Bangkokites out for a subdued yet upscale meal. It's all very quiet, which is refreshing if you've spent a bit of time eating primarily out of Thai food carts and quick-nosh joints and are becoming sick of negotiation, chain smoking, and Thai soap operas.

You can order ala carte. Or you can partake in Nahm's set menu for the entire table, for about $50 a person give-or-take. You get a sampler of appetizers and a selection from each piece of the menu - one salad, one stir-fry, one curry - with a separate soup and dessert for each person. I'd suggest this option. Most people take it.

A small opening salvo. This appeared to consist of a sweet and savory type of confit on top of a cracker. It was also aesthetically pleasing. I am eternally grateful to restaurants with good lighting.

A selection of canapes, served on Thailand's ubiquitious crunchy rice crackers. I liked the rich boiled quail-egg in confluence with a dollop of umami-rich shrimp paste.

I really enjoyed the grilled mussel skewers, prepared betwen two sticks as most grilled-stuff in this country is. Spicy, smoky chili-heavy marinade.

Grilled prawns with pomelo, wrapped in a betel nut leaf? Yes, please. I'm a big pomelo fan. Like all pomelo salads, it's a very interesting intersection between sweet, spicy, and savory. I also like the underlying flavor of betel leaf. Wish these were more commonly used.

My mom ordered a Pimms Cup in a fit of colonialist feeling. They have a pretty wide selection of creative fruity cocktails. There's also wine. I had prosecco. For some perverse reason, I really like prosecco with Thai food.

A clear and delicate crab and snake gourd soup with egg. A very mild flavor. Went nicely with the big set of courses, though I found it a bit odd that they brought the soup out along with all the other stuff included on the set menu - gave it potential to get chilly if you're not a voraciously fast eater like yours truly. My mom picked the roast duck soup, which was rich and intense. Made me think of my usual breakfast when I'm spending time in the big city.

Scallop yam - this is a classic Thai-style seafood salad with a bunch of fresh herbs and onion. This was quite tasty. The scallop's creamy, intrinsic meatiness goes very well with fresh herbs and a dollop of crunchy onion. These are not subtle salads, but they are unequivocally delicious and refreshing. Sort of a breath freshener.

This is a Northern Thai-type relish, involving a peanut-and-chili dip, cut fruit and vegetable sticks, and fried soft-shell-crab. Relishes/dips like this are a bit hard to parse out for the Western among us, but are a nice complement to a full meal like this one. It's a good concept. The soft-shell crab was fried to the approximate texture of a potato chip, which was delightful.

Stir-fried fish dumplings with pak wan, a tasty Southeast Asian green. (There are a LOT of varieties of Southeast-Asian-green-thing). I liked the delicate fish dumplings in combination with the greens. It's a good dish, albeit not an incredibly refined one. Then again, refined isn't really the point of Nahm, as Thompson himself would tell you - it's about interpreting and using old Thai recipes. Some may object to this philosophy when dropping down $50 bucks a head on dinner in an otherwise remarkably budget-friendly city, but, personally, I can work with it.

The Massaman curry was very rich and very filling, as Massaman ought to be. I like the thick, dense flavor of cinnamon here - the spicing in this dish was much more complex and interested to figure-out then other Massaman's I've sampled, with an almost Indian depth of flavor. (Not surprising, really - Massaman, after all, directly translates as "Muslim" curry, It's rich as hell and a bit difficult to finish, but I believe we did it justice. It's definitely the chocolate-double-fudge-cake of Thai recipes. Man, that was a weird analogy.

I had jackfruit simmered in coconut cream with steamed sugar palm pudding (a squishy cake, for the non-Anglicized among us). Jackfruit is pretty much like durian's less anti-social younger brother. I really like it. This is a fairly typical Thai dessert, and for good reason.

Finally, another Thai classic - simmered black rice with (more) coconut milk and a side dish of some chewy and slightly jelly-like coconut confection. Thai desserts don't really get enough respect, is what I'm getting at. I like how light and fruit-centric they are when compared to Western confectionery.

We found the selection of Thai sweets fascinating. These are flavors and textures that just don't make it out West much, unless you're going snooping in the Asian grocery store. We were particularly taken by the light, slightly chewy texture of these coconut confections. One beef: Nahm's menu is not posted anywhere on the Internet, which means I can't, unequivocally, tell you what this stuff is. (Other then the extremely obvious - and curiously hollow - meringue.) Considering that one of Nahm's functions is educational - well, fix it, guys.

Needless to say, I can give Nahm a whole-hearted recommendation. What I find most interesting - and appealing - about Nahm is the way all of these dishes work together to produce a fairly traditionally minded Thai meal. I've had all of these dishes (or some variation on the theme) on their own, but I haven't had them all at once in a large, synchronized meal before.

Some Southeast Asians who have reviewed Nahm have noted that it reminds them of home cooking. Which is exactly the point, and something those of us hailing from the West haven't really experienced before. Although the restaurant is a bit spendy for Bangkok (and would be highly reasonable by San Francisco or European standards), it's worth it for an upscale and thought provoking Thai meal. You can get your kicks eating weird things off the street also - I mean, I do - but Nahm could be a nice departure from the norm for food obsessed Bangkok visitors. Try it.

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