Thursday, 29 October 2015

Nahm, Bangkok, Thailand (Alissa and Don Eat Asia)

To say that Alissa and I are fans of David Thompson would be an understatement. Earlier this year, Alissa, my parents and I cooked a Banquet Menu from Thompson's Thai Food Cookbook (as well as Grilled Pork Skewers and Mango Sticky Rice from Thai Street Food) and it was one of the best Thai meals we've had the pleasure of eating. I thoroughly recommend both books as essential reading for Thai Food enthusiasts; Thompson's encyclopedic knowledge of Thai cuisine results in recipes that are at once familiar and yet unusual as they revive recipes and versions of recipes from centuries ago.

It should be no surprise then that David Thompson's Nahm in Bangkok has been high on our culinary bucket list, even before it topped the Asia's 50 Best Restaurants List in 2014. Originally opening Nahm in London and becoming the first Thai restaurant to gain a Michelin Star, Thompson eventually closed the London branch due to increasing frustration with the quality of the ingredients available in Europe and the frustrations of having many others seized by customs. Nahm Bangkok in the Metropolitan by COMO then is Thompson unencumbered, and while far from a Modernist, his uncompromisingly Locavore approach has proven in keeping with contemporary trends and the rise of the 'you can only eat this food here' destination restaurant. When we decided to change our planned Japanese holiday to a Bangkok sojourn, Nahm was one of the primary reasons for the switch, with our table booked as soon as the October booking window was made available.

Although Nahm do offer their menu a la carte, the best way to experience Nahm is to order the Set Menu as it includes an Amuse Bouche, all 4 of the restaurant's Canapes, a choice of 1 Main from each section of their menu plus dessert and Petit Fours - all scaled to suit the number of diners. The meal began with an Amuse Bouche of Ma Hor - a classic Thai hors d'oeuvre of minced and spiced meat and palm sugar sitting on top of slices of pineapple. This dish is Thai cooking in a single bite - sweet, nutty, salty and slightly funky due to the fish sauce and prawn flavours, but all perfectly in balance to create a delicious whole. The sweet acidity of the pineapple worked as a perfect palate cleanser, getting us ready for the meal to come.

Our next course followed shortly after, featuring the restaurant's current range of canapes - Egg Nets with Prawns, Wild Almonds and Kaffir Lime; Blue Swimmer Crabs, Peanuts and Pickled Garlic on Rice Cakes; Pork and Lobster with Shredded Ginger and Thai Citron; and Chaing Mai Larp of Guinea Fowl.

The fine intricacy of the Egg Nets were an impressive feat in themselves, and they had a nice if unusual chewy texture. Within lay an explosion of flavour, with almonds giving the dish crunch, kaffir lime providing a nice perfume and green peppercorns bringing some heat.

The Rice Cakes of the Blue Swimmer Crab canape were actually served as crackers, and gave the dish some nice crunch. This dish was fresh and punchy, with the flavour of Lime really cutting through, while the Pickled Garlic gave the dish some funk. Thankfully, neither of these overpowered the delicacy of the soft, tender and sweet Blue Swimmer Crab Meat. Being a single bite it was over so fast, however it was so delicious we could definitely have eaten a few more.

Wrapped in Betel Leaves, Pork and Lobster with Shredded Ginger and Thai Citron served as a classic example of how well porcine flesh and seafood go together, supplemented by nice piece of Tofu thrown in for good measure. The pepperiness of the Betel Leaf was backed up by the heat of chilli as well as ginger, giving spicy character to a flavour profile that would have otherwise leaned very heavily towards salty-sour.

The chilli heat of the previous dish was however fairly mild in comparison to the Larp of Guinea Fowl. Thankfully, the big chilli kick was backed up by nice saltiness and the zinging hit of lemongrass and herbs. We had eaten a Duck Larb the night before at Soul Food Mahanakorn, and Alissa and I agreed that we liked this more usual version more. Though not altogether dissimilar, the Guinea Fowl was slightly gamier than the duck. Overall, it was just more finessed than Soul Food's version, and was again a dish we could have eaten more than one of.

After a short break, our mains were brought out all at once. Often called 'Family Style' in Western countries - or more formally 'service à la française' - this is the style of service in which Thai dinner banquets have traditionally been served. I'll admit that I prefer to eat food in courses so I can focus on individual dishes served at their optimum temperature, however given the fact Thai food is always about a balance of flavours, I can see the logic behind sampling a bit of this and that from the entire selection of dishes.

Alissa and I were able to choose our own individual bowls of soup, and we decided to order two different dishes to compare and contrast. Mine was the Clear Soup of Roast Duck with Thai Basil and Young Coconut. This sweet soup was light in body but packed with flavour, with light soy, Duck, mushroom and the Young Coconut adding up to a delicious whole. I mainly ordered this dish because of the Roasted Duck, and Nahm did not let me down - the pieces were well roasted and very tasty. The real surprise however was the young coconut; it was so juicy and tender I thought it was squid at first and I really enjoyed the sweet meatiness that the provided. We were advised that the soups should be eaten in between the more spicier dishes, and the mild sweetness of the dish was perfect to that end.

Coconut and Chicken Soup with Deep Fried Garlic, Green Mango and Chilli was Alissa's choice, and was very much to her liking. The Soup was creamy and sweet, with the crunchiness of the crispy pieces of Deep Fried Garlic really making the dish pop. The flavour profile reminded Alissa and I of the similarly creamy and sweet Yabbies Simmered in Coconut Cream dish from Thompson's Thai Food book - one of the highlights from the banquet menu we cooked.

Alissa and I had wanted to try Nahm's Red Curry to benchmark the restaurant against other Red Curries we have eaten, however when it was pointed out to us that the Duck Curry with Banana Peppers and Shallots was a Nahm signature, we decided to give it a go. With its whole Banana Pepper and its dark reddish colour, the dish looked rather treacherous; indeed, we could literally smell the chilli wafting off the plate! Although the dish did display a strong dry heat undercurrent, it was very well balanced; it was sweeter than we expected, with a cinnamon and/or cardamom flavour that was quite unusual but nevertheless delicious. The peanuts gave the dish a nice nuttiness and crunch, and the Duck Meat was also nicely cooked, rounding out a very memorable curry well worth the detour away from the more well known Red, Green, Yellow, Jungle and Massaman Curries more well known to the West.

One of the great things about the Indochina region is the freshness of the salads, and Cured Scallop with Lemongrass, Mint and Ginger was an outstanding example. Bright and citrussy due to the Lemongrass, the finely cut Kaffir Lime Leaves and the Lime Cure, the dish packed a lot of heat and lead Alissa to come up with the adage that 'where there is brightness [in Thai cooking], there must be heat!'. The Ginger provided its own warm spice, while the mint served to cool our burning tongues. The well cured Scallop meat was however the rightful star, with a wonderfully soft texture and freshness of flavour.

Soft Shell Crab in Australia often has a pretty bad texture due to being badly frozen and defrosted, so we were keen to try Nahm's Soft Shell Crab Stir-Fried with Chillies, Holy Basil and Green Peppercorns. As expected, the Soft Shell Crab in this dish had a wonderfully texture that was nice and crunchy, and with the meat within of the crab not damaged and freezer burnt as can be the case in lesser restaurants. The salty-sour flavour of the dish was given complexity by the herbaceousness of the Holy Basil and the citric heat of the Green Pepper Corns. Overall, this was probably the least memorable of the mains we sampled, and even this was an exceptional dish.

Our final main was an interesting trilogy of Kaffir Lime and Smoked Fish Relish...

...Sweet Pork...

... Salted Fish Dumplings, Coconut Poached Bamboo and Vegetables. The Relish tasted like it was made with Mango, with Fish providing smokiness and savouriness, and the Kaffir Lime bringing it uniquely perfumed zestiness. It was quite sour by itself, but eaten in context with other components it really worked. The Bamboo, Vegetables and the Fish Dumplings provided a lot of textural interest and crunch, while the Sweet Pork helped balance it all out. The Sweet Pork was our favourite component; its sticky, sweet flavour and umami-filled unctuousness made it very, very addictive and Alissa save a spoonful as her last bite.

With our mains completed, our waiter brought us a Palate cleanser of Fresh Green Mango with Salt and Sugar. This is a classic Thai street dessert, and it was a perfect dish to reset our palates by overloading our taste buds with a flavour explosion. It was sour, hot, salty and sweet, reminding us of Sherbert or Chinese-style preserved Prunes.

I chose Pandanus Noodles with Black Sticky Rice, Water Chestnuts, Tapioca and Coconut Cream as my dessert. This was basically a dish I've always known as Chendol - a traditional and very popular dessert that is common across South East Asia. This is a dish best served cold, and Nahm's version was very well chilled, with ice cubes throughout maintain the temperature. The Black Rice gave the dish a nice nuttiness, while the Pandanus Noodles were very perfumed. With the supersweet flavour of the Mangosteen thrown in and the extra textural contrast of the Tapioca, this was one of the best Chendols I've had.

Rice Custard with Banana Fritters was Alissa's choice. The Rice Custard was very sweet, but balanced out by a surprising sourness. It was quite fruity, with the crunch of the sweet corn particularly well suited to this dish. Given the sweetness of the Rice Custard, Alissa was expecting the Banana Fritters to be just another sweet component too many, however they were surprisingly savoury and herbaceous rather than super sweet dessert Bananas. This balanced out the sweetness of the Custard, while introducing another source of creaminess.

To finish the meal, we were presented with a plate of Thai Petit Fours. We started with the flour-dusted Young Coconut Biscuits. These delicious pillows of Young Coconut Cream just melted in our mouths, and were a revelation in spite of being so simple. The Sweet Egg Yolks contained Mung Bean and what we thought might have been Almond, and had a flavour that was somewhere between Kaya and a Mooncake. The Pandan and Grated Coconut Balls tasted like a Macaroon (not to be confused with a Macaron), being sweet and Coconutty with a strong and welcome Pandan flavour. Finally, the Sweet Puffed Wheat Balls on Banana Slices were nice and nutty, and made us both think of breakfast food due to the use of Puffs and Banana.

The Verdict: Ultimate
Given the restaurant's and David Thompson's international reputation amongst the World's Best, there's always a slight fear that the reality would not live up to expectations. Thankfully, the food at Nahm did not disappoint us in the slightest, and would easily rank as the best Thai meal we've ever eaten. The refined balance of flavours within dishes and in relation to other dishes was right on point, and the adherence to a traditional Thai service à la française format really helped to emphasise this. The outstanding quality of the food here would not be quite as easily achievable outside of Thailand, and I think Thompson's decision to keep the Nahm format as a Bangkok-only venture is a sound one, making this a truly worthy destination restaurant. Alissa and I can look forward to the opening of Thompson's more street food oriented Long Chim in our hometown of Perth, however we will definitely be back for another meal at Nahm next time we are in Bangkok. 

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