Where you risk courting the most criticism is when attempting to cook your non-native cuisine on its home turf. Like Andy Ricker may get some shit over Pok Pok, but it's not as if he's an American running a Thai restaurant in Thailand. Jarrett Wrisley is with Soul Food Mahanakorn (well documented here) though he manages to sidestep drama since he's more restaurateur than chef--and it doesn't hurt that the restaurant is pretty likeable.
Kill me, but I'd describe Soul Food Mahanakorn as the Pok Pok of Bangkok (I'm shocked that Google only turns up two "the Pok Pok of..." hits--neither for Soul Food Mahanakorn) by which I mean that both are casual with decor that nods to Thai pop culture and serve a curated selection of dishes that are nearly unbastardized, yet appeal to a specific western sensibility. That translates to snacky small plates of organic, responsibly sourced wings, ribs and sausages, and cocktails crafted with bitters and egg white cocktails, as well as Thai aromatics and herbs. Nice.
Your typical all-in-one grapow with a runny fried egg, but using roughly chopped lamb. This was particularly good because the meat had a little wok char.
Who wouldn't order a salad made of fried chicken? This yam with all the requisite shallots, mint, lime, fish sauce and chiles, reminded me of a similarly odd dish they used to made at more oddly named VIP@ Thai Cuisine in Carroll Gardens. The Brooklyn version was served with the meat pulled from the bone and tossed in and didn't have the green bean and cabbage garnishes. Both have their merits.
Pork belly and kale! This is what I'm talking about when I'm talking about specific Western sensibilities. I wanted to see kale in a Thai context, except that I'm fairly certain the kale mentioned on the menu was not the green that arrived on my plate. This is Chinese broccoli and crispy pork, right?
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Nahm is a different beast (and technically a chain since there's an older Michelin-starred London location). This year it became the 50th best restaurant in the world, which I know doesn't sound so impressive compared to Spain's continued dominance of the single digits, but it's a feat for the only Thailand entry.
The project of Australian chef, cookbook author and Thai obsessive, David Thompson, Nahm is more of a classic fine-dining draw. I suspect that the average patron is not there to experience obscure ingredients or lost-to-the-ages preparations, they just want to eat at a good looking restaurant in a stylish hotel.
For instance, the similarly aged, Brooklyn-ish (yes, kettle black) couple we were seated next to were unfamiliar with, non-obscure mangosteen and durian, and ordered the latter because they were charmed by its descriptor as "the king of fruit." Yes, they learned a lesson (frankly, I don't get the big stink over durian--it's not that foul) but I don't they were at Nahm to be schooled.
Expensive for Bangkok, but stellar value by NYC standards, the 1700 baht ($55) set menu with five courses, each with vast choices (nam prik, soup, salad, curry and stir-fry/steamed/grilled dish) plus desserts, is really the way to go. After the amuse and canapes (above: smoked fish, peanut and tapioca dumplings; grilled chicken satay with peanuts and tart chili sauce; coconut cup cakes with red curry of crab;
spicy pork with mint, peanuts and crunchy rice on betel leaves) everything shows up at once, Thai-style (which took me by surprise the first time I encountered it at Bo.lan, a similarly minded restaurant run by Thompson proteges).
The array is both dazzling and overwhelming with portions that initially seem dainty but nearly push you over the edge by the time the sweets arrive.
If I'm giving the individual dishes short shrift (I am) it's because I always find tasting menus daunting to blog about to the point that I just don't anymore (not without weird OCD regrets--I'm still torn over not taking photos or blogging about Reinstoff in Berlin, the only upscale meal I ate during last November's vacation). But I'd still like to convey the style of food served.
The most memorable dish (with the least illustrative photo) or rather seemingly incongruous group of dishes (we were trying to think of American things that would be equally nonsensical together--chicken, waffles and syrup? Cincinnati chili?) was a nam prik/relish that pushed the limits of sweet, fatty, fiery and bitter. In front is mess of very spicy prawns and oysters, covered in shallots, chiles and a floss of some sort. This was accompanied by a small dish of caramelized nuggets of pork belly and a small deep-fried fish with raw vegetables and herbs like long batons of almost menthol galangal. The intense flavor of the rhizome made it very apparent why substituting ginger like Westernized recipes often recommend, wouldn't work.
This is the kind of recipe that I would read about, want to eat, but wouldn't even bother to attempt because of the steps involved. Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook (a Christmas present from last year that admire but from afar) has nothing on 688-page Thai Food.
Soul Food Mahanakorn * 56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55, Bangkok, Thailand
Nahm * Metropolitan Hotel, 27 S. Sathorn St., Bangkok, Thailand