Somewhat paradoxically, ever since I left Australia for Asia eight years ago, I have been in search of, if not craving, the innovative contemporary Thai-influenced food of David Thompson (Darley Street Thai, Sailor Thai, Nahm) and his one of his star apprentices, Martin Boetz of Longrain.
Despite Thompson being Boetz’s mentor, their interpretations of Thai cuisine are poles apart; Thompson the archaeologist of the countries cuisine, authoring the tomb “Thai Food” (published by Pavilion), surely the most comprehensive and authoritative cookbook on the subject ever written, yet Thompson pushes all boundaries in Thai cuisine in his idiosyncratic style although retaining a nucleus of tradition and the utmost respect for the core ingredients of Thailand.
Boetz, on the other hand, uses the very best of Australian ingredients and meshes this with his embedded grasp of Thai cooking and unmitigated talent, with a spunky, nervy style of flavours and wholesomeness that is indelible on one’s palate.
Thompson is no longer involved in Sailors Thai www.sailorsthai.com.au, his long-time front-of-house partner Peter Bowyer at the helm, and Darley Street closed many years back, to which Thompson now divides his time between Nahm (located in the Halkin Hotel, London) and Thailand. I heard rumours he was starting something in Bangkok to which I am investigating.
Neither of them has gone for the cliché of Thai adornment or superficial impersonations of Thai culture, to the contrary both have adopted contemporary, edgy – if not cutting-edge – concepts of decor and ambience. Indeed, Darley Street Thai and Sailor Thai are perhaps the most copied avant-garde decors in the restaurant world. Longrain is equally trend-setting with its communal tables and no-booking policy, augmented by a wild bar serving seductive cocktails and keeping the hoards of dinners in a holding pattern that outperforms Sydney air traffic controllers.
In my five years living in Hong Kong there was nothing that came remotely near these touchstones and three years in Singapore has been even more unconvincing. For the most part Thai restaurants in Asia are pedestrian reproductions of the worst tourist traps in Thailand itself. If it’s not the kitsch decor that puts you off, it’s the predictable menu of Thai favourites and repetition of squid, prawns, chicken, beef or pork done in every colour of the curry spectrum and mindboggling variation of rice and noodle dishes that must keep the apprentice chefs enslaved if not bored out of their brain with the litany.
One can be forgiving of these habitual menus at your local, no frills Thai restaurant, particularly when it comes to the ambiguous takeaway, with the ‘something for everyone’ approach. But what is it with ‘traditional’ Thai restaurant menu’s having to list the entire repertoire of the countries cuisine, as if it’s some form of gastronomic prowess. Do they feel compelled to compete with the encyclopaedic and equally repetitious, if not bewildering Cantonese menus? You don’t see French Chef’s listing the entire Eschoffier on their menu? Likewise, most contemporary chefs who have a thread of Asia influence in their cooking are pragmatic in the number of dishes on the menu, both from a logistical perspective and the dinners appreciation.
I encountered another irritatingly long Thai menu at the recently opened Jim Thompson Thai restaurant in Singapore, although the aggravation begun before we even made it to the restaurant. Phoning the restaurant at 4.30pm on a Saturday afternoon to enquire on a table for 3 people at 6.30pm, to which we would be out by 7.30pm, the reply was completely vague necessitating a lengthy explanation that dining with my 5 year-old daughter would only require us taking up the table for an hour maximum. The reply from the person on the other end of the phone was completely unenthusiastic offering a remote possibility of an outside table however; they were going to be very busy with most of the bookings arriving at 7pm. Having been involved in the hospitality industry for decades I disputed this scenario and suggested that there would be ample opportunity for a table turn-over here with negligible interruption to existing reservations. The reply was, “Well, we will call you back in half an hour if we can fit you in”. By 5.45pm I had not heard back, so called again, only to encounter a different person and have to go through the entire process again as no one had a clue as to my prior conversation. Finally, there was agreement on the table being available, alas we headed there promptly.
As it turned out, we finished our meal and paid precisely at 7.30pm and were still the only table seated in the restaurant, save for a couple that had just arrived as the forward party for a large group and two tables of four outside. Clearly their reservation process and table allocation skills are a complete shambles and the mind boggles how a restaurant of this size and considerable investment will make it in this incredibly competitive environment and extremely challenging period ahead.
Initially I had approached our dinning at Jim Thompson’s with some enthusiasm as a friend of mine with a good grasp of restaurants had declared it the best Thai restaurant he had encountered in Singapore to date. Indeed, the building itself is most impressive, a superbly refurbished Colonial ‘Black & White” in the Dempsey Hill area with cathedral proportion ceilings, massive columns and a luxurious spaciousness, to which there will certainly be no complaints about the space between tables. No expense has been spared on the decor and fitting and as you would expect of this Thai silk and furniture design, home decor Concept Company, it is tastefully done and the ambience is spot on.
The menu has no less than 129 items covering starters, salads, soups, curries, noodles, rice, meat and poultry, seafood, whole fish, vegetables, dips, vegetarian and dessert, phew! On the positive side the starter sampler offerings is a very good idea for small tables to be able to share several dishes, as one would in the usual communal dinning sense of Thai etiquette. As we intended to only have a quick meal we opted for the salad sampler to which my wife declared the mango salad “very spicy!” which means extremely hot given her cast iron Ipoh tolerance of chilli Padi. It completely destroyed this delicate Ang Mo’s palate.
This was followed by red duck curry, our litmus test of Thai restaurants as my wife cooks a sublime and unparalleled version. Their version was an embarrassment, not only in the meagre portion but the duck component consisting of fatty pieces of skin with practically no meat whatsoever, moreover the curry had been over-cooked, the coconut curdled and spotty like custard that has separated from too much heat and lack of stirring. At S$20 for a serve this is a total rip-off, considering one could buy half a cooked lacquered duck from any stall here and make the curry yourself and have change left out of the twenty.
I shall not comment any further on the food as in fairness it requires another visit and necessitates a large group so we can do justice to the tediously extensive menu. However, the drinks and wine list deserves comment, in that it is appalling, yet another pathetic and extortionately-priced wine list that the non-confrontational Singapore dinner dismayingly accepts as ‘Standard Practice’. In Melbourne, Australia restaurants that over-charge for wines simply do not survive.
It perplexes me how restaurateurs in Singapore can justify mark ups of three and four times the purchase price of the wine when in most cases, wine expertise and service are completely non-existent. And they wonder why the tourists are not spending enough here! If you take for example the Mount Riley Sauvignon Blanc listed at Jim Thompson’s at $95 a bottle, a wine that is made in ocean-quantities and retails here for under $30. But more to the point it is a sub $15 retail wine in New Zealand and Australia, and it is nothing short of embarrassing to see it flogged at such an extortionate price.
The wine list at Jim Thompson’s is also the perfect example of there being absolutely no synergy whatsoever with pairing wines to the restaurants cuisine, and for those who are sceptical about wine pairing with Thai food, please follow this hyperlink… When Thai meets wine
Furthermore, the poor layout, misinformation and numerous, glaring spelling mistakes are compounded by the obscurity of most of the wines and in many instances no vintages and even total anonymity, e.g. Stellenbosch Shiraz $78, Signature Sauvignon Blanc $95 under South African whites, and like what Sauvignon Blanc from S.A. could possibly be worth $95! German Riesling Kabinet $98, yet no producer name and the only listing from Germany, yet arguably the best white variety and style to pair with Thai cuisine. Likewise, New Zealand Pinot Noir $92, notwithstanding I would like to know who the producer is for that sort of coin thanks; it is the only pinot noir on the entire list, outrageous! Actually, it was served by the glass, $14 mind and without finding out exactly what it was; the most dilute and uninspiring NZ pinot noir I have tried. My glass of Culemborg Chenin Blanc at $8 was equally boring with the personality of a cask wine.
I could go on however; I think you get my point, besides I have already slotted them for the “Worst Wine List of the Year” award in my upcoming 2008 Lunar Year review. That said, I would also point out even the beer selection here is totally pedestrian with only four commercial bottled offerings and two bilge-water brands on tap. I am scratching my head as to think of a better captive audience for speciality beers than a Thai restaurant, but clearly the restaurant management at Jim Thompson have no idea of consumerism or contribution margin.
On our visit the staff were friendly enough and were making an effort, our waiter attentive and acquainted with the menu well enough to deal with particular requests. That said after explaining that our daughter has a severe nut allergy and to exclude cashew nuts on the salad, everything came with peanuts anyway.
The actual service competence or degree of skill is another story and the all too familiar Singapore standards of using cheap imported labour were clearly evident. There was no cohesiveness between the staff with a least five different waiters milling around us with the hesitant demeanour and level of incompetence that makes you uncomfortable. There was no sign of anyone in charge, indeed a rudderless ship with no captain in sight. This completely impersonal and uncharismatic level of service in general is Singapore’s biggest downfall and few restaurateurs here have yet to grasp that service and interaction with the dinner is in some ways more important than the food itself.
Concept restaurants run by large groups are inevitably going to lack personality and largely be staffed by drones, although operators could observe the mantra at the Aqua Group www.aqua.com.hk in Hong Kong with maestro David Yeo importing some of best talent in the Australian hospitality industry for front of house.
This however does not solve the issues long term and if Singapore is aiming to build a sustainable fine dining industry it needs to start luring and training local talent, which begins with paying people reasonable wages.
No doubt Jim Thompson Thai will be a very busy place for a while, their brand recognition, the location and stunning building will generate enough interest initially and I can envisage it being a magnate to those who want to take out visitors to Singapore purely on the basis of the building and ambience; it might just be one of those places where you ignore the adage, “You can’t eat the decor”. www.jimthompson.com
I would welcome feedback and recommendation on the very best Thai restaurants, at all level and that’s anywhere in the world. My local here in Singapore is E-Sarn Thai, which is Northern Thai style and whilst fairly rudimentary, the food is honest and the service genuine-family-run friendly – 20 Sixth Avenue, Tel: 6462 5608.
In Australia, there are gems at the user-friendly level, in Melbourne Thalia Thai, 82 Lygon Street, also The Isthmus of Kras, Chef Beh Kim Un one of the quite achievers of the industry www.isthmusofkra.com.au. In Sydney Prasit’s, 413-415 Crown Street, Surry Hills, also there are many Chef’s in Australia that are influenced by Thai ingredients and technique although they also incorporate many other Asian and Mediterranean disciplines and fall in a category known as of Australia-freestyle. Chef’s like Teage Ezard of Ezards and Gingerboy in Melbourne www.ezard.com.au, Geoff Lindsay at Pearl, Melbourne www.pearlrestaurant.com.au, Christine Manfield at Universal, Sydney www.universalrestaurant.com and Peter Doyle at est. Sydney www.merivale.com, whom I personally rate as the best Chef in Australia… to mention a few
It has been many years since I have been to Bangkok however one of my most memorable Thai meals was at Celadon restaurant at the Sukhothai Hotel, www.sukhothai.com
The Datai resort on Langkawi Island remains my favourite traditional Thai Restaurant, in every aspect; the ambience, food, wine and service.