The Wandering Palate is, well, wandering again, having been confined to the compound in Singapore for three weeks now, seriously restless and escaped to Koh Samui, although officially for work.
I am sure you will be as unconvinced as my wife however I am truly working and here to launch the wine program that I have designed for the Conrad Koh Samui and to conduct staff training.
I have to confess this is my first time in Koh Samui and arriving in the dead of night, I was none the wiser in terms of the lay of the land. Peering out in to the dark from my transport from the airport to this brand new resort, I had the feeling one could easily be in Bali with the fringe-urban shanty town look punctuated by shopping enclaves and the occasional pocket of luxurious buildings.
Curiously there seems to be a surfeit of 7-Elevens counting no less than 13 on route to the resort, only to be outnumbered by a local copycat version complete with similar livery called Food Mart. Either everyone on this island is obsessed with 24 hour convenience shopping here, and maybe there’s a competition war going on and it’s only a matter of time until one them capitulates.
The cloak of darkness also meant that I had no real sense of the resort vista and a rollercoaster ride in the golf buggy to my villa in complete darkness was quite unnerving and left one only guessing there is a something beyond this Cimmerian to be revealed in the dawn.
To which I had left the curtains open in my villa so I would be awoken by the dawn, and there it was, a room with a breathtaking view. I have to say, the location and sweeping 270 degree views of this resort from ones villa, framed by the private infinity pool, is nothing short of spectacular.
I’m sure you have heard it all before and travel writers have a well-used thesaurus of superlatives of describing views and sensations of paradise. However, this resort and location is truly spectacular moreover, an extraordianary engineering feat, literally built on a cliff face and giving a new meaning to a house built on stilts with villas perched on a precipice with pylons seemingly a hundred feet tall.
This reminds me of what a seasoned hotelier told me. “If there is going to be a hotel built on the moon, it will be the Hilton that does it”.
But enough of all this paradisiacal talk, I’m supposed to be working.
The resort officially opened September 1, with only 5 guests booked in for the first few days. Needless to say they will be somewhat over-serviced guinea pigs and will have to persevere through some teething problems, compensated by being treated like royalty.
My first reaction when approached by the Conrad team to design the wine program was a mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension. Having worked on a number of wine lists in Asia and many Thai restaurants, I am totally convinced that Thai food is absolutely made for wine; indeed sometimes I think Asian cuisines stimulate the taste buds and olfactory’s more than any other when it comes to pairing with wine.
My introduction in the main wine list at their contemporary Thai restaurant, Jahn, says it all, “Does wine go with Thai cuisine? Absolutely! “Show me a wine and I will find you an element of spice or herb infused within it. Indeed, most grape varieties intrinsically display a multitude of spice nuances in aroma or flavour, some more than others. Clearly such nuances and characteristics are synergistic with Thai cuisine.”
My apprehension was largely due to knowing little of the wine industry or importers in Thailand, other than being aware of very prohibitive taxes and a lurking scepticism of the merchants and how they transport and store their wines.
I have to say, after doing some exhaustive detective work through prominent winemakers around the world who have agents in Thailand, I was positively surprised, if not amazed at the amount of good wine available in Thailand and that there are several highly professionally run companies there who go to great pains to ensure wine is stored and transported correctly.
Companies like The Wine Gallery, Fin Wines and Vanichwathana have extraordinarily comprehensive portfolios representing some of the best winemakers in the world. And there are also dynamic specialists like Ross Edward Marks at Central Food Retail Company Limited who also is also championing wine education and represents the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the benchmark English curriculum in the wine and hospitality industry.
My brief was to design a wine program that would raise the bar not only in Koh Samui but all Thailand. This will sound a little self-congratulatory and of course is subjective, however I believe we have achieved this and have introduced unique concepts and a dynamism that will contribute to the evolution of the wine market in Thailand.
Like the fresh produce sourced for the kitchens, there was also a desire to focus on wines that are grown with organic and biodynamic practices, a subject that is becoming increasingly topical. In general this means we are sourcing from smaller, artisan producers who see this as a natural course of attaining optimum quality.
One of our concepts is to do away with the traditional (outdated) notion that wine lists need to be arranged strictly by country and region. Notwithstanding the relationship of geography is important and regions and individual vineyard terroir, or a sense of place, is the genesis of wine, however a wine list can be cumbersome and even intimidating when a slave to geographic layout and bewildering appellations and wine law.
Rather, we have based the wine list layout on broader wine styles and grape variety characteristics in relativity to Thai and Mediterranean cuisines, the focus of the cuisine at the resort.
As a varietal example, gruner veltliner is one of our favourite grapes for pairing with Thai salads, which we highlight with a small descriptor, “This native Austrian white grape with its pomelo-like tanginess, juicy citrus and tropical fruit flavours and unique white pepper spicy character seems almost tailor made for Thai cuisine, particularly salads. Not unlike riesling, it comes in different texture and dryness levels ranging from crisp and dry to more powerful and slightly viscous wines that are excellent with curries.”
As a stylistic example, “RHONE VALLEY VARIETALS – GRENACHE, MOURVEDRE, SHIRAZ CARIGNAN BLENDS: The warmer, drier regions of South Australia, France’s Southern Rhone Valley (the most famous being Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Priorat, Spain are home to the grenache grape, known for its intense raspberry fruit sweetness and exotic spiciness – often partnered with mourvèdre lending a rustic earthiness and scents of Provincial herbs, along with the black pepper spice and vibrant black-berry fruit of shiraz and the perfume and suppleness of the cinsault grape all blend harmoniously in a style that is exotically aromatic and spicy, generous in body and fruit sweetness with firm tannins that cleanse that palate. These wines are ideal with robust curries and spicy red meat dishes.”
Much of our narrative is aimed at involving the diner more in the process of wine pairing with Asian food, along with expert help at hand. Indeed, there are two very talented professional sommeliers at the Conrad Hilton Koh Samui, Khun Cha and Khun Sabu. Incidentally, Khun Cha recently achieved the award for runner-up Best Sommelier in Thailand 2011. She and Khun Sabu have a strong grasp of matching wine with Thai and Western food and an intimate knowledge of the wine selection and design philosophy.
Much of the ideology is supported by a significant number of wines by the glass, indeed a very diverse selection of over 40 wines with no constraints in price points, spread over the three dining venues, that the sommeliers have individually chosen and will continue to finesse as the menus changes with the seasons as well ensuring most of the 300 wines listed are rotationally featured by the glass during the year.
It is a comprehensive list and yes an ambitious amount of wines by the glass, however thanks to a watershed development is wine preservation, they are kept perfectly by WINESAVE (www.winesave.com) which utilizes the inert noble gas argon; being colourless, odourless and flavourless, protects the wines essential qualities. Argons most exceptional quality is it combines with nothing; an atom that is totally resistant to bonding with other elements and being two and half times heavier than air, simply falls down displacing the harmful oxygen, forming an impenetrable layer between the wine and air, keeping wine in perfect condition.
The resort also has a purpose-designed cellar dug in to the cliff with state-of-the-art temperature and humidity control that is also available for private diners with a table accommodating up to 8 people. Warm jacket required!
Perhaps the most strategic if not fascinating of the three concept dining options for guests is Jahn, an exclusive 24 seat dedicated cliff-top restaurant serving contemporary, cutting edge Thai cuisine, with the resorts Executive Sous Chef Joe Diaz in the kitchen.
Diaz is a US and Spanish citizen and has worked in some of the world’s finest kitchens. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu Academy and named Best Young Chef of the Year 2006 in Spain, Diaz has worked in five different Michelin starred restaurants under culinary world superstars such as Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain, Alain Ducasse at Plaza Athenee in Paris, Thomas Keller at French Laundry in California, Nobu Matsuhisa at Nobu in Florida, and Sergi Arola at La Broche in Madrid.
Needless to say, his interpretation of Thai cuisine will be dynamic although having had the privilege of being one of the very first people to dine at Jahn and talk at length with him on his cuisine philosophy, you can be assured the focal point here will always be on sourcing the very best produce with a deep respect for wholesome and flavoursome ingredients enhanced by the creative and technical skills he has attained.
This will also be where Sommelier Khun Cha will exercise her talents most and there will be plenty of opportunity for guests to discover new wine and food sensations.
Nurturing all this talent and the man with the mammoth task of conducting this gastronomic orchestra and somewhat daunting logistical challenge is the resort’s Executive Chef Konrad Inghelram, although from meeting him, I sense a man of formidable experience and battle-hardened leadership skills.
Inghelram, a Belgian national, whose training began in France at the Michelin starred Au Chapon Fin, has worked for four different Michelin starred kitchens most recently in the UK where he ran some of London’s finest dining venues including Quaglinos, Browns and the Georgian restaurant at Harrods. Inghelram has also collaborated with the legendary Albert Roux for menu and concept development for the Sofitel St. James in London and on board Cunard’s legendary QE2.
There is the all-day restaurant, Zest, with its intriguing concept of a food library with a wall of refrigerated rectangle display cabinets with small dishes that puts a new perspective on buffet dining, indeed one of the best breakfast displays I have ever seen. Throughout the day there is a menu of Thai and Mediterranean dishes, and an abridged version of the Jahn wine list, again with many offerings by the glass.
Down by the pool-side an open-air casual restaurant, Azure Bar and Grill will no doubt be the place to chill, and enjoy a glass of wine in the horizontal position. There’s everything from wood-fired pizzas to Mediterranean grills and Thai salads and seafood, with a breezy wine list with lots of crisp whites, chilled Beaujolais and Rose to be had.
Whilst its early days for the resort and the wine program with a lot of learning and discovery ahead, I already have total confidence in the Sommeliers and staff, under the excellent and tireless guidance of food and beverage manager, Roman Nieschlag. Of course staff training will be ongoing, and I will have to endure the arduous conditions of resort again – soon!
For more information, visit www.conradkohsamui.com