In all my food research leading up to the trip, I sensed one common theme: the best food is found on the streets. Forget going to a sit-down restaurant. You'll just eat subpar food and probably pay a lot more.
In some ways I would agree.
One of the best dishes, period, that I enjoyed in Thailand was a perfect plate of drunken noodles from a famous, open air roadside hole-in-the-wall. Similarly, I will never forget the incredible tom yum noodle soup I had in an alleyway in the old Bangrak area of the city. There's no doubt that some of these street vendors have been perfecting their single craft for decades, and therefore truly create some works of art that are not easily replicated by novices.
But I would disagree about the advice to skip the sit-down restaurants.
And then you've got a place like Nahm, which is in a category by itself.
Nahm is the brainchild of David Thompson, and Australian chef who has always shown an extreme interest in Thai cuisine. After spending some time honing his craft in Bangkok, he opened a few Thai restaurants in Sydney before he was tapped in 2009 to open an upscale Thai restaurant in London.
Chef Thompson studied ancient Thai cookbooks and recreated dishes using methods that are hardly used anymore. To some, he is resurrecting a craft that was slowly dying in Thailand.
Nahm in London received its first Michelin star soon after opening. It was the first Thai restaurant ever to receive a star. After years of success, Thompson decided to take the risky move and open a second Nahm . . . . in Bangkok.
It's one thing to be a foreigner in London opening a Thai restaurant. It's a completely different ballgame when you enter someone else's "home turf" and introduce to them their own cuisine presented in a way that's even many of the locals don't completely recognize.
We arrived at the trendy COMO hotel not knowing exactly what to expect. The server was extremely pleasant and spoke excellent English. I think we later found out he was actually from Hong Kong, or had at least spent a significant amount of time there.
The first question is important: How spicy?
Bryan can handle a lot of heat. By American standards, nothing has ever been too hot for him. He frequently dumps hot sauce, chili flakes, or whatever sauce has a "kick" onto his food and has no problem eating it. He loves spicy.
"Thai spicy!" Bryan replied affirmatively.
"Are you sure?"
Up to this point, we hadn't tasted anything we couldn't handle, so Bryan agreed.
Soon, our amuse bouche arrived - a triangular slice of pineapple topped with pork in a mixture made with palm sugar and tamarind. According to the server, this dish was based on a Thai street snack that Thai people eat with their hands.
We each tentatively picked up a triangle with our hands and ate the piece in one bite.
It was alright. Nothing ground breaking. The flavors reminded me of Taiwanese sweet pork jerky.
Food at Nahm is meant to be enjoyed family style, and thus all of the food comes out at once. Though you can order a la carte, a great way to enjoy a bunch of dishes it to order the set menu, which costs 1800 Baht (around $57 USD per person). For this price, you get a selection of "canapes" (small appetizers), followed by a dish of your choice from each section of the menu (salad, soup, appetizer, curry, main dish, dessert). As you can see, our table was hardly big enough to fit everything on the table.
Our first "canape" was a "taco" of sorts filled with bean sprouts and tofu. Consistent with many Thai dishes, each bite had a balanced blend of sweet and savory. The fresh herbs inside added a fragrant element, and we realy loved the light and delicate shell.
Our second canape was Skewered Southern Grilled Mussels. The mussels were covered with a thick, smoky, and earthy sauce, whose deep umami was balanced out by the refreshing cucumber slices.
Our third canape was a Smoked Fish, Peanut and Tapioca Dumpling. I loved the texture of the sticky rice ball, which was filled with both spicy and salty flavors. The heat was most certainly present here, though it was a slower heat that took awhile to gain momentum.
Our fourth canape was a flavorful mixture of Deep Fried Pork with Vegetables Wrapped in Betel Leaves.
The leaf itself was neutral, but the filling, which included pork, generous amounts of onions, and other herbs and spices, was spicy, tart, very salty, and intensely full of flavor.
And then the main courses came all at once!
One of our favorite dishes was our salad course, the Beef Cucumber Mint Salad. It had the perfect blend and balance of contrasting flavors. The salad was spicy, tart, salty, and gorgeously aromatic (from the mint and the basil!).
Unfortunately it was really, really spicy!
It was comical to watch us eat. It was so good we kept on eating it, but my nose started to run, and Bryan began sweating.
Yet we kept on eating because it was seriously so good.
Our soup was a chicken soup flavored with spicy chilies, lemongrass, and basil. It was quite spicy, salty, and very fragrant. I did find the soup to be just a bit too oily and salty to enjoy alone, and thought it tasted much better with some rice (which they carefully spooned onto my plate in the form of a perfect cannelle, like the way fancy places serve ice cream. Seriously).
Another fantastic dish was the red dry curry with pork.
Bryan doesn't eat coconut milk, so the kitchen was a bit limited in the type of curry they could make. Thankfully, we learned there was a type of curry, called a dry curry, which is made without coconut milk.
This curry was intensely rich, with a complex mix of flavors that I can't even begin to describe justly. It was rich, dense, and (thankfully) not terribly spicy. Because it was so rich, I could only handle small amounts of it. Sadly, it was one of the dishes we were unable to finish.
The next three dishes we were supposed to somehow eat together. Perhaps put a bit of each on the spoon and take a huge bite?
The Shrimp/Fish Paste with Scallions was an extremely spicy sauce that clearly needed to be paired with something else.
Fire Roasted Mackerel was savory and had tons of umami.
In contrast, the Sweet Pork Belly when eaten alone was very sweet.
By putting these three ingredients together, we could taste in one bite the salty, fatty, umami of the mackerel, the intensely spicy kick from the shrimp paste/scallion sauce, and taming, sweetness from the pork. Together, it made for a nice, balanced bite.
I was extremely pleased with the quality of the stir fried vegetables, which were cooked with fish paste dumplings. I loved the crispy freshness from these vegetables, which were so tender I wondered whether they were the young tender shoots of a particular vegetable.
As a palate cleanser, we had a classic Thai bite (you see these all over the streets of Bangkok): green mango with sugar.
Remember what I said about Bryan and coconut milk?
Unfortunately, all the desserts had some element of coconut milk, so we couldn't get around that one. Heh, Bryan watched me as I ate ALL the desserts.
I love coconut milk desserts, especially the way they are prepared in Thailand, which often mixes salty and sweet elements into one dessert. This Chilled Coconut Milk Soup was filled with a bunch of goodies, such as various beans, grass jelly, and even corn!
I'll have to admit, I'd never had durian before. The closest I came was a sampling of some durian ice cream at a Thai restaurant in Boston, where I proceeded to conclude that durian "smells like trash."
It most definitely smelled like trash or sewage. But oddly, in the midst of the trash, I could smell something sweet, fragrant, and fruity.
I tentatively took a bite.
Yes, it was stinky, but it was also creamy, and sort of tasty. Plus, I did love the coconut milk and sticky rice.
As I continued to venture bite after bite, I realized I was growing a weird sort of affinity for this polarizing fruit.
Oddly, it is a little addictive. I can't explain it, but there's something about the flavor that just made me want to keep on eating "just another bite."
I will venture to say that I thought this dish was fantastic (though most definitely an acquired taste!). The coconut milk must have been cooked in durian, because the entire sticky rice/coconut milk portion of the dish had strong hits of durian flavor. Obviously the creamy chunks of fruit on top had the most flavor, but the entire dish was full of durian essence.
We finally ended the meal with a few petit fours: young coconut milk rolled in sugar, sweet puffed wheat balls on banana slices, sweet egg yolks, and traditional madeleines.
It was an interesting, adventurous, (spicy!), and fun meal.
Bryan remarked, "that is the first time in my life that a dish was so spicy I actually couldn't finish it and had to stop."
Only in Thailand, perhaps.
In some ways, I feel a little less qualified than general to comment on this restaurant. I'm by no means an expert on Thai food, and virtually everything here was new to me. I had no concept or true appreciation of how ancient some of the recipes or techniques used to make these dishes could be.
However, other experts have clearly spoken. The new Nahm in Bangkok squeezed into San Pellegrino's The World's 50 Best Restaurants list at number 50 in 2012. In 2013 it climbed to number 32. It's also listed number 3 on the corresponding Asia's Top 50 Restaurants list.
Personally, I do know that there were some dishes that I loved, while there were other dishes that I thought were nice, but didn't necessarily blow me away. In general, however, I was continually delighted and surprised by the novelty and variety of dishes presented throughout the meal. For me, a Thai food newbie, it was all new and exciting.
Although my favorite food memories in Thailand still mainly come from the street, I do hold a special place in my heart for some of the dishes here (namely the Durian Sticky Rice and the Beef Mint Salad!). Frankly, it's hard to get a Michelin** quality meal with so many courses for $57 USD.
I'd still recommend it if you're going to be in Thailand.
It you only have a few days, however, I'd check out the street first.
*This photograph was actually not taken in Thailand, but for fun, I thought it fit the post pretty well
**The London Nahm lost its Michelin star in 2010
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