A hot property outside of Bangkok

One of the great things about my job is that I get the chance to visit some really amazing hotels. Last week, I spent several days in Cha-Am, which is about two and half hours from Bangkok or 30 minutes from Hua Hin, art directing a photo shoot at a stunning new property. The Alila Cha-Am (soft) opens 1 February 2008. It’s been designed by one of Thailand’s hottest architects, Duangrit Bunnag. Architecturally, it’s brilliant. The lobby is accessible via a manicured lawn and a sweeping marble staircase. The raised marble reception area offers panoramic views of the property. Two rows of residences run down from lobby towards the main (active) pool and the beach. The centre of the resort is a low 1-story strip, covered by water, that houses the spa, another pool area (called the Chill pool), a bar, and the resort’s casual dining restaurant, Motion. Directly opposite the lobby, above Motion, sits Cloud Loft, a chic dining and drinking spot.

The hotel has 72 rooms and 7 pool villas. The very chic room interiors mix industrial elements and warm wood furnishings smartly and comfortably. The floors are polished concrete; the walls are raw concrete. Each room has a 37 inch Samsung flatscreen TV and an Apple TV. Upon booking a room, I’m told that guests will be given a movie menu. By the time they arrive, all their pre-selected films will already be downloaded into their Apple TV units. The property — as you would expect of any new and 5-star property — offers free WIFI access in the rooms and all around the property.

Every bathroom has a rain shower, which is something also pretty standard these days. But these rain showers are amazing. The whole bathroom area is the shower area, i.e. there’s no shower cubicle, just a flat steel square panel built into the bathroom’s very high ceiling. I have to admit that I’m not usually a fan of rain showers, but these were both effective and really beautiful.

Sadly, during my visit, the spa was still being finished. What I saw though was really exciting and I can’t wait to return soon and book a few treatments.

As mentioned, Alila Cha-Am opens 1st February. If you ckick over to the resort’s website, you’ll find a couple of attractive pre-opening offers worth considering. I’m already making plans to head back to check out the resort when it is fully operational. So is the rest of the team that worked on the photo shoot with me. It really is that cool.

One Night in Bangkok

One of the very best things about being based in a place like Singapore is that it’s just a hop, skip and a jump from a number of interesting and attractive destinations in the region. A very popular place for a quick weekend jaunt is Bangkok. Each and every week, hordes of Singaporeans and other travelers descend upon the City of Angels for a fun-filled program of great food, blissful spa treatments and mad shopping.

I usually like to spend at least 2 or 3 days in Bangkok but this past weekend, S and I dropped in for just one night. Some close friends of ours wanted to head up in order to dine at Le Normandie, the beautiful and classic French restaurant at the equally classic Oriental Hotel. Prior to this trip, neither S nor I had ever eaten at Le Normandie, a restaurant that several foodie friends consider to be one of the all-time great places in which to dine. And since both my darling wife and I both have a secret propensity for dressing up for dinner–and since there aren’t really any fine-dining restaurants in Singapore that one dresses up for (until Les Amis re-opens, we’re told)–we eagerly packed my best suit and one of her nicest dresses and joined our friends for this gluttonous adventure.

We arrived in BKK on Sunday morning, having hopped a dreadfully early flight. After quickly checking into The Oriental (and oohing and aahing at our room for a while), we packed ourselves into an SUV and headed off to lunch. On the way, we made a quick pitstop at MBK (Mah Boon Krong) because S needed to pick up a new pair of shoes; the one pair of flats, a brand new pair of Repettos, that she had packed for the trip had, after just a few hours of wear, inexplicably developed a rather large hole, rendering them useless and her shoeless. Fortunately, MBK is a treasure trove of both fakes and cheap original goods. S found, in just a few minutes, a nice affordable pair of soft, chocolate-colored flats to wear.

We had lunch at Chua Kim Heng (81, 83 Pattanakarn Rd, Suan Luang, tel: 02-2319-2510), a very casual Teochew (Chinese) restaurant that specializes in shark’s fin and pot-stewed (braised) goose, something S and I both love. As usual, we ate too much. We had deep-fried prawn rolls, two kinds of green vegetables, stewed goose web with noodles, rice vermicelli with prawns, liver fried with leeks, and a nice big plate of braised goose. The goose, which was the main reason we went, was very good. It wasn’t, at least to S and me, as good as the braised goose we had eaten at a stall on Thanon Songwat on a previous trip, but it was still very tasty. (Please don’t ask me for the address of the stall; we don’t even know the name. All we know is to take the river ferry to Ratchawong, walk straight, then turn right on Thanon Songwat and keep walking. After 10 minutes or so, it will be on your left.)

After lunch, we dropped into Central Chidlom for an hour of frenzied shopping. Then back to The Oriental for high tea with some friends who live in Bangkok. I don’t know how many of you are fans of afternoon tea, but both S and I enjoy the experience. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that The Oriental’s afternoon tea is served in the hotel’s very pretty and very colonial Author’s Lounge. And it really doesn’t hurt that the actual tea being served is from Mariage Freres, S’s favourite purveyor of fine teas. We ordered both the Western and Thai tea sets. Each comes with a silver tiered platter filled with scrumptious snacks. The former, obviously, piled high with European pastries, cakes, sandwiches and scones; the latter with local Thai desserts and cakes.

After tea, we chilled out for a couple hours (I watched some TV while S crashed out) before dressing up for an elegant and very well-executed dinner at Le Normandie. One of our friends had brought along a bottle of Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque (one of my personal fave bubblies), a Puligny-Montrachet, and 3 different red wines (a Palmer, an Angelus, and something else which I have embarrassingly forgotten). The chef cooked an excellent meal, the highlights of which (to me) were a three vegetable soup with mushrooms, a perfectly roasted pigeon, and an orange souffle served with vanilla ice cream. Post-dinner, S and I enjoyed a special treat. One of our friends had arranged for her favourite masseuse to visit us in our room and work on our tired bodies for a couple of hours.

The next morning, we met two of our companions for a quick walk around the neighborhood. They had discovered a wonderful porridge place 10 minutes away. (Again, I don’t know the name of the cafe, but it’s easy to find. Walk south towards State Tower, turn right on Thanon Charoen Krung–which puts State Tower on your left–and walk for 3-4 minutes. It will be on your left. You can also identify it by the small sign for gourmet coffee that’s placed on the street in front of it.) This wonderful little porridge place is run by two sisters. They serve pork porridge, spiked with pork balls, innards, tendon, century egg, a fresh egg, lots of ginger and served with fried dough crullers. The porridge was fantastic. Inside the cafe, towards the back, was another young woman with the most amazing stall. From a small makeshift and mobile cart, she sold gourmet coffees and fresh juices. We ordered an espresso, a latte, an iced coffee and a tea. It was great fun watching her work. She grinds her beans fresh and uses a proper espresso machine. One of our friends, who works in F&B, exclaimed that the espresso she made was better than many he’s had at some of the finer hotels and restaurants in the region. That she could produce all that she does from just a tiny stall was really inspiring.

We had lunch back at the hotel, at their ultra-sexy Chinese restaurant, China House. Both S and I had been there before and we both adore the restaurant’s gorgeous interiors, designed by the folks behind Design Republic in Shanghai. We also really like the food there. The consultant chef is Jereme Leung, from 3 on the Bund‘s Whampoa Club. S had helped Jereme write his first cookbook, New Shanghai Cuisine, so we know his food quite well. We had a nice, light but yummy lunch. Of course, we had Peking duck. We also had a lovely little bowl of minced pork noodles which were really delicious and proved once again that sometimes it’s the simplest dishes, done well, that are the very best.

After our meal, we rushed back to our rooms to pack and hop a ride to the airport. Two days later, I still feel full from all the food we consumed in just 36 hours. Of course, I’d do it, or rather, eat it all again in a heartbeat.

Old world charm in BKK

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For the next 4 weeks, S and I will be filing reports from the road. Yesterday marked the start of a slightly crazy round the world trip. And while part of the trip is work, an almost equal portion of it is leisure. I’m personally very excited because next week we’ll be attending the wedding of one of my closest friends from university. She’s getting married at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna-Niguel, in Orange County, California (recognizable to most of us fanboys and pop culture buffs as the site of the wedding in the American Pie movie series). Other stops on our whirlwind tour include Bangkok, Tokyo, New York, Washington DC, Paris and Dubai. As you can imagine, my darling and always-snacking wife S has already put together a pretty long list of gustatory must-visits for each destination.

Yesterday, we spent the night in Bangkok. (We had to fly via Bangkok because I had purchased our round-the-world tickets from there; the price per ticket from there was considerably cheaper than what was quoted to me in Singapore.) Because we visit Bangkok pretty often, we decided to spend only one night there. Essentially, we had just enough time to check into our hotel, run to Emporium to pick up a few gifts for friends, chill out for a bit, have dinner with friends and catch a few hours of sleep before catching the 0650am flight to Tokyo.

During my last business trip to the City of Angels, I had visited The Eugenia and I immediately knew S would love it. It is a charming 12 room Relais & Chateaux property on Sukhumvit Soi 31. The hotel is very nice, decorated smartly with vintage and antique furnishings. Quirky and kitschy design elements, like stuffed animal heads on the walls, lend a bit of levity while the owner’s fleet of vintage luxury cars (a Daimler limousine, 2 sexy cream-coloured Mercedes, and a Jaguar S) sitting outside the hotel ups the sex appeal tremendously. (Guests staying at the hotel can choose to be picked up by one of these cars; we tried both the Mercedes 220S and the Daimler. We wholeheartedly recommend the Daimler. There’s a lot more leg room, the air conditioning is more powerful and it’s simply a much smoother ride.)

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We stayed in the Sawadee Suite, which was both elegant and homey. The copper hand-beaten bathtub was gorgeous and the duck down pillows and duvets were luxurious. The whole hotel has wireless Internet access and the room rate includes a complimentary minibar. The hotel also has a jazzed-up tuk tuk that is available to ferry you back and forth to the nearest sky train station. Just next door to the hotel is Le Vendome, an excellent little French restaurant helmed by Nicolas Joanny, who used to cook at Les Saisons in Singapore. Partly because we were lazy, and partly because we wanted to see what Nicolas was up to, we had dinner there. The food was very good. I had prawns pastilla served with a langoustine bisque to start. This was followed by a rack of lamb served with pork belly confit and eggplant caviar. For dessert, I had crepes suzette with almond ice cream.

If you’re heading up to BKK for a quick visit, I really recommend The Eugenia. It has a sexy old-world charm that few hotels are able to capture these days. Plus, there’s nothing cooler than being ferried to and from the airport in a vintage Daimler limo.

The Eugenia
267, Soi Sukhumvit 31, North Klongtan
Wattana, Bangkok Thailand 10110
Tel: +66-2-259-9017-9
Fax: +66-2-259-9010
Reservation: reservation@theeugenia.com

Le Vendome
267/2 Sukhumvit Soi 31(Sawasdee)
Klongton, Klongtoey
Bangkok 10110
Tel: +66 (0) 2662 0530-1
Fax: +66 (0) 2662 0529
contact@levendomerestaurant.com

Skipping around Southern Thailand

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The view from Rayavadee in Krabi

Huge snaps to my wife S for updating this blog while I’ve been on the road. For the past 10 days, I’ve been flouncing my way across some of the prettier parts of Southern Thailand on an assignment. (In a nutshell, I was scouting the area’s boutique hotels and resorts for a client.)

I started my trip in Koh Samui. My colleague and I spent a couple nights at the SILA Evason Hideway, which is a swanky rustic-chic property with beautiful pool villas and personalized butler service. Its restaurant, Dining on the Rocks, is worth a visit. It’s easily one of the most unique and beautiful restaurants I’ve ever been to. Sub-divided across multiple platforms overlooking the water, every table offers a stunning view. If rustic-chic isn’t your thing, I’d recommend checking out The Library resort. While it’s located on busy Chaweng beach (which is either a good or bad thing depending on your personal preferences), this modern, ultra-cool and sleek retreat is both private and comfortable. The red mosaic pool is very sexy, as is the all-white library, stocked full of the best international art and design books. All rooms come with gleaming white iMacs and plasma screen TVs, extras that media addicts like me really appreciate. The food at the Library was also pleasant and affordable. Sadly, few of the meals we had in Samui really blew us away. (We were really looking forward to dining at the much ballyhooed Betelnut, whose chef, Jeffrey Lord, became famous at Poppies, a veritable Samui institution. In the end, though, I found his fusion food a little amateurish and clumsy.) In fact, the best meal we had on this island was a breakfast at Padma, the main restaurant at a chic all-villa property called Karma Samui.

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Clockwise from top left: island-hopping; the library at Library; Amanpuri; the view from Baba; brekkie at Zeavola; Catch beach club

From Samui, we hopped over to the Pearl of the Andaman, Phuket. As I’ve mentioned previously, I spent the summer of 1993 working in Phuket, so I have a strange love-hate relationship with the place. I love the island’s natural beauty but hate that this gorgeous place has become so over-developed and overrun with tourists over the years. I remember Surin beach when it was a sleepy, sexy strip of sand with only a handful of cheap cafes nearby. Now, the area is dense with expensive resorts, restaurants and shops (there’s even a mall). Fortunately, not all of these new developments are eyesores. Both my colleague and I were really taken by the Twinpalms Hotel and its ubercool Catch Beach Club, located right on the sand at Surin. The beach club is airy, clean, cool and serves simple but good food and satisfying cocktails. There’s live music every night. Up the road from Twin Palms is Amanpuri, the grandmama of all chi-chi resorts in Southeast Asia. Good news is grams still looks like a million bucks and her clients are all worth many times more. The restaurants (a Thai and an Italian) are still among the best on the island. A good place to chow down on some Modern Thai food in sleek surrounds is Silk, in Surin Plaza. Sadly, one of my one-time favourite restaurants has now become nothing more than a tourist trap. I took my colleague to dine at Lotus, at Bang Tao Bay, and was utterly disappointed. What was once a great, affordable place for good seafood has now become yet another lousy rip-off.

I was planning on grabbing a meal at Lim’s over on Kalim Beach because some friends had raved about it. Somehow though, the night I had reservations I got sidetracked and ended up dining in Baba, the restaurant at the ultra-chic Sri Panwa resort. The cocktails at this luxe retreat were perfect and the view was stunning (of course, the half-naked Eurasian hottie frolicking in the pool in front of us only helped raise the hip factor). The restaurant’s chef, Christian Karl, who was previously at Nobu in London, prepared a smart and delicous tasting menu for us. Another restaurant worth the trip is Rivet, the industrial, urban steakhouse in the newly rebranded and re-opened Indigo Pearl resort. There, I had a delicious pumpkin soup with crab cake and caviar followed by a juicy US ribeye, served with onion rings and creamed spinach.

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Clockwise from top left: beach and sun; dining at Zeavola; pad thai at Costa Lanta; the restaurant at Costa Lanta; Destination Air; Tubkaak

From Phuket, we jumped a boat and spent a few days island-hopping. On Phi Phi island, we stayed at the gorgeous Zeavola resort. Owned by the wonderfully exuberant Khun Quanchai Panitpichetvong, this resort is built to look like an ancient Thai village, but with modern (and luxurious) touches. There are two F&B outlets, a casual beachside cafe and a sexy, open-air restaurant with lovely design elements. The food is good too. For dinner, I had a yummy crab pasta with asparagus. For brekkie the next day, I had a fantastic dish the hotel calls “Thai Royal Eggs”, which was fried eggs with minced chicken, sausages and other yummy stuff served on a cast-iron pan. A really cute touch that I liked was that the brekkie menu here is printed on a wax-lined bag. Inside the bag are freshly fried dough fritters, which are served with your choice of sweetened condensed milk or a pandan jam. The following day, we ferried over to Koh Lanta and stayed at the chic but minimalist Costa Lanta. The female owners clearly enjoy their food and booze because both the cocktails here and the food was excellent.

Our last stop was Krabi, where we checked out three resorts, among them Tubkaak, which was pretty and charming, and Rayavadee, a very pricey secluded property that I had visited previously for a friend’s wedding. Amusingly, the best food I had in Krabi was neither a Thai meal nor was it at any of these chi-chi hotels. It was at at an Irish pub named Paddy’s, where I had one of the best burgers I’ve had in ages. On the last night of our trip, I happily tucked into a very satisfying and really delicious bacon cheeseburger, washed down with a cold wheat beer. My colleague had a homemade pie, which she wolfed down and stated was great. The fries were also excellent here, fried to just the right level of crispness. Simple but stupendous.

We left Krabi very fashionably. My colleague described our departure as “very James Bond”. We had booked seats on Destination Air, a tiny little airline that runs seaplanes around Southern Thailand. From our hotel, we took a longtail boat into the middle of the ocean. Right on schedule, our plane swooped down to pick us up and bring us to Phuket’s airport. It was a great and gorgeously scenic way to leave Thailand, flying directly over the islands we had just spent 10 days skipping through.

Eating Italian in Bangkok

It might seem a little odd for some of you that I’m writing about Italian restaurants in Bangkok as opposed to recommending places for delicious Thai food. But what I, and many other foodies, have discovered over the past few years is that Bangkok is home to some of the best Italian restaurants in Southeast Asia. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the quality of Italian food there is, on average, much better than in any other place in this region. Whenever I visit the city of angels, I make it a point to have at least one or two good Italian meals. Sometimes, more than half my meals end up being at Italian restaurants. Anyway, here’s a short list of places to try on your next visit.

Biscotti
I haven’t eaten at this lovely, airy, and chic restaurant in the Four Seasons hotel for a little while. But over the past half-decade or so, I’ve had some really great meals there. The pizzas, baked in a wood-fire oven, are always good. So too are the pastas. Very popular are the penne with lamb ragout, young leek and red wine reduction and the squid ink angel hair with scallops, shrimps sprout and garlic cream. This is a very popular place and is almost always packed at lunch with businessmen who like the set lunch that includes a generous appetiser buffet.
Four Seasons Bangkok, 155 Rajdamri Road
Tel: 0-2255-5443

Zanotti
Zanotti is the restaurant that most hip Thais mention when you ask them what their favourite Italian restaurant is. For over a half-decade, chef-owner Gianmaria Zanotti has turned his homey establishment off Sathorn Road into a little slice of Northern Italy. His ingredients are always fresh. The place is always busy (you MUST reserve a table if you plan on going for dinner). From what I’ve seen, many regulars never actually crack open the menu. They trust the chef will know what they want and serve them food that keeps them coming back for more.
Saladaeng Colonnade Condominium, 21/2 Soi Saladaeng, Silom Road
Tel: 0-2636-0002, 0-2636-0266

Giusto
This pricey but slick restaurant is on Sukhumvit Soi 23. It’s the kind of place you’d take someone to show off a little, while also having a good meal. Chef Fabio Colautti has prepared a really long menu of dishes that come from all over Italy. If you get a tad confused reading it, feel free to ask Giulio Saverino, who runs the front of house here, for advice. On my last trip, Mr Saverino put together a great antipasto plate which I and my companions devoured. Everything on it was delicious. The wine list is just as extensive as the menu and has some lovely choices available. Sadly, I recommend against asking for help here. On my last visit, when I asked about a specific wine, the sommelier then proceeded to suggest several alternatives. All were priced at least twice as much as the wine I had asked about – a sure sign that he was thinking more about his commission than my interests (and limitations). The restaurant also has a nice bar, perfect for pre or post dinner drinks.
16 Sukhumvit Soi 23
Tel: 0-2258-4321

Delicatezza
delicatezza.jpg This cheap and cheerful little restaurant is a favourite, secret haunt for hi-sos that prioritize substance over style. The decor is simple – some might say non-descript – but the food is excellent. It’s not fancy fare though. It’s good, rustic Italian food cooked simply and with love. The chef-owner, Zariya Charoenphol, tends to be a tad heavy-handed with her pepper, but that suits me fine. I usually end up adding extra pepper on a lot of the food I eat, so for me, her seasoning is spot-on. On my last visit, I had a side order of sauteed spinach and a big plate of pasta with mushrooms and bacon in a rich, cheesy (and peppery) cream sauce. It was yummy. Order some of the homemade ice creams for dessert. These are also fabulous.
351/3 Soi Thonglor, Sukhumvit Soi 55
Tel: 0-2382-2850

Antonio’s
This charming, intimate restaurant is perfect for a first date. It tells your potential partner that while you appreciate beauty, you aren’t into flashy things. It also tells him or her that you value quality. Antonio’s, run by Aussie-Italian Tony Armenio, serves excellent food of the highest quality. His starter of ravioli stuffed with porcini mushrooms and sauced in a truffle cream is excellent. From what I hear, it is also becoming something of a cult dish. On my last visit, I had a breaded veal chop. It was great, both crisp on the outside and amazingly pink and tender inside. Antonio’s, while not as popular as Zanotti nor as flashy as Biscotti or Giusto, is perfect for people serious about their food.
59/1 Soi Sawadee, Sukhumvit soi 31
Tel: 0-2258-4247, 0-2258-4108

China House, Bangkok

Ever since my friend B described the specially designed contraption that the recently renovated China House restaurant at The Oriental, Bangkok, had commissioned just to roast and dry their lacquered (Peking) ducks and geese, I’ve been a little obsessed about visiting it. The perfect excuse presented itself last week when I spent a day in Bangkok meeting with Dr S and his wife V. As I was literally spending just one day in the city, circumstances demanded that we meet for lunch rather than dinner. I proposed that we have a light lunch at The China House. The double story restaurant is quite a sight to behold. Its exterior is clad with slabs of stacked slate and a long, protruding section lined with large windows invites you to peek into the kitchen (unfortunately, I was ill-placed to catch sight of the fantastical, fowl-twirling invention I had been told about). The street-level entrance takes you into a small space which has a ceiling lined with over a hundred red lanterns, making it a stunning introduction to a breathtakingly dramatic restaurant.

As I stepped further into The China House’s cool, dark interior, the first thing that caught my eye was its sexy Tea Apothecary which sits in a double volume space at the heart of the restaurant. Large canisters of Mariage Freres tea line the wall facing the entrance; it was a bit of a spiritual encounter for me. This is the first (and currently the only) place in Bangkok which serves 35 Mariage Freres teas (including two blends specially created for the hotel, the Oriental blend and the China House blend). I could be wrong, but it is also possibly the only place within a two-hour flight from Singapore which serves such a considerable selection of MF teas. I was determined to have tea in this alluring, intimate salon.

We were led further into the restaurant which has an Art Deco-inspired interior harking back to 1930s Shanghai. I love the private booths for two or four cocooned in red silk curtains. The cuisine here is modern Chinese in presentation but classical Chinese in flavour. Shanghai-based Singaporean chef Jereme Leung serves as its consultant. Since there were only three of us, we ordered a selection of dimsum and a Peking duck (a house specialty). What I enjoyed most about the dimsum were its clean, natural flavours and translucent, delicate skins. I could taste the subtly sweet meat juices in the shrimp and pork siu mai flavoured with salted duck eggs which had just enough fat to make it tender. And I relished the textures of the fine, hand cut fillings as we tucked into shrimp dumplings (har gau) and freshly made charsiew rice rolls (cheong fun) with coriander. We had avoided the “Bygone and Thai cuisine-inspired” dimsum selections because we really wanted to keep lunch simple and reasonably healthy, but I predicted that CH would order the slow braised pork belly served with butterfly shaped soft buns at the dinner he was planning to have there later in the week. The glutinous rice siew mai filled with minced pork and holy basil also sounded promising.

Sharing a whole Peking duck between three people is, in my opinion, a real treat. One gets just enough crisp, paper-thin duck skin to feel just a tad over indulged. Chef Kong suggested that we have some of the duck meat served finely minced in elegant little lettuce cups (sang choy bao). Although this is a fairly common dish, his version was deliciously refined. We ended our meal with more duck served shredded with eefu noodles (sublime comfort food in my books) before proceeding to the Tea Apothecary. I am quickly entering The China House onto my list of must-visits in Bangkok.

The China House
48 Oriental Avenue
Bangkok
Tel: 66 (2) 659 9000 Ext. 7650-1

Photos courtesy of The Oriental Bangkok 

Chicken and cashews

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The most decadent summer of my life was probably the summer of 1993. I was in university then and instead of doing the responsible thing and finding a serious summer internship, I accepted an offer to spend the summer working at a beach resort. The resort, then part of the Pacific Islands Club group, was in Bang Tao Bay in Phuket, Thailand. For ten fun-filled weeks, I taught windsurfing and sailing and worked on my tan. As a Clubmate (yup, seriously, that’s what the resort called its activities staff), I was also asked to participate in a range of other activities, many of them rather embarrassing. The Pacific Islands Clubs are inspired by Club Med. And just like at Club Meds, where the G.O.s (gentils organisateurs) perform in nightly shows for their guests, we Clubmates also put on some pretty God awful but amusing performances. Over the course of that summer, any inhibitions I had had about making a fool of myself in front of strangers were quickly shed.

Prancing around on stage like an idiot aside, the summer was a blast. I got to hang out on a gorgeous beach every day. I got to windsurf and sail as much as I wanted. I met some really interesting people who stayed with us at the resort. And I partied constantly. You have to understand that the Clubmates I worked with were a motley crew of good-looking, semi-athletic twenty-somethings who were, to paraphrase Thoreau, sucking the marrow out of life. We partied with the guests (well, the cool ones at least) and partied harder with each other.

On our nights off, we would inevitably drift to a bar in Phuket Town called The Timber Hut. The in-house band, fronted by a hyperkinetic ex-lawyer named Kurt, covered classic rock anthems. Our favourite was Hotel California. Whenever he played it, my colleagues (and me occasionally) would rush on stage and sing along, often changing the words from “Hotel California” to “Hotel P.I.C.” The bar was always rocking. It was party-central for the foreigners who worked on the island, and we were all regulars. Our drink of choice was Mehkong-Coke and the one dish we always ordered when we were hungry was chicken and cashews, served with rice. It was a satisfying, simple dish that was not only delicious but would fill us up quickly and give us the energy to keep going all night long.

Today, I’ve put my all-night partying days long behind me. I wouldn’t touch Mehkong whiskey even if you paid me to drink it. But I still love chicken and cashews. It is such an easy dish to make and it tastes so darned good. Best of all, when I eat it, I remember those carefree days of living large in the summer of ’93.

Stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts
Kai phat met mamuang himmapaan

300grams chicken breast, sliced thinly
½ cup fried or roasted cashew nuts
¼ cup crisp-fried dried red chillies, cut into 1-centimetre lengths
1 red chilli, sliced diagonally
1 small onion, sliced
½ cup spring onion cut into 2.5-centimetre lengths
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons cooking oil
Fresh coriander for garnish

In a large pan, heat the cooking oil over a medium-high fire. When hot, throw in your garlic and stir until fragrant; don’t let it burn. Add the chicken and stir. After a minute of two, or when the chicken pieces are all white, add the dried chillies, onion, spring onion, cashews, fish sauce, and dark soy. Cook, stirring, for an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Add more soy or fish sauce to taste. Serve over steamed rice and garnish with the sliced chilli and coriander.

Flava is fresh


Khao Tang Na Tang

Regular readers will remember that a few weeks ago, S and I spent a fantastic week attending the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok’s 7th Annual World Gourmet Festival. Despite eating almost every single lunch and dinner that week in the hotel, S and I did manage to sneak out a couple times (although, if you’ve ever seen the Four Seasons Bangkok, you’d probably ask why would we ever want to leave the premises). One of the places we were able to visit is a restaurant called Flava, located in the swanky Dream Hotel. We had met a fantastic local food critc, Anantroj Thangsupanich, at Chef William Ledeuil’s dinner. His recommendation for an excellent Teochew braised goose stall was spot on, so when he told us we simply had to try Flava, we were more than happy to check it out.

The Dream Hotel is one of Bangkok’s newest boutique hotels. It was opened by 30-something Indian-American entrepreneur Vikram Chatwal (who one of my friends has described to me as the “male, Sikh Paris Hilton”). Chatwal had previously and famously opened another Dream Hotel and The Time hotel in New York City. Music fans might recognize the Dream as the location for Thai songstress Tata Young’s music video for “El Nin-Yo” (which in my opinion is a Godawful song).


Geang Kiew Wan Gai

Flava, located on the second floor of the hotel, was terrific. The food was both authentic and modern at the same time. This admirable feat was pulled off by Executive Chef David Hamilton and Executive Sous Chef Kunchit Srimuang. While keeping the flavours of their dishes as traditional and “real” as possible, the two long-time colleagues have also been able to present their dishes beautifully and elegantly. It’s no surprise that Flava has become a hit among locals and local food critics alike. Anantroj praised chefs Hamilton and Srimuang while also telling me that most of Bangkok’s most famous Thai restaurants are, sadly, only favored by expats. One of the most famous, in particular, he decried as “horrible” and said that no Thai would ever consider it a worthwhile place to dine in.

We sampled 6 dishes at Flava, all of them excellent. We started our meal with an order of Khao Tang Na Tang, one of my personal favourite Thai treats (pictured at the top of the post). This dish is essentially a dip, which can be made with pork or chicken or shrimp, served with home-made rice cakes. I have to say that I have rarely tasted a version as fresh and delicious as Flava’s, which Chef Srimuang made with shrimp. It was hard to resist ordering a second portion.


Yam thod man pla

After the sumptuous Khao Tang Na Tang, we had an order of Yam thod man pla (Thai fish cake & palm heart salad with yellow curry dressing). This was really nice and again tasted very fresh. We followed this with an order of Geang Kiew Wan Gai (green curry with chicken quenelles, apple eggplants and young coconut) and Pla Gao Raad prik (deep-fried grouper filets with chili paste and coconut). S and I both especially enjoyed the green curry. The ingredients were all supremely fresh. By shaping the chicken into quenelles, the chefs ensured that the meat would be consistently tender and very tasty–a nice contrast from the usual overcooked slices of chicken breast. The addition of a generous helping of young coconut flesh also lifted the dish beautifully.


coconut milk custard with pumpkin

Desserts at Flava are made daily. There is no menu, only what the chefs feel like making. The day we went, we tried a lovely coconut milk custard with stewed (chilled) pumpkin (pictured above) and a black sticky rice pudding (cake) with mango sorbet. Both dishes are riffs on traditional Thai dishes and are interestingly the most modern, or “fusion”, dishes coming out of chefs Hamilton’s and Srimuang’s kitchen. I really loved the custard with pumpkin. The light, sweet clean flavours were a great finish to a great meal. The dessert was also a wonderful palate-cleanser, wiping away any lingering hints of spice in my mouth.

Because I liked it so much, I asked Chef Srimuang for his Khao Tang Na Tang recipe, which I have transcribed below. Amazingly, it’s very simple. I guess how good this is depends entirely on how fresh your ingredients are. And, of course, the quality of your red curry paste (which you may or may not want to make yourself).

Khao Tang Na Tang with shrimp

50g red curry paste
100g fresh shrimp, cleaned and shelled
20g fresh sliced garlic
5ml fish sauce
5ml palm sugar
250ml coconut milk

Mince your shrimp. Set aside. Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan and then add the red curry paste, stirring and cooking for 1-2 minutes. Lower your heat, then add the shrimp and sliced garlic. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar and coconut milk. Simmer for another minute, stirring slowly and season with salt to taste.

(If you want, you can also add some minced pork–50g or so–to the recipe. Add it when you add the shrimp.)

Serve with rice cakes, which you can buy or make yourself.

Rice cakes
(based on a recipe from David Thompson’s Thai Food)

3 cups jasmine rice
1/2 cup soaked white sticky rice (optional)
oil for deep-frying

You have to start working on these 2 days ahead. Mix the rice together and cook. allow to cool. Press the rice over a large, flat, clean and dry metal tray. Sprinkle with a little water. Press down until the rice is only a quarter of an inch thick. Dry the rice in a warm place overnight or for 2 nights. The rice must be completely dry. As the rice dries, it will crack into pieces. Store in an airtight container. When ready to serve, deep-fry the rice cakes in the oil until they have puffed to almost triple their original size and are just beginning to colour.

Flava
10 Sukhumvit Soi 15
Kloeng Toey Nua, Wattana
Bangkok
Tel: +66 (0) 2254 8500

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My favorite curry noodles


The Khao Soi Gai that I made at the Four Seasons Resort’s Cooking School

From my very first bite, I was hooked on Khao Soi. Usually served with chicken (“Gai”), this Northern Thai curry noodle dish, most famously served all over Chiang Mai, has become one of my all-time favorite foods. My wife S and I first tasted it a few years ago, while S was on an assignment in Chiang Mai. She was there to write a story for an American magazine on the best Northern Thai restaurants in the area; I was playing hopalong hubbie, tagging along and happily helping her consume the massive amounts of food she needed to try over a 4 day period. However, as soon as I tried my first Khao Soi Gai, my plans changed. I had a new agenda. I began, much to S’s chagrin, a mad quest to find the very best version in the city. Over those 4 days, I must have eaten at least a dozen versions, declaring–at the end of the trip–that the best Khao Soi Gai in Chiang Mai could be found at a quaint, modest, old and very famous restaurant called Huen Phen.


Khao Soi Gai from Samoe Jia

For the uninitiated, Khao Soi is a dish of egg noodles cooked in two different ways–deep fried and boiled–served with curry. The boiled noodles are placed in the bottom of a serving bowl and topped with some sawtooth coriander. Over this is ladled a coconut milk based, yellow curry with tender pieces of chicken. On top of this is placed the crispy, deep-fried noodles. This is then served with a variety of condiments, which you add to your own taste: fish sauce, sugar, chili oil, pickled mustard leaves, diced shallots, and some fresh lime wedges. It’s interesting to note that this is the only curry from the Chiang Mai region that uses coconut milk.

S and I are just back from another quick 4 day trip to Chiang Mai. This time, S was there to write a story, for the same magazine, on the coolest design and homeware shops in Chiang Mai. Once again, this chubby, hopalong hubby went with her and not only tasted several versions of Khao Soi, but also learnt how to make it at the stunning Four Seasons Resort’s Cooking School. The first one we tasted was at a streetside cafe called Samoe Jai Khao Sawy. Samoe Jia is very well-known for its Khao Soi. And while I have to agree that their Khao Soi is very good, it was a tad too spicy for my taste. I did like, though, that the dish was served with little winglets/drumsticks that were so tender I could literally suck the meat off the bones. Curiously, this version also had amost no coconut milk in it.


The Khao Soi Gai from Samoe Jia has almost no coconut milk

My second Khao Soi was at Modiva, a trendy restaurant off the equally trendy Nimanhaemin Road. The Khao Soi Gai here was good, but not outstanding. The curry was rich, with a good, healthy amount of coconut milk. This version was also served with little chicken drumsticks. My next Khao Soi was at the very new and very exciting D2 hotel. This hotel is the first in a hip new line extension of the Dusit group. The hotel itself was awesome, with modern and whimsical interiors and a very cute orange accent that ran across all of the hotel’s branding. Their restaurant, Moxie, had a nice menu of local and international dishes. I ordered a Khao Soi with pork meatballs. It was both excellent and beautifully presented. The curry was mild and flavorful. The pork meatballs made for a nice change from the usual chicken. I really enjoyed this one.


The Khao Soi with pork meatballs from D2 hotel

My last Khao Soi (not counting the one I cooked for myself in the cooking school) was the most unusual, a Khao Soi with Osso Buco. We had this at the gorgeous, classy and very romantic restaurant at the Rachamanka hotel. Of all the Khao Sois we ate, S liked this one the best, both because of the unusual meat choice but also because the noodles used with this version had soaked up the very mild and delicious curry. It was, because the curry was the lightest and most flavorful, and because of the surprising choice of meat, also my favorite.


S hard at work prepping condiments for her Khao Soi Gai

Another Khao Soi that I ate–as mentioned–was one that I learnt to prepare myself. S and I had enrolled in a half day “Best of Thai Curries” course at the Four Seasons Resort’s truly stunning cooking school. It was a fun course taught in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. I’ve included below the recipe that the Four Seasons used to teach us how to make this delicious dish.

 

 


S presents her finished Khao Soi Gai

Chiva Som Part 3

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took a Thai Spa Cuisine cooking class at Chiva-Som. It was, for me, an important part of the research I needed to conduct in order to be able to contribute intelligently to the resort’s forthcoming Thai Spa Cuisine cookbook.

I won’t go too much into the details of the course, nor will I divulge most of the cooking techniques or any recipes here. (For that, you’ll have to buy the book when it hits the shelves in September 2005). But I will say that as someone going into the course a tad sceptical of making Thai food healthy, the course really was an eye-opener.

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The food we prepared was delicious, despite being made with close to no salt and sugar, and no oil. In fact, I found that there was a clarity in flavour that is often missing in the Thai cuisine you find in most restaurants.

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The one method that I found most interesting was the substitution of cooking oil with vegetable stock, a technique which sounded a little odd at first but worked beautifully with the various dishes we made (pictured throughout this post). We made a clear and spicy mushroom soup, a spicy pomelo salad with prawns, a fish dish (they called it simply fish with Thai sauce), and a beef with red curry.

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The only substitution that I am sure some purists would object to might be the swapping of coconut milk for a combination of young coconut juice and skim milk. I thought it worked well but I am sure a lot of others won’t find the taste fatty or authentic enough. Anyway, to make a long post short, the experience was really enlightening and ever since returning to Singapore, my wife and I have been experimenting with some of the techniques learnt at Chiva-Som in order to make our dinners a whole lot healthier. That, of course, doesn’t mean I won’t be indulging in some delicious sinful foods from time to time, just that I can feel less guilty about doing so.

Chiva Som Part 2 – Whole Grain Croissants?

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Before coming to Chiva-Som, I don’t think I would have ever considered eating a whole grain croissant. And not especially one made with as little butter as possible. The idea alone is off-putting. It sounds like something a peasant-skirted fem-hippy with unshaven legs and armpit hair would make (um… no offence intended to unshaven fem-hippy readers). It would be hard and tasteless, edible only when soaked in a bucket of wheatgrass juice or herbal tea.

Croissants are supposed to be rich, buttery, and airy. A batch of dough calling for, say, 4 cups of flour usually requires around 1.5 cups of butter. The flour is also important. It should be normal all-purpose flour, milled finely so that the dough comes out smooth. Croissants shouldn’t be made with flour studded with kernels. Who has ever enjoyed a lumpy, grainy croissant?

Amazingly, I can now say I have. Among the many healthy baked goods featured in Chiva-Som’s breakfast spread are these croissants, made with whole grain flour and with very little butter. They are also quite small, less than half the size of the normal croissant. Surprisingly though, they weren’t awful. Far from it. In fact, they were really good. So good I had two each morning, spread with a bit of organic honey and a bit of fruit compote. (The one pictured is with citrus honey and blueberry compote.) They were light and crisp and not a bit oily. And to tell the truth, I really got hooked on them.

Unfortunately, the recipe doesn’t appear in the current Chiva-Som cookbook and since the book I am contributing to is specifically on Thai food, I doubt it will be in there either. My wife is considering asking one of her baker friends to work with her to come up with a recipe for these. If they do, you can bet I’ll post it here. Of course, if any of you have recipes, feel free to email them to me.