Nahm on top of the world
David Thompson's cultivated Thai tastes place his Bangkok eatery among the planet's best 50 restaurants
The significance of the recent announcement that Nahm - at the Metropolitan hotel in Bangkok - has become the first restaurant in Thailand to be listed among "the world's best 50 restaurants" had more impact overseas than it did here.
Let me try to explain what this does and doesn't mean. The list is sponsored by S Pellegrino & Acqua Panna of London and organised by Restaurant magazine. Being named to the list is the culinary equivalent of winning an Oscar.
Eight hundred members of "The Academy" in 21 regions nominate restaurants for the list, anonymously to ensure integrity. Each member names seven restaurants where he's eaten in the past 18 months, three of which must be outside his own region. No advertising plays a part.
The resulting list is a snapshot of the best places to eat in a landscape that's always changing. Selection is not cuisine-specific. Nahm's selection represents the collective opinion of the Academy that it's the restaurant in Bangkok where they had their best meal - total experience, not just the food.
Personal prejudices and emotions aside, and considering the criteria under which they made their decision, this is not surprising. Consider the wealth of experience that chef David Thompson brings to the table. His other Nahm restaurant at the Halkin London was the first Thai-food restaurant anywhere in the world to win a Michelin star and made the top-100 list last year as well.
"I am delighted to receive this accolade," Thompson said on accepting the certification in London. "It recognises the lengths we go to at Nahm to deliver Thai food in Bangkok."
The business advantage is that the restaurant will be full most of the time, as Jordi Roca confirmed to me recently. His restaurant, El Celler de Can Rocca in Spain, is ranked second on the list. You have to book a table six months to a year in advance. Bangkok diners often don't bother with reservations, but they might now have to at Nahm.
Nahm's decor is a harmonious blend of modern and traditional, the significant architectural feature being four Ayutthaya-style terracotta columns reaching from floor to ceiling. Tabletops of polished golden teak are laid with elegant silverware in what might be called non-fussy chic.
Thompson works in the kitchen alongside his Thai-born partner of 20 years, Tanongsak Yordwai. Out front is sommelier Troy Sutton, who served with Thompson in London.
A passionate culinary historian, Thompson's goal to preserve old recipes before they're lost forever. He is uncompromising about where he gets his produce. Bangkok allows him what London denies him - access to local ingredients, going to local markets and playing in the kitchen.
His goal to deliver decent home-style Thai dishes done really well, each of which his highly informed Thai waiters explain to guests.
My recent meal at Nahm started with an exquisite mar hor amuse bouche - small triangular slices topped with minced pork mixed with coriander, palm sugar, garlic and red chilli. It had a rich, sweet, spicy, caramelised taste.
Schlumberger Riesling 2006 from Alsace was recommended, slightly dry with the flavour of fresh citrus fruit and delicate notes of spice and ginger, quite comfortable to drink with Thai food. With multiple dishes and flavours on the table at the same time, the Western concept of specific pairings doesn't usually work so well in Thai dining.
Next came a selection of canapes - a spicy mussel satay, a crispy pancake roll stuffed with salty chicken, and a small bowl of larb moo, the spicy pork dish with a strong taste.
The chilli was still tingling on my tongue when the main course arrived on scallop-edged Limoge chinaware. There was Geng Gati Bpuu Tarlae, a southern mud-crab curry with dried chilli, turmeric shrimp paste and shallots, rich, salty and slightly sweet and sour. Plus soft-shell crab with pomelo as the salad, a very tasty mackerel curry, pan-fried fish balls, a jungle curry of pla chorn, an ugly snakehead fish that Thompson describes as "firm, plump, sweet and entirely delicious".
The table was cleared for dessert, which comprised slices of green mango with a dip of salt, sugar, chilli and kaffir lime leaves, mango with sticky rice, and a lively finishing touch with Thai-style petit fours.