Bathos in Bangkok

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spurr“O, to be in Bangkok now that April’s there…” Browning’s line might sound a little out of joint as an entrée to the fiery, sultry, noisy blaze of colour which is downtown Bangkok, but as you enter the discreet ground-floor doors of the Hotel Metropolitan, it’s as if Aphrodite herself has invited you to lie back on a chaise longue while she applies an ice-cold flannel to your beaded brow. Nahm is a sanctum; Nahm is a grail… a distillate of what’s most appealing about the cuisine of the Land of Smiles.

There are the usual trickling fountains, Buddhas, and the aroma of incense, but the food too strikes a subtle note, aiming to reflect but temper the way traditional Thai flavours are underpinned by the contrast of sweet, salty, sour and bitter.

And you’re encouraged to eat in the Thai style, sharing three to five dishes between one another across the five courses on the daily set lunch or dinner menu. You can go à la carte, but these people know what works together, and frankly, it’s best to trust them. I didn’t even know that some of the herbs, vegetables and fruits which featured in the ensemble existed. Have you heard of fiddlehead fern? It’s like a samphire of the forest with the texture of thin marsh asparagus but with a savoury pinecone finish.

Executive Chef David Thompson and his crack kitchen squad beguile you in waves with curries, salads, relishes, soups and stir-fries. Kingfish salad with pomelo, lemongrass and lime was unctuous but fragrant, Panang curry of Wagyu beef with peanuts, shallots and sweet basil was a benign deep-red volcano of aromatics, and although I’m a great lover of the theatre and anticipation of dismantling spanking-fresh crustacea, the coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime – shelled and ready – was an instant gratification deep-golden hit of the briny with no strings or claws attached.

Dinner came to 9,000 baht (around £200) including lychee martinis and a few ice-cold bottles of Singha each – pretty acceptable for one of Bangkok’s few Michelin-starred restaurants. The service was flawless and attentive without ever becoming obsequious or oppressive, and you were left feeling like you’d just experienced one of the great wonders of the world.

Book well ahead.

And get very excited.

Indeed.

In arresting contrast to the comforts of Nahm are the tangled maze of backstreets which work their way down from the Charoen Krung Road – Bangkok’s Chinatown. As darkness falls at around seven o’ clock, the heat still anaesthetising and the humidity enveloping, this bazaar of street food limbers into action with alacrity.

Compact stalls with fish and shellfish on ice are surrounded by tongues of flame from fire-breathing gas stoves licking the underside of shiny black woks. The formula is simple – you follow your nose, you use your eyes and ears, and you find what looks like the freshest and most appealing selection of ingredients that particular night. Don’t be afraid of getting lost. In fact, try as hard as you can to get lost, for the further from the main drag you venture, the higher the incidence of satisfied-looking locals you see, slurping spicy noodles and morning glory from soup-laden bowls and gleefully picking apart whole deep-fried snapper or maybe crunching crispy soft-shell crabs dripping in XO sauce. And the deeper into the warren of streets you delve, the more interesting the eating experience becomes.

You’ll be sitting on one of a few smalls plastic chairs at an old Formica folding table, bottles of beer are served from a bucket full of iced water, your order is scribbled illegibly on the paper tablecloth, and it arrives as and when it leaves the nimbly-wielded wok, after being tossed a few times high into the heavy air above the roaring inferno. Mop your brow, take a long draft of your lager, and wait to be assaulted in the most appealing way possible by the spice and vibrancy of a pop-up culinary playground.

 

Nahm
COMO Metropolitan
27 South Sathorn Road
Tungmahamek Sathorn
Bangkok 10120

Richard Spurr broadcasts for LBC, BBC Radio, and television. His passion for food, wine, and their creation goes back to an early age and he regularly travels worldwide in a search for new and exciting cookery and dining experiences.