Thai outings throw up a mixed bag

New restaurants

Nara Thai
#B3-21, ION Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn, Tel: 6634-5787
Open daily: 11.30am to 10pm

Royal Thai
60 Fairways Drive, Tel: 9235-9797
Open daily: 11am to 10.30pm

Guest chefs: Evenings of Thai Indulgence By Bo.lan at Movenpick Heritage Sentosa (ended last Friday)

You wonder - when Christian Grey gets hungry after his 50 shades of whoopee-making, does he go out for Thai food? After all, the same sado-masochistic principles apply. Like eating tom yum soup, which is like taking a stick of lemongrass and chilli and shoving it so far up your nostrils that it reaches your brain, while your palate spontaneously combusts in an orgiastic "Oh, My!" moment.

That is, of course, dependent on whether that tom yum goong was cooked correctly, observing the delicate equilibrium of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter that makes Thai food one of the most complicated and misinterpreted Asian cuisines today. Nailing that sweet spot - where the heat is there for a reason and not adjustable according to one's tolerance level, and the different flavour components achieve perfect harmony - requires a precise palate and skill to execute. And based on the quality of Thai restaurants in Singapore - or even Bangkok for that matter - being a natural-born Thai doesn't necessarily give you an automatic edge.

In other words, getting a good Thai meal in Singapore is about as easy as finding pockets of free-flowing traffic in Bangkok. This week, we got lucky one out of three times, but unfortunately, that was to be a short-lived experience.

For five days (ending last Friday), chefs Duongporn "Bo" Songvisava and Dylan "Lan" Jones from their eponymous restaurant Bo.lan proved their mettle as one of Bangkok's leading restaurants with their polished flavour-juggling act at their Flavours of Thai Indulgence stint at the Movenpick Heritage Sentosa hotel.

Both alumni of David Thompson's Nahm, they have learnt his lessons well to not stint on the labour-intensive and multi-component aspects of real Thai cooking. Condiments, relishes, dressings are all given equal painstaking attention as the main dishes and the whole meal was an insightful look at how far you can push a Thai menu beyond curries, fish cakes and laarb.

From a range of appetisers, northern-style sausages are reworked into a strong, fermented pork patty that is somehow pleasingly funky with a light, sour tang, enjoyed with the fresh mild crunch of raw cabbage and roasted peanuts.

A rice cracker is turned into a canape topped with fragrant red curry while a juicy lobster chunk is part of an elaborate composition - layered with grilled eggplant in a garlicky chilli dressing and salted duck egg yolk and shredded mango salad on the side. All that work for just one mouthful.

The mains are the deal-maker. Grilled duck is smothered in a rich, dry red curry - its mellow heat and sweet richness from cooked down coconut milk and texture from the dry-fried grated coconut - and the surprising addition of sweet pickled ginger to cut the richness.

A beautiful tom yum soup is made from pork rib broth and sweetened with onions, fried garlic bits and copious herbs, while mild heat and lime complete this delicate rendition.

Then there is a superb salad of crisp vegetables and fruit (rose apple and starfruit) arranged with soft-cooked egg and a divine grated coconut and chilli relish - all of which come together in a satisfying crunch especially with crispy clusters of deep-fried batter alongside.

And we haven't mentioned the pork belly chunks in a fruity rojak-like mixture of rose apple, star fruit and yam bean in a sweet dressing of fish sauce, chilli and fruit juice; or the elegant yet homespun classic green curry with braised beef shank.

Theirs is a modern (albeit expensive, at $110 a head) take on traditional Thai cuisine - a more feminine version of Nahm's more forceful approach - but the sheer attention to detail, and layering of flavours make Bo.lan a paradigm of authenticity.

Nara Thai

It's hard to say the same about Nara Thai - a Bangkok import that has seen Singaporeans among the crowds waiting for a table outside its doors at various locations including Central World.

Now they don't have to since Nara has set up shop at our doorstep in ION Orchard, so diners can play the game, "Is Nara as good here as it is in Bangkok?"

To which one would add the caveat, "Was it really that good in Bangkok in the first place?"

Two visits to its Central World location failed to wow - not with its heavy hand with the fish sauce and other seasonings - but if authenticity is measured by how similar the two are, one's conclusion would be: same same.

Forget harmony - Nara has no time for whimsical contemplation like how the sweet marries with the salty and the sour just so. You want salty? Wham. You want sweet? Here's more. You want the Chao Phraya river boiled down into a salty-sweet stock and scented with cinnamon? You bet, except here we call it our house special, Boat Noodles Ayuthaya ($14.90). With your choice of beef or chicken.

One just cannot fathom the unpleasantly thick, muddy-looking beef noodle soup which goes against all memory of that classic favourite.

But never mind - there's lots to distract you on its colourful and comprehensive menu which acts like a culinary lucky draw.

The tom yum goong ($19.90) offers extra flavour in its prawn-enhanced milky broth and generous-sized prawns, while the soft-shelled crab in yellow curry ($18.90) almost reminds you of the seafood places in Bangkok with its creamy, eggy richness and mild curry fragrance. It starts off well at first with the easy-to-eat crab, but it's done in by the saccharine finish. Grilled duck slices are nice and meaty and covered in a fragrant shower of deep-fried herbs, chilli and garlic, but again suffer from over-seasoning, as does the deep-fried chicken with shredded lemongrass and chilli ($9.90).

But we did enjoy dessert - coconut ice cream and assorted toppings from cendol to jelly bits and sweet corn.

Will we go back? Well, it's a big menu. Maybe we'll take our chances and see if we hit pay dirt next time.

Royal Thai

Compared to the frenzy surrounding Nara, Royal Thai has an enviable laid-backness associated with its location at a Bukit Timah golfing range. It has more of a 1980s outdoor cafe vibe about it but don't get lulled into complacency because it charges 2013 Orchard Road prices.

The chef is said to hail from an upscale Thai eatery in Mandarin Gallery, but the food at Royal Thai is a little more rough around the edges with some hits and misses.

The "thick" tom yum goong ($19) is a mistake - the thickening gives the otherwise decent stock an artificial "creaminess" that tastes odd, and the green curry is pretty much a mundane affair. The honey barbecued pork ribs fare better ($24) with its well-marinated tender meat. The deep-fried garoupa ($49) passes muster but just barely so - unable to replicate the kind of crispness that makes even the bones edible. The Thai chilli sauce it's drizzled in could use a little more complexity. Check out the Pad Thai ($20) - it's a little sweet but the noodles have the right chewy texture and comfort element.

Overall, it's a nice place and bears a repeat visit to explore the rest of the menu. It's a decent effort given the skeleton staff - just one friendly lady server, a chef and a helper from the looks of it. But the food still needs work. Maybe not an "Oh, My" level but at least a "that's ok, it was a good try".


Flavours of Thai Indulgence: 8
Nara Thai: 6.5
Royal Thai: 6

What our ratings mean:

10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average

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