After several visits to Thailand, optimism about the food abounded. Ever since discovering Thai food (before Toronto had any Thai restaurants) this has been almost an addiction. And as the average quality in Toronto has been declining I was looking forward to some exciting meals. But, sad to say, this was the worst food experience Ive had in Thailand. Much of the food was overly greasy and lacked the freshness I remembered from previous trips. In particular, the local food in and around the markets was most disappointing. I speculate that these are now cooking for tourists rather than regulars and consequently are not expecting repeat visits. Whatever the reason, as a general rule (exceptions noted below) the street food was forgettable. And the upscale was disappointing in general. But here goes!
Just one night in BANGKOK before heading North, so only one choice for me the Spice Garden (at the Regent) where my last visit (2 years ago) was one of the all-time great meals of my life probably in my Top 10 dining experiences. A quick check of the map to ensure I could give accurate directions to the driver but the Regent was nowhere to be found on the latest tourist map! So down to the front desk of the hotel and they confirmed the Regent was no more! Calamity! But I had saved some Chowhound recommendations and some other Bangkok restaurants were listed except I couldnt locate most of them as addresses were often not given (hey gals and guys, if possible include these in future). GratefulChow recommended the Atlanta Hotel in Sukomvit at the end of Soi 2 behind the Marriott, so this was our final choice. Finding a driver who knew it was a problem, but eventually we found one who at least knew Soi 2 and the Marriott, so out we headed. As we went further down a dark Soi 2, the driver insisted there was no hotel there only a Monastery! But almost at the end we saw the sign If youve come to Bangkok for the sex trade, youre in the wrong place. That was the Atlanta, and it is indeed an experience. Almost unchanged (at least the Lobby) in 50 years like stepping back in time. The staff all seemed to have been there for years and there was a friendly family atmosphere. The complaints box had no slot just a block of wood with the sign For what youre paying you cant have any complaints. The restaurant was very casual, playing big band and swing music from the 40s and 50s, with a mix of families, singles and couples. Very comfortable. The menu (as promised) is numbered and attached to a meter long wooden pole so that nobody will steal it and is indeed encyclopædic. We ordered a local wine 2000 Khao Yai Reserve (from P B Valley) advertised as Shiraz, but actually a blend of Shiraz and Tempranillo. Not bad a little hot with a touch of clove in the finish, but probably the best Thai wine Ive had (faint praise). We tried Fried Noodles and Prawns (Thai Style) wrapped in an Omelette. Actually pretty good never had anything like this before. Also, Spicy Salad of Prawns and Crispy Chinese Kale which lacked any Crispy Kale (or any other kind), but did have chopped Kaffir Lime. And Pork Green Curry (Double Coconut) which was mostly vegetables. The meal was OK the flavours werent as defined as I expected the curry was 1-dimensional, but nothing wrong with it just didnt excite. Next Bangkok visit Ill definitely consider staying at the Atlanta its a neat place, but wont make a special effort to eat there.
Then the train to CHIANG MAI (and snacks). The top recommendation there (both Chowhound and guide books) was Aroon Rai almost opposite the East Gate (45 Kotchasam Road). Pork Curry with Ginger (Chiang Mai Style), Pork Pad Thai and Sticky Rice for B800 ($20). Very disappointing. Greasy, overcooked and showing no trace of fresh spices. Also ate at The Gallery (25-29 Charoenrat Rd), on the opposite side of the River right on the water reputedly the finest dining in Chiang Mai. Gorgeous location and reasonably romantic, but also notable for being filled with Austrian tourists. Had Ta Bing (deep fried pumpkin with sweet and sour dip) soggy and greasy and left most of this; Nam Chub Kai Tod (Chiang Mai sausage with lemon, ginger, chilli and peanuts) this was advertised as coming with egg, but we asked them to hold the egg (which they did) a better choice would have been to hold everything else just inedible!; Tum Ba Nun (jackfruit paste with herbs and spices) served with sticky rice. This was excellent very tasty; Curried crab (the daily special) a lot of work to get the meat from the shell but not bad and quite tasty; and Panaeng Curry Pork fabulous and perfectly spiced. We also ordered a bottle of a 2000 Bordeaux Château Saint-Bo (St Emilion) but they brought the 1999 (far inferior year). After a slapstick exchange, we finally communicated the issue and the 2000 was triumphantly brought to the table with great smiles all round. Success! Or not! The wine was corked! Oh well (we drank it anyway as it was still drinkable, although flawed). A so-so meal with some good dishes. Cost B1600 (just under $40).
Drive to Tha Ton where we had an awful meal (didnt note where) and on to CHIANG RAI. Ended up at Cabbages and Condoms (620/25 Thanalai Rd), which reputedly was on the downswing, but had a not bad meal. Best was Seafood Souffle Cooked In Young Coconut, which was excellent spicy, fresh fish and best dish in Thailand (so far). Later had similar dishes in Cambodia and now think this was actually the same dish as the Cambodian Seafood Amok. Also had Hor Mok Taly Maprow Orn (Pineapple Rice) which tasted just as it sounds, and Tod Man Plaw deep fried fish and green beans with a sweet and sour dip this had a strange texture not quite right, but Im not sure what it was supposed to be. Also Panaeng Moo (red curry with pork) that was fine, but not exciting. We took our own wine here, which was a local wine we had picked up en route Red Wine Chiang Bao 2002 Made From Grapes. We skipped dessert as we had a Chowhound recommendation from Elaine Snutteplutten to try the special banana pancake at the street entrance to the night market. This was excellent and well worth trying (and you cant miss it).
Next day was across the river to Laos (see Part 3) but by now we had been told that the Spice Market had survived the Regent closing and by searching on-line discovered that it was still operating at the Four Seasons (which now manages the hotel). Accordingly about 10 days later we were back in BANGKOK before flying home and indeed had our last dinner there (155 Ratchadamri). This time a mixed report though. They had two tasting menus. The cheaper (B850 plus taxes) was OK but not exceptional. It featured assorted Thai Snacks; Spicy Prawn Soup with Lemongrass (Thom Yam Goong) too spicy, the individual flavours were swamped; Spicy Barbequed Pork Salad with Ground Roasted Rice (Moo Narm Tok) excellent flavours and textures; Deep Fried Crab Meat and Minced Pork (Poo Ja) good flavours but very dry; Wok Fried Beef with Capsicum in Black Peppercorn Sauce (Nua Phad Prig Fa-Rang) superb, best dish in this option; Fried Red Snapper with Sweet and Sour Sauce (Priew Warn Plakapong) too sweet and out of balance; Spicy Prawns with Pineapple Curry (Gaeng Kuo Saparod Kab Goong) the pineapple dominated this dish again out of balance; Assorted Thai desserts (Laklai Kanom Thai) very sweet and cloying; Coffee or Tea. A patchy selection overall that was ultimately unsatisfying (although a couple of excellent dishes).
The more expensive menu (B1150 ++) was excellent, but slightly short of the last meal I had there. It started with Deep-fried Prawns and Crab legs (Sakuna Chom Suan Kab Kanchieng Poo Thord) which was also a little dry; Spicy Prawn Soup in Coconut Milk (Thom Kha Goong) excellent, perfectly balanced flavours, as good as it gets; Salad of Deep Fried Scallops, Squid and Shrimps (Yam Chaw Khor) great textures, perfect spicing and clean ginger flavour only marred by the scallops being breaded; Stir-Fried Beef with Mushroom and Oyster Sauce (Nua Phad Narm Mun Hoy) again perfect texture and great flavour; Steamed Spicy Prawn Souffle In Red Curry with Coconut Cream (Hor Mok Goong) superb flavour and super texture (yet again textures on this menu were outstanding); Deep Fried Garoupa with Fresh Chilli and Peppercorn Sauce (Plakhao Sauce Prig Thai Orn) loved the fresh peppercorns (and the textures); Yellow Curry with Chicken in Coconut Milk (Gaeng Kahree Gai) perfectly spiced again; Mango with Sticky Rice (Kaow Niew Mamoung) the mango perfectly ripe, but no room for the rice! Coffee/Tea and a complimentary appetizer of peanuts, onion and toasted coconut (to be rolled up in a fresh leaf) served with both menus. This latter menu was certainly worth the extra cost (and could probably have served two people by itself). Total bill was B4000 (just over $100US), which is in millionaire territory for Thailand, but less than half what one would pay in any Four Seasons hotel in the West. The outstanding feature was the textures every ingredient cooked just about perfectly, but the spicing seemed a little over the top in some dishes and the balance wasnt always there. And impeccable service as always.