Om nahm nahm
Part 3 of a 2011 London travelogue
by Thor Iverson
nahm – Upscale Thai. I know this exists in the States, here and there, but I’ve never heard anyone get particularly passionate about it. The Thai that foodish ’merican people love, in its restaurant form, is downscale, or at least midscale. And there is, of course, the plethorama of goopy, Americanized Thai places with the four-color-curry pick-your-meat menus, at which everything after the coconut soup is more or less a disaster.
Not here, though. David Thompson’s beautiful boutique hotel restaurant is as classy as any joint, albeit with a bit more wood-toned warmth. (Caveat: the music is excruciating elevator world-jazz, but no one’s perfect.) As for the service, it’s efficient more than warm. Normally, I would prefer this, but part of the game this restaurant plays is that there’s no hand-holding…you’re expected to know, or to not know and guess, rather than be gently guided through a menu that will, for non-Thai-fanatics, be largely unfamiliar…and one can always feel somewhat at sea aboard the truly unfamiliar. In any case, if there’s a question of construction or detail, there’s always Thompson’s parenthetically exhaustive, obsessively pedantic, and fussily brilliant cookbook.
I’ve been warned off the tasting menu, which would be my usual choice at such an establishment, by my frequent-guest dining companion as it apparently over-relies on dessert…rarely the strength of an Asian menu. So we trade off a hand’s worth of choices (i.e. five), covering what feels like a pretty wide range of styles.
And wide-ranging is what we get. First, the crusty caramelized chicken hash (I don’t have a better way to familiarize it) on sliced fruit that serves as an amuse. Then, pigeon larp with thinly-sliced bitter melon, bracingly scudded and about as far outside Western flavor norms as anything I’ve ever eaten. It’s very difficult to eat, to be honest, and yet it’s so different that the intellectual exercise is enjoyable in its own right. (The post-larp burn, however, is a companion for the rest of the night and well into the next afternoon.) Squid with snow peas, each black with the former’s ink, is so much more delicate than what’s preceded it, and perfectly cooked to two entirely different textures. A pair of soups follow, one a rich oxtail broth that plays familiar Thai melodies in a very rich, almost French-reminiscent broth, the other a frankly brilliant gourd soup that dances a very appealing flavor tango between the familiar and the unusual. Finally, there’s a massaman duck curry rich with what I call “baking spices” in the West – this is as close to dessert as we’ll get – and a clarion combination of briefly-seared venison slices with chiles and other Thai aromatics that cleans everything up and ties off the bow with its precise, almost spare, yet intense flavors.
All that sounds good, right? Well, not so much in toto. There are, frankly, way too many flavors in this meal. It’s our fault, not the restaurant’s, but the churning confusion on the palate is very difficult to deal with; rather than the satisfaction of a frontier explored, I’m left with organoleptic disarray, bewildered and a little overwhelmed. Next time, whether or not I choose the tasting menu, I’ll ask for some help with focus and linearity.
The wine list is extensive, and appears to be pretty decent (given the sort of food we’re eating, I scan the rich and aromatic whites, make a quick choice, and ignore the rest), albeit quite expensive. What I choose is a cultish Antipodal wine that I never see in the States.
Dry River 2008 Gewürztraminer (Martinborough) – Sneaky. Starts off very shy, then gradually opens; the ideal temperature, at least from a “cold” opening, is somewhere a little higher-temp than might be ideal for most gewürztraminer. Is what appears to be a lowish alcohol vs. the gewürztraminer norm a factor? It might be. The aromatic range includes rambutan and some stone fruit, nut oils, and roses, but everything is nicely restrained…even delicate…in comparison to the weighty power of which the grape is capable. Off-dry, but just that; this is in no way overtly sticky. Finishes long and a little tingly, with the promise of minerality to come. As the gewürztraminers of Alsace get heavier and sweeter, this is a nice respite. (2/11)
Weinbach Eau-de-Vie Poire William (Alsace) – Extremely intense, round, and fulsome, as stylistically befits any beverage from this house. Ripe pear, salt, minerality, sweat (an oddly regular component of this particular spirit, across producers and appellations). So much going on that the heat, which is not inconsiderable, actually takes a step back. I like this a lot. (2/11)
Copyright © Thor Iverson