Thai Die For
Rachel Seed falls for David Thompson and his superlative Asian cooking
I had no expectations when we booked ourselves into Nahm, in London’s Halkin Hotel. It had been a long time since I’d experienced an outstanding meal and I’d been becoming concerned that my self-adopted role as a restaurant critic had ruined me for life; that I would never again be satisfied with a meal; that I would always be analysing it, criticising it and cogitating over the finer details of my food and surroundings.
I arrived at the unassuming and understated – but very stylish – Halkin Hotel with an open mind and the hope of a decent meal. After all, Thai is one of my absolute favourite foods and this restaurant is the only Thai restaurant in London with a Michelin star – and was the first Thai restaurant in Europe to gain a star – so at the very least I could hope for some pretty serious cooking. As to whether that’s enjoyable is a whole different story.
Forgoing my usual pre-dinner glass of Champagne we went straight to a wonderful bottle of Californian Pinot Noir, which arrived with the most incredible amuse bouche ever to have passed my lips: a sweet, toothsome caramelised minced pork and prawn balls perched on succulent slithers of pineapple and grapefruit. Divine. As the ultra knowledgeable waitress explained the workings of the menu with verve, I actually felt a rush of excitement and expectation. Something that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. A sense of relief came over me.
Finally, finally here was a restaurant that seemed to be taking its food and its service as seriously as its surroundings. We opted for the Thai feast, as recommended by our waitress, which involved choosing a selection of dishes from the different categories on the menu.
Our first course was kanom krok neua bpuu, or, to you and I, coconut cupcakes. Crispy little wanton-like cups filled with red crab curry. When the charming waiter presented us with our dishes like they were the most precious things in the world and said proudly and with complete certainty “You will absolutely love these”, I believed him. And when I put that first forkful in my mouth, I knew nothing would be the same again. The texture, the intensity of the flavour, the freshness of the crab and the kick of the curry, made me want to cry. Partly with how spicy it was, but also with joy at its utter deliciousness. Then came every other dish we ordered, all together. The table creaked. I had no idea we had ordered quite as much food and it was rather daunting but also incredibly exciting. Normally I would pick out one or two dishes that I felt were worthy of description and recommendation. I can’t do that here because each and every dish was outstanding. Pomelo and crispy trout salad (sounds innocent enough but was powerful and wonderfully intense); a subtle clear soup of roasted duck with young coconut and Thai basil; squid with red curry paste, wild ginger and green beans – which left my mouth burning and my taste buds leaping for joy; and steamed red curry of chicken with Siamese watercress and aubergines. It was all stunning.
What I loved about the food was not only the obvious deliciousness of it all, but also the skill of the preparation and the freshness and respect of the ingredients. The food was challenging, thought provoking and exciting. I would hate to patronise the chef by saying this – as only in my wildest fantasies could I come even close to the skill and training and dedication it takes to produce dishes like this – but this is intelligent food. Head chef David Thompson is classed as one of the world’s finest experts on Thai cooking, and it’s clear from eating his food that this isn’t just a theoretical knowledge of this nation’s exciting cuisine. Clever and interesting, without being complex, pretentious or overbearing.
Of all the restaurants I have been lucky enough to visit, in London and all over the world, this is right up there as one of my all-time favourites. The restaurant is small in size but enormous in impact.
Nahm is a very, very special place. Don’t go if you want generic Thai food, but do go if you want to be challenged, if you want to be surprised (yes, I know that I may have ruined that for you now, but my words really can’t do this place justice and honestly, you will be surprised). And if you go to Nahm, make sure you are very hungry and that you have plenty of time to slowly savour each dish. Phenomenal. At last.
Nahm, Halkin Hotel, 5 Halkin Street, London
Tel: +44 207 333 1234