Last year, Nahm Bangkok was #1 on the Asia’s Best Restaurants List. This year, it slips to 7th place (Gaggan is first), announced on Monday. Two days after the announcement, when I saw owner-chef of Nahm, David Thompson, at Long Chim, he looked like a hobo, unshaven and dishevelled, seemingly despondent. (OK, maybe that was his normal look.) He shouldn’t be disheartened because such lists are at its worst, unreliable, and at its best, references; and because his foray into Singapore is spectacular.
At Long Chim (which means “come and taste”), Thompson presents Thai street food at unbelievably reasonable prices. For starters, the grilled squid gorlae ($10, above), coated in dry curry, was umami with a smokiness, but William found the coconut overwhelming. There was no false advertising in naming the aromatic beef ($11, below) satay, grilled to medium, redolent of heavy spices like cumin and turmeric.
The mains, which come with rice, were almost as good as the starters. The pork in stir-fried rice noodles with sriracha ($19, below) was pure fats, hence heavenly. There was a pleasant, addictive chewiness to the noodles. But unfortunately, no wok hei. An angmoh lady chef caught our eye as she was stir-frying loudly, spatula against wok, fire flaming to her eyebrows. William tsked, “All sound and fury, signifying nothing. Noise and fire make a wok hei not.”
The sour orange curry of snakehead fish with water mimosa ($20, below) sounded interesting, but was in fact forgettable.
A dispute arose between us regarding the tom yum with chicken wings and chicken feet ($16, below). Pinky Piggu claimed that the tom yum wasn’t spicy or sour enough and tasted like the instant tom yum packs she has. But I liked it very much. True, it lacked heat, but the sourness lingered and tingled at the sides of my jaws, an amazingly shiok feeling. I guess our tolerance for spice and sourness differs, like how we see the blueblack, goldwhite dress.
Furthermore, my philosophy on food has only been whether it tastes good or not; I’m not a stickler for authenticity. And taste-wise, the tom yum was distinctive. The broth permeated into wings, imbuing it a sweetness. But too bad the chicken feet weren’t cooked long enough; still too hard and bland.
Regarding the question of heat, does an angmoh chef lessen the spices to suit western tastebuds? The answer depends on whom you ask. Pinky Piggu thought the tom yum could be spicier; William found the food so spicy he was sweating throughout the meal. Me, people told me I have an angmoh tastebud, and almost all the patrons sitting around us that night are Whites. I believe food shouldn’t be too spicy because heat numbs the tongue, and overpowers all other flavors. For me, the food at Long Chim was well balanced; just enough heat to excite, but didn’t rob away the sweetness, saltiness, and sourness, characteristics of Thai cuisine.
But unfortunately, one bad dish can spoil an excellent meal: we three agreed that the mango sticky rice ($10) was terrible. While the sweet sauce was umami, the mango was superlative sour, rice undercooked, and mung beans extraneous and irritating. Biting it felt like bits of my teeth chipped.
When a Thai lady (Manager? Boss?) asked us how the meal went, and we groused about the mango rice, she waived it off the bill. The service here was very good, and the Filipino waitress serving us that night was knowledgeable, and friendly.
Luckily for us, besides the mango rice, we ordered the black sticky rice with pandanus noodles ($10), which doesn’t mean panda anus noodles. It is the green wriggly thing found in chendol, and yes this is chendol. But we three felt paying $10 for this bowl of chendol was worth it, because it was unique, with a smokiness, from a Thai ingredient called “Candle’s Tear.” The chendol tasted sulphuric, like the scent at the moment you extinguish a candle–and it was a good kind of taste.
One flaw of the restaurant is the hipster menu writing. Quiz time.
A. What is “Banana roti”?
B. “Black sticky rice with pandanus noodles”?
C. “Aromatic beef”?
A. Banana prata
C. Beef satay
Why not simply call them by their well known names so that customers know what they are ordering? Don’t so hipster and change their names, can?
In general, this was very good Thai food, but from David Thompson’s fame, I was expecting some surprise elements, and I found none. Perhaps I was expecting too much. After all, we three paid only $37 each. The less critical part of me should focus on Long Chim serving very good food at affordable prices with very good service in a swanky but uncanny setting.
Uncanny because this used to be Guy Savoy, where I celebrated my 30th birthday. But now, the fine dining French restaurant has transmogrified into a casual Thai restaurant that looks like a nightclub. In fact, the entire storey of celebrity restaurants (going for $350++/pax) is gone, leaving Hide Yamamoto, Imperial Treasure, and Waku Ghin. Yes, there is no space for memory in Singapore but I kinda like this democratization of food where middle-class people like me can come often to dine at nice places.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.