Edit: Nahm is no longer the Best restaurant in Asia since 9th March 2015
Recognized as the (previous) Best Restaurant in Asia by the Restaurant Magazine and 13th in the world, getting a reservation at Nahm is an elaborate affair. If, like me, you just call or email you are likely to have to wait for a month to get a slot for a weekend dinner. If you are more flexible or prefer to try it at lunch then you might be in luck. Alternatively, simply book a room at the Metropolitan Hotel, where the restaurant is housed, and let the concierge help you get a late night booking. I called two days before and got a Saturday night reservation for 2 at 9,30pm.
The restaurant has a few outdoor tables by the hotel’s pool which are rather pretty and romantic at night, if you can brave Bangkok’s heat and the invincible mosquitoes. The restaurant can provide repellent.
Inside, the tables are set quite apart from each other and there are low wooden walls that provide privacy and an intimate setting. The restaurant decor is rather simple with touches of dark wood and very soothing lighting, even too dark to see the food properly, but pleasant for a cozy dinner.
The setting is as good for groups as it is for couples or even for a business meeting as all dishes are served in true Thai family style, to share. It is a very unassuming place and despite having all the gimmicks that you could expect from an award-winning fine-dining restaurant you are very quickly at ease. The servers are calm and unfussy and will help you make the right choices based on your tolerance for spice or any dietary requirements
Chef David Thompson was the first ever to get a Michelin star for a Thai restaurant, in London no less, by an Australian chef. Quite an interesting achievement if you ask me. But then again, Michelin Guide does not rate restaurants in Thailand so none of the local outlets would have the chance.
The food at Nahm
The menu is extensive with several options to chose from the stir fries to the curries or the entrees. It is hard to narrow it down as all combinations are unique.
Thomson tries to revive old Thai recipes and so don’t expect to find Pad Thai here, the dishes are more elaborate, with several ingredients and the perfect combination of sweet, sour, spicy and salty that makes Thai cuisine so recognizable.
The degustation menu is just a set price for a choice of dishes in each of the a-la-carte categories so it is a good option to sample the wide menu. Usually Nahm would ask for the whole table to share the same dishes but since one of us was a vegetarian they were accommodating and let us have a vegetarian and non-vegetarian set menu. Whereas I, the non-vegetarian, could choose from all the dishes available on the vegetarian side there was pretty much just one dish per section but we decided to let the chef surprise us.
The menu is split into Salads, Soups, Relish, Curries and stir-fries so we pic one of each.
Although the selection is large I am slightly disappointed that most of the options I want to choose are very spicy, something that I don’t tolerate well, so eventually I end up having the least spicy option on each section. There went my real choice. So eventually we settled for the non-spicy (or least spicy I should say because some dishes were still fiery hot) and the vegetarian dishes. I can comfortably admit that our selection of dishes was probably not that of the usual diners of the restaurant.
The chef focuses a lot on the use of Thai’s base ingredients, all of which are very strongly flavored. Ingredients like garlic, chili, lemongrass and shrimp paste are used in almost every composition and they overpower the dishes.
We get a few canapes to whet our appetite before the feast is served. In this case we got to sample a pork and lobster with shredded ginger and Thai citron. It was tasty and refreshing. There was also a rice cracker topped with blue swimmer crab, peanuts and pickled garlic which was also a flavorful bite. Pork and coconut wafers pickled ginger. There were also grilled mussel skewers but I don’t eat mussels and Josh got something else so I can’t comment on the mussels.
The all the rest of the dishes arrive, all at once. Truth be told, we had such a huge spread that we were completely overwhelmed.
We were given recommendations on how best to mix the dishes, what to pair the relish with and what to eat rice with. Then we did our best to follow them and to start in the order the waiter recommended based on the strength of flavor and spiciness of the food. Between my choices and Josh’s vegetarian dishes we have over 10 plates in front of us that we try to go through in as logical an order as we can.
Our selection was:
- Thai vegetable and fruit salad with tamarind, palm sugar and sesame dressing
- Kingfish salad with pomelo, lemongrass and lime
- Wild mushroom and ginger soup
- Coconut and chicken soup with deep fried garlic, green mango and chilli
- Sweet prawn relish with fresh vegetables and sand whiting deep friend with turmeric
- Yellow curry of cauliflower and tomatoes with cucumber relish
- Dry curry with banana peppers and shallots
- Grilled pork cheek with smoky tomato sauce
- Pak wan stir fried with garlic and mushrooms
- Coconut ash pudding with poached bananas
- Sapadilla steeped in coconut cream with taro pudding and deep friend shallots
There are a few things that I couldn’t quite understand the role of, namely the relishes. They were meant to be paired with the mains but they were just a collection of ingredients that I would never eat like garlic, shallots, chilies or raw herbs so I leave those aside.
Some of my dishes were way too spicy for me, even after having done our best to pick the least hot, and at one point my nose started to run and I my mouth was on fire after which I couldn’t taste anything anymore.
My tolerance for spiciness is low and this seems to be a major issue at Nahm as the chef can’t accommodate any changes in the recipes because the food is already prepared beforehand so forget about customization. For me, this is a major downside to the experience. I like Thai food and I am sure I would have enjoyed more dishes should they have had the right level of spiciness. I had read other reviews pointing at the hotness of some dishes that was too much even for experienced chili eaters and so this was a problem for me.
Overall I was not impressed with any of the dishes. None of them do I remember now and I would not go back to repeat on any of the flavors. You could tell some recipes were elaborate and did take a while to prepare and to cook but nothing stood out. I was confused as to why this is chosen as the Best Restaurant in Asia, terribly confused.
The desserts were extremely hit and miss, in my humble opinion. I love a sweet ending to every meal but these were not sweet, in fact, the coconut milk was salty! I have never tasted a coconut milk dessert that was salty in taste and I found it very unappealing. Josh had none of it either. The chef showcases the local specialities and some Thai desserts can be salty but I found the combination of salt and coconut milk to be very unappealing.
To finish off we were given a selection of Thai petit furs but, despite my remarkably impossible to wear off sweet-tooth, I did not eat any of them, they were just not my cup of tea. We were given coconut milk topped with sugar, sweet puffed wheat on banana slices, sweet egg yolks and a fourth that I could not figure out but none of them were to my liking so they remained on the plate. This is a very rare thing as I love dessert and feel that no meal is finished without it.
The verdict of Nahm
As hinted at before I am deeply troubled about this visit. I have been to several of the other top-10 Best Restaurants in Asia and to several Michelin starred ones, 1, 2 and even 3 stars and I can’t quite understand why Nahm is so famous or revered. To me it was a rather mediocre meal with no memorable dish and with actually a couple which I could not even eat because their flavors were simply off. This is not something which happens to me often, even less so with desserts, my favorite part of any meal, so it was with huge disappointment that we moved outside to enjoy the rest of our wine in the peace and quiet of the outdoor terrace, a very welcoming spot.
It could be that I don’t understand Thai food or food in general and that there is a secret magic to how the dishes and the recipes are prepared at Nahm. Or it could be that, given our food restrictions we actually got to eat all the worse dishes. Even if that was the case, a restaurant chosen as the Best in Asia should not have bad dishes.
I have considered returning to Nahm purely to try to figure out what I missed and even braving the heat to go for the spicy signature dishes to see if I would change my mind. I might still do that and, given that the price is very reasonable for fine-dining (THB 2,200/ $70 per person for the set menu at the time of publication in 2015), it might be the best way to bury this topic.
In the meantime, it will be add to the list of “Over-hyped – I don’t understand why restaurants”, my simple culinary buds can’t quite figure out the magic of.