April 21, 2019

10 days in 3 cities day 9: tongue on fire

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Dinner tonight was another highly-anticipated event on our trip.  Sorn (ศรณ์) is the new, fine dining outlet from "Ice" Supaksorn Jongsiri - the man behind Baan Ice (ร้านบ้านไอซ์) - with Chef Yodkwan U-Pumpruk.  A bunch of friends had been raving about it ever since its opening last year, and apparently it is booked out a couple of months in advance.  We were lucky, then, to have a local foodie help us get a table...

We were seated in a lovely private room surrounded by glass panels, which afforded us a view of the clay pots in which rice is cooked.  Khun Ice came and greeted us, and offered a wine pairing from his private stash for those of us who wanted to drink.  Having gone through a somewhat boozy afternoon, I chose to drink water... since the restaurant strangely did not offer any other non-alcoholic alternatives.

I knew that southern Thai cuisine is meant to be spicy, and I had experienced it first hand at Baan Ice.  I was also warned that they do not "dial it down" here, and when asked before the meal started, I chose not to have the "mild" version so that I could see how far I could push it...

It's a long tasting menu with different parts.

Amuse bouche

Young mangosteen (คุดคัดเตย) : crispy krill / crispy shallot / coconut plum sugar - the unripe mangosteen was crunchy and came with a combination of roasted coconut flakes, deep-fried shallots, deep-fried shrimp (which is used to make shrimp paste) as well as shrimp paste.

Cashew nut relish (น้ำพริกกากหมู) - inside the cucumber is a relish made with chili, shrimp paste, homemade cashew butter, as well as cashews from Ranong (ระนอง) Province.  The shrimp paste flavors were more intense here, and there was also more heat.


Shrimp legs (คางกุ้ง) : seaweed powder / crispy pickled garlic / turmeric - the tiny shrimp apparently needs clean water to survive, and these were caught about 2 weeks ago.  Deep-fried with turmeric and garlic using rice (bran) oil.  The seaweed from Krabi (กระบี่) was dehydrated and powdered.

The shrimp heads were very crunchy, salty, with heavy garlic flavors.  Very nice with the seaweed powder.  Yum.  Even Hello Kitty enjoyed them.

2 C Lobster (กุ้งมังกร 7 สี) : Phuket lobster / mixed Thai herbs / jumpuling (wild berry) - the 7 colored lobster from Phuket is served raw and chilled to 2°C for optimal texture and flavors.  I didn't taste the jumpuling (จำปูลิ่ง) because I don't think my serving had any, and that green herb sauce on top was simply overpowering... The heat hit me immediately and just kept building.

Pla-grouper (พล่าปลาเก๋า) : cashew nuts / fish sauce / banana flower - the fish came with fish sauce, lime juice, cashews and shrimp paste on top of a banana flower petal.  The fish sauce was delicious but there was a serious amount of heat here.  The tip of my tongue has started to burn by now.

Tu-pa-su-tong (ตูปะซูตง) : squid / squid ink / grilled shallot - the thin strips of squid were very tender, and interesting when squid ink was added.

Gems on crab stick (กรรชูเปียง) : crab / crab roe / yellow chili - the crab was steamed then grilled.  Coated in crab roe as well as a firey yellow chili sauce.  My tongue is now on fire.  All of it.

Coco on coconut (สุดยอดมะพร้าว) : all good things from coconut / Southern plants / dried squid and shrimp - this was created to put out the fires on diners' tongues, and was a real godsend.  The sweetness from coconut water as well as the milkiness really helped soothe my poor, burning tongue.  Apparently these coconuts were pretty special with very little water and mostly flesh - the latter absorbing most of the sweetness.  We also had some crunchy coconut flesh.

Grilled southern chicken (ไก่บ้านกอและ) : free range chicken / curry paste / dates - apparently Khun Ice learned the recipe from a Muslim woman who used to sell these skewers in the market, with dates replacing sugar.  The chargrilled chicken has been brushed with chicken fat.  Nice spices with citrus flavors.

Roti crab curry (โรตูแกงปี) : roti pastry / crab curry / pepper-tree leave - on top of the rice vermicelli was an edible spoon made of roti.  Some curry made with shrimp paste was then "spooned" into the spoon...

This condiment of morning glory coated with coconut powder was supposed to be eaten after the curry so that it could help tone down the heat.

Well... it was too late by then.  The curry was sooooo spicy that I started to hiccup.  This, boys and girls, was a VERY bad sign...  That's my body - and not just my tongue - asking me "WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING TO ME?! STOP!!!"

By this point I was left with no choice but to raise my white flag.  I had to dial down the heat.  My whole tongue was burning and I was in excruciating pain... and actually on the verge of tears.  I was pissed off that the restaurant offered nothing in the way of a drink that would help me cool down my tongue.  I was desperate for anything sweet or creamy.  I had to settle for Coke which, being carbonated, wasn't doing a good job of soothing.

And you know what?  By this time it was too late, anyway.  From this point on every single dish was communal, so the level of heat really couldn't be customized.


The forest meets the sea ver.2 (ข้าวยำ) : southern herbs / turmeric rice / morinda rice / fish innards dressing - Hello Kitty and I took one look at this and thought: "that looks just like the khao yam (ข้าวยำ) from Baan Ice!"

Except, of course, that the two types of rice are now rice crispies - flavored with turmeric and morinda leaves.   There were now 15 other ingredients besides the rice, including torch ginger flower, kaffir lime leaves, pomelo, winged beans... etc.  These were tossed together in a sauce made of fish guts.

Similar flavors, but slightly crunchier texture.  Wonderful fragrances lingered on in the mouth.

The rice

พันธ์ุเข็มทอง : cooked by charcoal in clay pot / Ranong mineral water / rice from NakhonSiThammarat - so THAT was what had been cooking in those clay pots near us...  Khun Ice explained that despite the fact that rice from southern Thailand isn't as fragrant as jasmine rice from the north, they feel strongly that the rice must match the region of the food being served.  What we got was actually a mix of two types of rice: one harvest last year which has been aged, and a new batch harvested from Krabi, where shrimp shells are used as fertilizer.

The Thai way of sharing - I gotta say that I still don't care for the way this is done, even though the rationale has been explained to me.  Yes, I understand the point is about balancing the flavors from all the dishes, which is why one takes bites from multiple dishes in quick succession.  But it also means that, unless the food comes to the table piping hot, I'll be eating tepid or cold food.

Pimp chili paste (น้ำชุบแมงดา) : fragrant water bug grilled in banana leaves / grilled stinky beans - this looked like otak-otak from Southeast Asia, and the flavors were very strong... almost like fermented shrimp.  No surprise that the spices were very strong.  The texture was a little more solid and mince-like than expected.  Meant to be eaten with rice.  We also got some grilled stinky beans/sataw (สะตอ) on the side.  A specialty of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Fresh yellow curry (แกงเหลือง) : young mangosteen / fish roe / gaew gu fish - with gray parrotfish.  The mangosteen delivered some acidity, but this was pretty spicy.

Stinky beans (ผัดสะตอ) : homemade abalone, mantis shrimp and hoof fermented sauce / stinky beans / sea conch - very spicy.

Grilled crispy pork (คั่วกลิ้งหมูย่าง) : southern chili paste - marinated overnight with curry paste.  I only took one small piece, and I thought it was OK.  OF COURSE I didn't add any of that chili paste...

Pumpkin and egg (ผัดฟักทองกับเศษกุ้งมังกร) : Nakhon Si Thammarat pumpkin / free range organic egg / lobster / pork - stir-fried with 7 colored lobsters from Phuket.  Pretty nice and sweet, and of course the pumpkin could help dial down the heat.

Pork taro soup (เผือกต้ม) : taro / crab stock / cabbage - the blue swimming crab stock was simmered for 5 hours.  A little ginger here, and the flavors were really lovely and sweet with beautiful umami.  I was ever so thankful that at least the soup wasn't spicy...

Condiments - meant to be used to tone down the spiciness of the food.

Pork rind (กากหมู) - how could I not like this?  In what universe would I not be adding this on top of every dish I eat?

Sweet pork (หมูหวาน) - ditto.  Braised pork belly.  Caramelized.  'Nuff said.

Sweet shrimp (กุ้งหวาน) - yum.

Sun-dried fish (ปลาวง) - the sun-dried stingray was not bad.

Chili with fish sauce (พริกน้ำปลา)

Vegetables (ผักเหนาะ)

The one dish

The morning glory (ข้าวมันแกง) : coconut milk clay pot cooked rice / shrimp curry / deep fried dry shrimp - almost like a nasi lemak.  The shrimp curry was made with a dense coconut milk along with the tails of the shrimps whose heads we enjoyed at the start of the meal, as well as the shells.

This was really nice, the sweet pickled papaya was good, and the crunchy dried shrimps were awesome.
Palate cleanser sorbet (ล้างปาก)

Torch ginger sorbet (ดาหลา) - made with sugar and lime juice.  Very nice.  Something to help my poor, stinging tongue.

Sweets - as Hello Kitty was full and doesn't like desserts, I got to have both choices.

Sweety until midnight (ไอติมน้ำเต้าหู้จาโก้ย) : soy milk ice cream / fried dough - this was very so-so... even the palm syrup couldn't save it.  I would have preferred to have 豆漿油條...

Natural tapioca boiled in coconut water (สาคูต้มเปียกลำไย) : longan ice / longan jam / frozen coconut milk / grilled coconut - this was FUCKING GOOD!  I loooove longan, and I looooove coconut.  So it's no surprise that the flavors here were completely up my alley.  I wish I had chosen a second serving of this instead of the other dessert...

Canned fruit (ผลไม้กระป๋อง) - the watermelon comes from Krabi.  It was soaked in watermelon juice for 3 hours (to concentrate the flavors, I suppose?) then flash frozen (with liquid nitrogen, I suppose).  Very sweet and concentrated flavors.

Petit four (ขนม) - the khanom la (ขนมลา) was very good.

Tea (ชา)

Coffee (โกปี๊)

This was a long and interesting meal with a large amount of food. It was abundantly clear to me that the chefs are passionate and truly want to elevate Thai cuisine to a very refined level, even though cuisine from southern Thailand had humble origins.  They insist on doing a lot of things in-house to make sure that they have enough control over the flavor profiles, and that is to be commended and encouraged.

Unfortunately, this just wasn't a place for me.  Maybe I should have told them from the start to tone down the heat, and I should have known that there was no way I could have enjoyed the dishes "as is".  While I think spiciness can bring a very interesting dimension to dishes, it unfortunately seemed to dominate here.  I have told countless friends over the years that the reason I don't voluntarily eat spicy food is that so many places abuse the heat... so much so that I can't taste the flavors of the ingredients.  If you're intent on setting my tongue on fire, why bother using premium ingredients?

I was also not the only one who was underwhelmed at our table.  I guess we'll stick to Baan Ice, then... since that's good enough for my farang palate...

We asked for the bill at the end of dinner, only to find out that we had been comped for the food.  While I was most grateful to Khun Ice for the hospitality, on a personal level I really didn't want another comped meal on this trip.  That's three comped dinners in a row...

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