I have always been lured by the hotel luxe - spoiled by some of the spiffier assignments when I used to inspect hotels for Egon Ronay (in the days when it really was the great man at the helm). I remember relishing the time I had lunch at the Savoy Grill, dinner in the River Room Restaurant and an overnight stay at the Hyde Park Hotel, all in one day. It was very exciting to have four telephones in my bedroom.
Compared with these wonderful British grandes dames, however, the Oriental is in another league; not necessarily better in some of the more traditional aspects (bed linen, fine mattresses, deep baths, nice soap and fluffy towels), but more bewilderingly luxurious, and very, very big. There are just the eight restaurants in which to eat. We managed only three over a two-night stay en route to Sydney, Australia: the river terrace Verandah, the very French and formal Le Normandie (which benefits from a consultancy by Jean Claude Vrinat, from the legendary Taillevent in Paris), and, finally, the extraordinarily good Thai restaurant, the Rim Nam, a few minutes' shuttle ride across the Chao Phya river, opposite the hotel.
From a fascinating menu of 18 dishes at the Rim Nam, we managed to indulge ourselves in nine. Of these, the "herbed soup of red sea crab in coconut milk" (Tom Gathi Poo Khai) and the "grilled eggplant salad with grilled prawns" (Yam Makhuea Yow Gub Goong Pow) proved the most outstanding among a succession of stimulating and subtly spiced dishes.
Coconut milk is the sine qua non of Thai cooking, adding its thickening, sweetening and balm-like properties to a sauce, a soup, or the most voluptuous of ice-creams. Do try the recipe for the crab soup given here when small female crabs are plentiful during the British summer.
But fragrantly herbed and spiced Thai soups such as these cause one to realise quite how much some recent practitioners of so-called Pan-Asian cooking have to learn. They should leave it to those who know and who do not feel the need mindlessly to "experiment". There are, however, a few exceptions to this bete noire of mine - one of whom is the talented Australian, David Thomps on, who owns two restaurants in Sydney. More of him in a moment.
Just before we depart Bangkok, I must mention the most charming little place, only a few minutes' walk away from the swish Oriental, down a small soi (side street) and just past a shop that says it can sell you fossilised dinosaur droppings. It is sweetly called Harmonique, and serves up really carefully made and simple dainty dishes - spring rolls were benchmark; a cool sweet-and-sour cucumber salad with juicy prawns gently lifted by red chilli was stunningly good; two bowls of green curry - one chicken, one prawn - were possibly the best I have ever eaten; a steaming pot of stewed mixed vegetables was a triumph of silky texture and freshness.
Harmonique is family-owned (mother and three daughters, I think) and they are as sweet as can be. You sit among ferns and foliage, cooled by overhead fans with daylight streaming in through a corrugated Perspex roof. The atmosphere is bohemian and thoroughly engaging.
So, now I am on my way to Sydney and the magic that is David Thompson and his two Sydney restaurants - Sailor's Thai and Darley Street Thai. With Thompson, it is not really a question of Pan-Asian at all; both restaurants are authentically Thai and, what's more, he lived in Thailand for several years and speaks the language fluently.
David Thompson's flavourings are dramatically direct, emphasising the four important Thai flavourings: sour, sweet, salty and hot. In the informal upstairs refectory bar at Sailor's Thai (a handsome long row of stainless-steel tables), an elementary-sounding "chicken salad with green beans and chilli jam" (Yam Gai) demonstrated how such a thing can be anything but. Daringly sweet, moreishly hot and delightfully sticky, it disappeared almost immediately.
The dish, though, that really caused us to sit up and look sharp was a "crispy fish salad with mint, red shallots and coriander" (Yam Pla Fuu). What an exciting dish! The fish had been magically transformed into puffy little crunchy clumps - for want of a better description - and, whilst still sizzling from its fat bath, quickly dressed with chilli, fish sauce, lime and sugar, Once again, the quintessential Thai quartet.
Here is the recipe for this salad, which comes from David Thompson's seminal Classic Thai Cuisine (Simon and Schuster, Australia, 1993), It is well worth searching out for its clear and concise descriptions, and to share in a passionate enthusiasm for his particular oeuvre. Books for Cooks, in London (0171-221 1992) may be able to help you.
Crispy fish salad (Yam Pla Fuu), serves 4
The mango and red Thai shallots may be, respectively, found at Indian and Asian stores
200g firm fleshed fish fillets such as hake or cod, skinned,
2-3 generous pinches of sea salt
sunflower or peanut oil for deep-frying
half a small, very firm green mango, peeled and cut into thin strips
2 tbsp red shallots, peeled and sliced lengthways
4-6 fresh mint leaves, torn
a generous fling of fresh coriander leaves
2 tbsp roasted peanuts, coarsely crushed
for the dressing:
4-10 fresh small green hot chillies, depending upon your heat tolerance (you may like to de-seed them if you feel wimpish)
pinch of sea salt
1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
2 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp caster sugar
Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C/gas mark 4. Rub the salt over the fish fillets and bake on a rack in a roasting tin for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove and allow to cool. Grind the fish in a food processor with a further small pinch of sea salt until it resembles fresh breadcrumbs. Do not over-process as this will affect its ability to puff up.
Half-fill a wok or deep-fryer with the oil until very hot, almost smoking. Quickly add 2 tablespoonfuls of the fish, which will puff up into a "raft". Using a large perforated spoon, pull the fish raft towards you. Once the oil has ceased to bubble, turn the raft over and continue to fry until golden brown. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Repeat with the remaining fish.
In a roomy bowl, break the fish rafts into large pieces. Add the remaining ingredients, toss gently to combine, and transfer to a large oval plate. Add the dressing just before serving to ensure that the fish remains crisp.
To make the dressing, simply crush the chillies with the salt, using a pestle and mortar (or food- processor). Combine with the remaining ingredients.
The Oriental's Sea Crab with Coconut Milk (Tom Gathi Poo Khai), serves 4
If you are lucky enough, like me, to live in west London, the Thai ingredients for this wonderful soup may be purchased from a shop called Sri Thai, in Shepherds Bush road (the Bush end). Otherwise, search out your nearest Asian store.
2 x 400g tins coconut milk
2 small live female crabs
3 tbsp peeled and sliced Thai pink shallots
6-8 slices of galangal ginger
5-6 kaffir lime leaves, sliced
5-6 small hot red chillies, sliced (de-seeded if you wish)
3 stalks of lemon grass, sliced (only use the 5cm bulbous part of the stalks)
4-5 tbsp Thai fish sauce
4-5 tbsp lime juice
1 x 250g packet of creamed coconut, chopped into small chunks
1 heaped tbsp coarsely chopped coriander leaves
1 large mild red chilli, sliced (optional)
a little chilli oil (optional)
Bring the coconut milk to a simmer in a roomy pot and lower in the crabs. Return to a simmer, put a lid on and cook gently for 15 minutes. Lift out the crabs and allow to cool. Add the shallots, galangal ginger, lime leaves, hot chillies and lemon grass. Add the creamed coconut and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Switch off the heat while you deal with the crabs.
Break open the cooled crabs by pulling apart the body of the crab from its outer shell. Remove the grey-looking "ladies' fingers", scoop out the brown meat from the shell and put on to a plate. Discard the shell. Now remove the large claws and give them a sharp crack with a rolling pin. Chop the body of the crab in half (which includes the remaining lesser claws) and put all the crab and brown meat (including any escaped juices) back into the soup. Bring back to a simmer, add the coriander (and mild chilli and chilli oil if you're using them). Cook for a further 5 minutes and serve piping hot.
The Oriental, 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok 10500, Thailand (00662 236 0400); Harmonique, No 22 Charoenkrung 34, Bangkok 10500 (00662 630 6270); Sailor's Thai 106 George Street, The Rocks Sydney (00612 9251 2466); Darley Street Thai, 28-30 Bayswater Road, King's Cross, Sydney (00612 9358 6530).
Next installment in two weeks' time - full-on Sydney and its very own Palm BeachReuse content