First opened in London in 2001, nahm was the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. Once relocated to Bangkok in 2010, the restaurant continued to make waves among the food professionals, the restauranteurs and the foodies alike. In 2014, nahm ranked number 1 in San Pellegrino’s Asia 50 Best, and kept a significant 8th place in the latest rankings (while being number 37 in the World 50 Best top). For many, nahm is the best Thai restaurant in the whole world.
Surprisingly enough, all these rewards and appreciation come to a restaurant which is not run by a local Thai chef, but by an Australian – David Thompson – who has been cooking Thai food for the past 25 years. I was intrigued and couldn’t miss the chance to go check it out for myself. Is it worth the praise?
I did my fair part of research on the internet before going there. Read tons of reviews, Thompson’s interviews and so on. It didn’t help that much as I ended being very anxious – almost all the reviews, for example, included references to the extreme spiciness of the food. I was already worried I would be disappointed (again) as it had happened many times during my seven years of living and eating in Thailand.
The outcome, though, was that nahm completely changed my view on Thai food. Before eating here, I could have named my relationship with this country’s cuisine as one of love-hate. I was often feeling sorry when I had to explain to others that it is not my favorite and why. Once I had nahm Thai food, everything changed, and I realized how sophisticated and rich in undertones Thai food can be.
I believe the spiciness issue is directly related to the balance of tastes the Thai food requires (spicy, salty, sour and sweet). Whenever this balance is missing from a dish – due to lack of imagination or of experience – it is replaced by a handful of chilies. The result translates in an increased hunger sensation, unstoppable tears and a profound sadness as what could have been a joy turned out as a failure.
It doesn’t happen at Nahm, and it is probably because of Thompson’s renowned love for flavors, which he combines harmoniously to give the food a gracious taste. Spiciness never comes alone, and there are always the four basic tastes of Thai cuisine and every here and there some extras – aromatic herbs like kaffir lime, lemongrass or sweet basil. All these dancing aromas create a show which leaves you smiling and wanting more.
It is worth mentioning that nahm does not serve the street food dishes, unlike most Thai restaurants.The menu Thompson developed is based on old recipes which were used at the Royal Court and in hi-so families at the end up until a hundred years ago.
Thompson found his inspiration in old recipe books he bought in auctions, or in leaflets people would get at funerals. Yes, in the old days, at the end of the ceremony and the memorial dinner, the guests would receive a small brochure stating the courses served and the recipes used to prepare those dishes.
What I found interesting in Nahm, particularly as it is rare in touristy restaurants in Thailand, is the fact that there is no room for compromise. If a recipe was put together to come out spicy, then spicy it is, and nothing changes even if the clients complain or request differently.
Thompson has repeatedly spoken about moving the restaurant to Bangkok in 2010 as being necessary. He needed it to be directly in touch with the home land, and with the authentic ingredients that nahm cannot excel without.
The restaurant is part of the Metropolitan by Como hotel, just next door to the Banyan Tree. Koichiro Ikebuchi, the Japanese architect who designed the place, was inspired by the Ayutthaya period, 1300 to 1700, when Thai artisans focused on meticulously designed wooden sculptures, mural paintings, and fabrics.
The restaurant displays a tasteful combination of gold and black tones, the floors are built of massive teak wood, and the strategically placed screens are adorned with Thai silk, one of the best in the world. The tables are all naturally lit at lunch, bare no table cloth and there is no uniform tableware. These decisions came on the owners’ belief that a big table made of high-quality wood is the best support for good food. The ceramics were chosen from the local artists collections and matched to the colors and textures of each dish.
The first thing you will try at nahm is Mah Hor; a traditional Thai snack served as an amuse bouche. So traditional it is that when nahm opened there was no other restaurant in Bangkok offering it to the clients. Mah Hor is a mix of pork (as per clients requests it can be made with chicken or shrimp meat as well), cashew nuts and palm sugar. A few drops of aromatics are thrown into the mix together with a bit of spiciness. Mah Hor comes on small pineapple slices which may create a bit of confusion, and you may find yourself wondering if they maybe made a mistake and served the dessert first. Welcome to Thailand, always surprising!
After the amuse bouche you’ll have 20 dishes to choose from, divided into different categories – canapes, soups, curries, stir-fries, and desserts. I will only mention my two favorites, the ones that brought tears to my eyes (pleasure tears, not spiciness tears). My first recommendation is Tom Yum which goes here under the name Hot and Sour soup with prawn and wild mushrooms. It is the classic clear soup which perfectly combines sourness and spiciness, and the wild mushrooms give a beautiful perfume to the whole assembly. If we consider a scale from 1 to 5 to measure the spiciness level of the dishes, then this soup would be a 2.
The second dish you must try is the crab curry (Coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with banana blossom and Asian pennywort). It was the best curry I ever had – creamy, with a pleasant bouquet, slightly spicy, full of sweet yummy crab meat. I would give it a 2.5 for spiciness.
Kingfish salad with pomelo, lemongrass, and lime is a happy interpretation of a Thai classic which is quite rarely found in restaurants nowadays. A refreshing combination of surprising textures, ideally to be accompanied by a spicy curry.
Speaking of which, here is a tip which you will love if you are not keen on eating very spicy food: stay away from the Spicy curry of minced prawns with yellow eggplants and holy basil. It is the hottest dish in the nahm menu. Brad didn’t even dare to look at it for the fear that he might end up with sore eyes. I took only one spoonful of it and mixed it generously with rice. It was good but hooooot.
One thing that was not at all agreeable to me – the desert. Rambutan served in some sweetly perfumed syrup; which was not bad per se unless they would have left the caramelized onion aside. I am sorry to say this but in my world, onion is fantastic just not served as a dessert.
If you want to try anything else just trust the waiters, they know best what to recommend and how to pair the dishes among themselves or with the drinks. Also, feel free to tell them if you have any special requests or limitations – vegan, vegetarian and so on.
The prices are reasonable given that nahm is a fine dining restaurant after all – dishes start at 310 baht (8EUR) and going up to 800 baht (20EUR). Don’t forget to add 10% service charge and 7% VAT.
Nahm opens Monday to Friday for lunch (12 PM to 2 PM) and dinner (7 PM to 10.30 PM). Make sure you book a table way in advance, especially for dinner andduring high and peak season (mid-December to mid- February). The easiest way to check the availability and book your table is through the restaurant’s website.