Bob Halliday, the American-born authority on the food of Thailand, made only one mistake in his guided tour of the most authentic restaurants of Bangkok – he took me to the best place first.
Although from the outside Chote Chitr does not look impressive at all, Halliday had whetted my appetite en route by saying that this was one of the few remaining restaurants that was still in family hands after almost a hundred years and one where, even more crucially, they continue to make their own curry pastes. En route from the car my enthusiasm had been slightly dampened by hearing that close by there was a restaurant that specialised in serving pigs’ brains, a dish still hugely popular with the ethnic Chinese.
Chote Chitr boasts no more than half a dozen tables with a central aisle which allows the waiting staff and the restaurant’s dogs equally easy access to the kitchen at the rear. The furniture, crockery (forks and spoons only as in the more authentic Thai restaurants), paper napkins, lavatory and even the kitchen range are all pretty basic with the latter boasting no more than a small run of three gas-fired woks alongside a jumble of pots and pans, several cases of Coke and a television set. All the dishes which this tiny kitchen produces are written on four menus hung on the wall and comprise a staggering 400 in total - one for vegetarian dishes and another for one-pot lunch dishes. The mastermind behind all this is known as Tim, a middle aged woman whose rather plump figure matches the size of her smile.
What followed were a series of exceptional dishes. First was Tim’s rendition of mii krawp, the hugely popular Thai crispy noodle dish, but here there was an extra attraction of the zest of small saom saa oranges now no longer commercially available and the source of which she guards jealously. This gave the dish real zip. Then came a salad of prawns and chicken meat with dried chili and the shredded red flowers of the banana tree followed by a hot and sour salad of thin, succulent aubergines and perhaps the most extraordinary dish of all comprising prawns, vegetables and tofu which was like custard in sweetness and texture and wonderfully moreish. How anyone could make tofu, usually so exceptionally bland, taste so good is a great tribute to Tim’s skill. We finished with a small bass seasoned with bread crumbs that was fried in the wok and a piquant vegetable curry.
Halliday then disappeared to buy some sticky rice ( this is rice cooked in coconut cream and coconut sugar and must be about a million calories a serving) from a sweet shop nearby while Tim gently unpacked some Okrong mangoes (in season most of the year but at their best in March and April) to eat with the ultra sweet rice. Afterwards, as I went into the kitchen, Tim came to catch up with Halliday’s news and when I returned she was sitting in my chair. I asked Halliday to ask her whether she would like me to go into her kitchen and cook for her. She roared with laughter at this suggestion and I left one of my most memorable and inexpensive meals ever as relieved at not being taken up on my ridiculous suggestion as she seemed pleased that I had bothered to make it.
Meals at Harmonique and Baan Khanita were definitely less exciting although more practical for any visitor to Bangkok as the former is within walking distance of The Mandarin Oriental and the Shangri-La hotels and the latter very close to the Plaza Athenée.
Having gone through an inauspicious spell, it is rumoured as a result of a miscreant European manager, Harmonique’s cooking is now, in Halliday’s opinion, hugely improved. Its menu, with photos of all the dishes and a slightly milder approach to its virtually entirely Western clientele, provides a gentle introduction to Thai cooking, as does the inescapable garishness of its décor with its plastic flowers and wooden parrots. But a sweet and spicy mango salad with fried chicken had a real kick to it thanks to both fresh and dried powdered chili as did a soup of chicken, mushrooms, coconut cream, chilli and lime served in a misleadingly genteel looking pottery duck. But these dishes were, I was told, definitely hotter than those served to most Westerners.
East met West as soon as we sat down at Baan Khanita when a group of Thai waiters arrived at the next table to ours, presented a birthday cake and sang Happy Birthday in English to a table of entirely Thai customers. This restaurant boasts a modern interior and exceptionally speedy service - the deep-fried shrimp balls were on our table so quickly that we thought they were a mistake – and other highlights were Chiang Mai sausage with cabbage and coriander, a spicy catfish salad and another salad this time with pomelo and shrimps.
After this return to gentility, it was back to basics. One of the first questions Halliday had asked me when we met was whether I liked goose and when I replied in the affirmative we fixed a date and time to meet at Chua Kim Heng, renowned for its roast goose and duck, and almost certainly the noisiest restaurant I have ever eaten in.
Chua Kim Heng is located off a turning under a motorway, a sight matched only for its ugliness by the electricity sub-station that is a hundred metres away behind the restaurant’s small car park. The restaurant actually operates on both sides of this turning so watching the waiters cross the road as 4x4’s turn in and out provides extra spice.
I am afraid that I can only give you Halliday’s opinion that this is the best goose in town. By the time we arrived at 1345 on a Sunday they had already sold out (and weekdays are even busier) so we settled for their roast duck, crisp and not too fatty, that is served with a particularly piquant sauce of pounded ginger, vinegar, chilli and garlic. This is a restaurant where the roar of the traffic takes the place of piped music and conversation is necessarily subdued but where I hope to return one day for that elusive goose.
For my final lunch I faced a dilemma. Should I head Luuk Chin Wua See Yaan famous for its beef balls, or one of the capital’s ever- popular riverside seafood restaurants? The sight of the mantis prawns in the Aw Taw Kaw market tipped the scales towards the latter and we headed off to Ban Klang Nam (House on the Water) where I was reliably informed they are served under a mound of shredded and diced garlic and the flavours of the flesh and the crunch of the shell are one of the city’s gastronomic highlights.
That is, of course, if they are in stock. But, having taken our seats by the river’s edge and settled down to a view of the Klong Toey Port to the right and the massive Thai Farmers Bank tower to the left and placed our order, we were told that there were none available. We consoled ourselves with their delicious crab, braised sea bamboo and slender kale and river prawns served with the same amount of garlic but sadly past their best.
Finally, a word on prices. Eating out in Bangkok and Thailand is still extremely inexpensive compared to the West, particularly given the flavours and freshness packed in seemingly every dish. Even in the more expensive places prices for single dishes rarely rise over 200/250 baht and in the street cafes are much less. The one exception is of course the seafood restaurants and at Ban Klang Nam, the last of five highly enjoyable meals in this characterful if not beautiful city we managed to run up a bill that was all of £20 per person with beers.
Chote Chitr, 146 Phraeng Phouthon off Tanao Road, 02.221-4082,
Harmonique, 22 Soi 34, Thanon Chareon Krung, 02.237-8175
Baan Khanitha, 49 Soi Ruam Rudee 2 Ploenjit Road, 02.253-4638
Chua Kim Heng, Klong Tan One, 02-729 8822
Ban Klang Nam, 288 Soi 14 Rama 111 Road, 02. 292-0175.