A Thai for Tai Kwun


A useful newish restaurant in Hong Kong with a particularly good wine list. 

I do not believe that I am alone when I say that I continue to miss David Thompson’s distinctive Thai cooking in London. 

This Australian-born chef has made his career specialising in this complex cuisine, always pursuing his quest for the country’s richly authentic flavours and textures. 

He cooked in London for nine years, at Nahm in the Halkin Hotel in Belgravia, but this arrangement never felt quite right. The heat of his cooking never seemed to gel, with me at least, with this hotel’s rather cool interior.

Since its closure, Thompson has spent his time focusing on Long Chin, a more popular approach to Thai street food of which he has now opened successful branches in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. He is also planning to open another more upmarket restaurant, Mahanathi, in the first Orient Express Hotel to open in Bangkok later this year.

But Thompson has recently made a concession to lovers of his style of cooking. In November last year he opened Aaharn in the recently converted Tai Kwun space in central Hong Kong. I have now eaten here twice and, as I would have predicted, on the second occasion the cooking was even more precise than the first.

Tai Kwun used to be Hong Kong’s main prison, jails and magistrates’ courts included, all set around a central parade ground. Thanks, principally, to the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the whole site, which benefits from a fabulously convenient central location, has been renovated and made fit for purpose for the 21st century. Today it accommodates art galleries, shops and numerous restaurants and cafés, with a wide range of activities in the parade ground.

Aaharn overlooks the parade ground from the first floor, above a noisy, busy bar. At one of the tables on Aaharn’s veranda you almost feel you’re in Thailand thanks to its close proximity to the square’s major tree, a mango tree of considerable size and age. The tree apparently never bore fruit when the site was a prison but it does so today.

Aarhan also has one other distinct advantage, this time in human form, in the seemingly ubiquitous presence of Kiki Sontiyart, whose business card describes her as restaurant manager/sommelier. Born in Bangkok to a mother who was a wine importer, Sontiyart exudes the warmth and enthusiasm of her native country. And because she is not that tall, she also manages to look her customers in the eye when they are seated – a key ingredient in putting every customer at their ease.

The menu on my second visit was similar to that on my first with one notable exception. The dishes today are considerably less hot and spicy than they were initially. Thompson and his team have obviously listened to their Hong Kong customers, most of whom have been brought up on either the subtler notes of Cantonese cooking or that of French cuisine (the French now constitute the largest single expat group in Hong Kong, apparently) and felt that his initial spicing was just too aggressive for their palates. The cooking and the ingredients remain unquestionably and authentically Thai, however, just milder.

In each course, although the overall standard of the cooking was extremely high, there seemed to be one standout dish in each of the three categories.

We began with three canapés. A mixture of chicken, prawns and peanuts on small slices of pineapple; betel leaves holding ginger and toasted coconut; and, best of all, a dish described as ‘egg nets with chicken, shallots and kaffir lime’. This dish, served on a dark-blue ridged plate, was a great mixture of spice, warmth, culinary technique and distinguished presentation.

Of our four main courses – an aromatic chicken curry, a dry red prawn curry, some braised pork with five-spice eggs, and chopped prawns simmered in coconut cream and wild ginger – it was unquestionably the relish of the prawn dish that was the highlight for its rich, succulent flavours, accentuated by a bowl of slices of green mango and white turmeric.

I missed Thompson’s rendition of mango sticky rice that is available only at lunchtime but my disappointment was assuaged by a dish of glacé kaffir lime, complete with a coconut dumpling inside a banana leaf. This is a dish that is commonly found among the street food vendors of Thailand and depends entirely for its freshness on the unusual but appetising combination of salt and the best possible quality of coconut milk. Here, we were in the best of hands.

With a bottle of Heymann-Löwenstein Schieferterrassen Riesling 2015 and one of 2016 I Vigneri Etna red 2016 from Sicily, I happily paid a bill of HK$4,000 (£385) for four.

When I asked Thompson whether he had any plans to re-open in London, he told me he had 'too much going on in Australia, Hong Kong and soon in Bangkok'. This is a perfectly understandable and thoughtful response but, from a professional and personal perspective, I am disappointed. Hong Kong, Bangkok and Australia are simply too far away.

Aaharn Armoury Building 02, Tai Kwun, 10 Hollywood Road, Central Hong Kong; tel +852 2703 9111