We went to Nahm at the start of the trip, which felt wrong.
In any sensible itinerary it would have come at the end, a synthesis of the food of the previous two weeks, or the key to unlock what it all meant. The food of the North, of Chiang Mai in particular, its stories of climate and place. Of the lean, diminutive chickens – no bigger than something we’d recognise as a poussin, really – and the intensity of flavour coaxed from their meat by glazing and broiling, broiling and glazing. Of the clash and collaboration between cultures, religions, influences – khao soi and khao mok in the Muslim quarter to go alongside the sticky rice elsewhere, beef and goat in place of pork. Of the heat, finally, and totally – the heat that descends practically at sunrise and mantles the city, thick, long after night has fallen. The paradoxical so-wrong-it’s-rightness, in this heat, of eating sai oua (Northern Thai sausage) hot off the grill, humming with makrut lime leaf and ground chilli, and seasoning mouthfuls with whole chunks of garlic and ginger and yet more chilli, beads forming on your brow to match the condensation on any number of beer bottles, soda bottles, ice buckets.
Capital cities, and restaurants in capital cities, are especially adept at taking the food of the country and repackaging it for a wider audience
The same interplay of hots and colds in the South, but everything else different. Seafood, now. Flavours both more chilli-spicy and less pungent, rough edges mollified by coconut milk. Coconut palms everywhere, unsurprisingly – rubber trees, too, serried into orderly ranks when looked at front on, but carving sunlight into fractals when seen from the side, a weird zoetrope. More clash, more collaboration: Phuket Old Town telling tales of trade with China, with Portugal – a dish of pork belly braised with black-pepper whispering words (Malacca, Peranankan, Nyonya) more familiar from the Chinese-influenced cuisines of Malaysia and Singapore.
All of this in miniature and in extremis in the food of Bangkok itself – food, like the food of any capital city, that is both the food of the country in microcosm and the food of the country(side) as curated exhibit. Capital cities, and restaurants in capital cities, are especially adept at taking the food of the country and repackaging it for a wider audience; under David Thompson’s stewardship, Nahm had always acted as a kind of living museum for Thai food; the great, obsessive chef scouring the country, past and present, for his recipes.
And as an exhibition of everything that the food of Thailand can offer, Nahm is generally a stunning success. The format of the “feasting” menu is a small stroke of genius – rather than the usual chef’s (occasionally egotistical) omakase, it allows customers to choose from a range of dishes under specific headings (soups, salads, curries, grilled / fried, etc) such that what arrives at the table will – unless something’s gone very badly wrong – be a pretty well-balanced meal. After an initial raft of snacks and appetisers, all the other savoury food arrives at once (per a common Thai convention) – it’s a neat way of removing all cheffy pretension from proceedings whilst making it as likely as possible that what you eat will deliver maximum, harmonious deliciousness.
It also gives you a chance to dial up or down the adventurousness depending on your mood and level of familiarity with what’s going on. For someone brand new to the country, the big-name classic dishes – laabs, curries – all land with the relevant impact and are immaculately done; for someone prepare to have their horizons broadened further, there are preparations that you definitely won’t have seen in high-street Thai places closer to home.
This, of course, is the tension at the heart of capital cities, and of museum-restaurants like Nahm
The quality of the cooking in these more marginal areas is especially noteworthy. A salad of fresh fruit and herbs with a tamarind dressing is an explosion of sweet-sour freshness; a pre-dessert of green mango with sugar and salt – really little more than the repurposing of a ubiquitous street snack – is just organically, judiciously right. Three soups, unfashionably, steal the show: a hot and sour number featuring black grouper manages to feel soothing and medicinal without tasting remotely worthy; a classic tom kha gay offsets a ludicrous depth and creaminess with just enough citrus to keep it interesting; and a closing pudding of lychees in chilled citrus syrup is simply perfect, the sort of thing to bring tears of happy incomprehension to your eyes.
It’s only in retrospect and with experience that the more mainstream fare loses some of its lustre. The whole fried fish at Nahm is delicious, but it’s not as impactful as eating a whole fish at a beachside restaurant, sand between your toes, flesh and crispy skin and garlic-chilli-lime nahm jim between your fingers. The duck laab is spectacular, given an incredible depth of flavour by the toasted rice run through it, but eating it is not the same as eating a (probably inferior) version at Baan Rai Yam Yuen on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. The yellow curry of crab is everything you could want from a yellow curry of crab – until, that is, you eat it in a converted shophouse called Raya in Phuket, its spicing ludicrously exaggerated, the Thai basil leaves left whole to finish the dish imparting a stronger and stronger flavour to the sauce left in the bowl as less and less of it remains.
This, of course, is the tension at the heart of capital cities, and of museum-restaurants like Nahm. They offer food better than the food of the provinces, because the market demands it. But they can sometimes also serve food that risks losing an undefinable something in the transfer away the place that originally housed it, food that has had its essence subtly altered and diminished by the very act of reframing it in a new context.
None of this is helped by the metacontext of Nahm’s current setting – a nasty dining room heavy on brickwork that scream-reveals its status as an addendum to / appendage of the COMO Metropolitan. Nor by the formal, fussy service, nor some hideous interrogation-room spotlighting of each table. Now that Thompson has gone and the San Francisco chef Pim Techamuanvivit has taken his place, this feels like a fairly good place for her to start the process of reshaping the place in her image. Techamuanvivit had barely been (officially) in the job a week when we visited; based on clear similarities with a visit a few years previous this (understandably!) still felt like the restaurant Thompson had built. She is more than up to the task of reinvigorating this place, and making it feel like a genuinely vital living museum, one aware of the responsibilities of curation. Museums, after all, are not always dry, dusty mausolea. The best ones thrill us with unexpected juxtapositions and new discoveries; they leave our minds and worlds not constrained, but expanded.