Health is wealth | Ruen Urai, Bangkok


The classic Thai recipes at Ruen Urai – House of Gold – are a kind of magic… medicine as much as dinner, served in a glorious Bangkok landmark building

Health is wealth | Ruen Urai, Bangkok

Set in a century-old Thai house and hidden among the lush tropical garden of the Rose Hotel off the bustling Surawongse Road, Ruen Urai – which translates, rather romantically, as “House of Gold” – is said to have once belonged to a herbal medicine doctor during the reign of King Rama V.

As with the best Thai cooking, this had the creeping presence of sufficient chilli that appears just when you think it won’t, that warm feeling in your pants rapidly making itself known – wallop! Welcome to Thailand

Today there remains a private house but a restaurant also. The restaurant opened in 2007 and was recently restored along with the house and the cobalt blue swimming pool. While the setting is undeniably captivating, what matters here is the food. Still, you could easily spend an evening walking the dining room, exploring the unique golden-teak wood design across floors and studying the wealth of antiques and curios – collected over the years by owner Tom Vitayakul and his family.

Tom was there on the evening of my visit and happy to guide me through the many heirlooms and treasures on display. I found him to be a delightful conversationalist and one of the most exquisitely dressed men I’ve met, his airy clobber ideal for life in the soggy Thai capital. The appearance of a loose phraratchathan and draped Thai silk scarf is one of the most perfectly cooling and breathable attires. It’s a look of formality and downright authentic, archival coolness.

Ruen Urai

But to the food, which is a thoughtful mix of great ideas and ingredients, never pushed, never over-worked. It is also exceptionally good value, with most plates priced between 220 and 450 Baht, and only entering the upper hundreds for large-scale meats and fish. There are four menu options: “Classic Thai”, “Signatures”, “Inspired Siamese” and “Vegetarian Delights”, each bouncing you precariously around Thailand and exploring the varying territories and terrains of Thai gastronomy which, given the breadth and regional nuisances of the country, plus the fact that Thais have never taken to writing down or preserving recipes, is impressive.

Befitting the building’s history, recipes centre around ingredients with medicinal qualities, where possible. Thailand is full of ingredients carrying remarkable health benefits and providing adjunctive advantages – turmeric, garlic, cinnamon, Thai basil and saw-toothed coriander are all incorporated into the cooking. From the à la carte, a main of Mhu Bpaa Pad Phed – sautéed wild boar in spicy curry sauce – jumps from the page. You don’t tend to see boar on the menu of restaurants in Bangkok. It’s a potent, robust bowl of food; the rich meat softened by the long, slow process of sautéeing and pricked with heat from the smash of merging assorted chillies. I can’t tell exactly which, but I would hazard a guess at Prik Yuak (green, mild and sweet), Prik Lueng (orange and hottish) and Prik Jinda (a recurring red culinary element in authentic Thai cooking that gives dishes serious heat). The hottest chilli in Thai cooking is Prik Kaleang (a pale yellow-green, sometimes ripening to a fluorescent orange). Some sadomasochistics go for this. The food writer Tom Parker Bowles loves such severe capsicum fire in his belly and self-inflicting pain, threatening his tongue and arsehole. I prefer to steer clear of such voluntary punishment.

Meanwhile, Northern Thai-style Hors d’oeuvres included a fiery chilli relish with minced pork, grilled chicken fillets marinated in turmeric and Sai Krok Isaan, or spicy Isaan sausage, made from a mix of fermented pork, garlic, bird’s eye chillies and sticky rice. A Yum Sal salad with water lily stems, pork, prawns and coconut milk dressing is like a breath of cool air after hours in the sun, a bright and fresh dish, similar to my favourite Thai salad Kung Chae Nampla, made from raw shrimp. As with the best Thai cooking, this had the creeping presence of sufficient chilli that appears just when you think it won’t, that warm feeling in your pants rapidly making itself known – wallop! Welcome to Thailand.

Ruen Urai

Everything that arrives is modestly spiced for the farang, high on exotic flavours punctuated by fiery piquancy, dancing in the mouth, rising and falling in tonal heat. Take Ghai Haw Bai Dtoey, marinated chicken strips (almost caramelised) wrapped in pandan leaves. It’s simultaneously hot and fresh, just the right side of crispy with meaty density and the pandan imparting a natural sweetness. They’re wonderful and perfect for on-the-go snacking as little, gift-wrapped parcels – nothing but chicken, spices and fragrant pandan. And there’s the brilliantly delicate Hoy Shell Pad Nahm Prig Phow, a couple of plump scallops sautéed in chilli jam and finished with sweet basil – excellent, excellent, excellent.

A few dishes will set you up very nicely, and you won’t be disappointed if you have space for dessert. A vast repertoire includes an extensive list of homemade ice creams, sorbets and gelato to cool and settle the palate, historical sweets re-imagined for a contemporary crowd. There are Saku Cantaloupe Nai Loog Maprow Oh, sago pearls and cantaloupe in coconut milk served in a young coconut, and Tong Mib Tong Mord Foy Tong, a Thai dessert cooked from egg yolks and sweet, sticky syrup in three forms: flower, water drop and “thread” – like angel hair pasta. For the traditionalist, Khao Neaw Mamuang, fresh mango with sticky rice is available – ripe, tart, juicy. While India is the world’s number one mango-producing country, the best are found in Thailand, where sales total over $50 million, according to World Atlas.

Compared with the city’s other fine dining Thai restaurants, many claiming to adhere to ancient Royal recipes but failing spectacularly, Ruen Urai has a chic, authentic cachet, an overseas holiday romance. In the wrong hands, this type of cuisine has become a tourist feature, and a native business boast promising the illumination of community food thought lost in time. Here, there is a sense that these old recipes are caught in the amber of tradition but appear smarter after serious study and contemplation, something of the utmost importance to Tom and his family. These are recipes preserved but respectfully modified; it’s nothing new or revolutionary but tweaked here and there, polished, you might say. I thought this was vivid, thrilling stuff; cooking that stays with you in one of Bangkok’s most history-drenched and charming restaurant buildings – a house of curiosities and a true House of Gold. And if Tom happens to be there also, you’ll have all the better meal for it. C


Ruen Urai, 118 Surawongse Road, Bangrak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand; +66 (02) 2668268