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Downtown Thai: (left) Koh, which opened last month, is frequented by celebrities; and lemon grass-speared chicken

Downtown Thai: (left) Koh, which opened last month, is frequented by celebrities; and lemon grass-speared chicken

Chilli twist to chocolate

Chilli twist to chocolate

Koh, Intercontinental Marine Drive

It’s a funny thing but until recently there were few good smart Thai restaurants in Bangkok. There was lots of great food to be had of course—you’d have to try very hard to eat badly in Bangkok—but it tended to be found on the street and in dhabas.

If you went to an expensive restaurant, you were likely to be disappointed. You got tarted-up versions of Thai staples at prices that were six times higher than those on the street and usually, the flavours were much worse.

It is ironic that the only Thai restaurant with a Michelin star is Nahm in London run by David Thompson, an Australian who is something of an honorary Thai and author of the definitive Thai cookbook. A year ago, when I interviewed Thompson, I asked him about his recommendations for Bangkok. He conceded the general point that it was hard to eat well at proper restaurants but suggested some places.

Downtown Thai: (left) Koh, which opened last month, is frequented by celebrities; and lemon grass-speared chicken

Thompson’s influence on the global Thai food scene is immense. Many years ago he came to Mumbai and cooked at the Thai Pavilion at the President Hotel and retains a high regard for Ananda Solomon, the chef.

It is hard to imagine but this November, the Thai Pavilion will be 16 years old. Virtually the first proper Thai restaurant in Mumbai, it was a brave and pioneering effort by Ajoy Misra, the then general manager of the President, and his chef, Solomon.

Sixteen years later, the fashion for Thai cuisine has come and gone but the Thai Pavilion remains the Taj group’s most consistently successful restaurant in terms of food quality and revenue.

Part of the reason for the Pavilion’s popularity with people who are not on expense accounts is the pricing. Solomon wants real people to eat there so all of his starters are priced at 525 each. For this money you get two large pieces of foie gras with sea asparagus in mango sauce, soft shell crabs with pomelo, scallops with an orange and rice wine reduction and much more.

Main courses are similarly priced. For 750, you can get roast duck on spinach (Solomon’s great hit—it has been on the menu for 16 years)—lobster with pepper and garlic, tiger prawns with kaffir lime leaves and scallops that combine sweet, spicy and sour Thai flavours. I have been eating at the Pavilion ever since it opened and I have never had a bad meal there. Ananda Solomon is our David Thompson.

Among the chefs who worked with Thompson when he ran a Thai restaurant in Sydney was Ian Kittichai. According to Thompson, he was not just a talented chef but “a really sweet and gentle guy".

Kittichai has gone on to fulfil his early promise. He was executive chef of the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok (the first Thai to get the job), and then opened Kittichai, a restaurant at New York’s trendy 60 Thompson hotel. A parallel career as a TV chef has led to superstar status in his own country. He is now Thailand’s best-known chef and a global ambassador for Thai food.

Over the last year, Kittichai has broken off with his New York partners, become part owner of Hyde & Seek, an excellent gastro-bar on Bangkok’s Soi Ruamrudee and planned new restaurants in such far-flung destinations as Madrid, Brussels, London and yes, Mumbai.

Last month his Mumbai operation, Koh, opened to a rapturous reception at the InterContinental Marine Drive, a lovely, small hotel run by two ex-Taj veterans (Raman Mehra and Romil Ratra). Koh is aiming for a different crowd than the Thai Pavilion (the Wasabi regulars I would guess), the prices are higher than Solomon’s (but lower than Wasabi’s) and it has been flooded with celebrities.

On the night I went, Kittichai, who knows me, was in the kitchen and Romil Ratra, who I have seen through a variety of Taj restaurants, was in the dining room. So I cannot pretend that I was anonymous or that I had the same experience as the average punter.

That said, the food was absolutely brilliant.

The yellowfin tuna ceviche (Rs 895) is Kittichai’s answer to Wasabi’s whitefish carpaccio and should fly out of the kitchen; pan-seared scallops on a pomelo salad (Rs 775) married the taste of good quality fish with such Thai flavours as makroot and chili. The rock shrimp tempura (Rs 655) took a Nobu idea and transformed it with eggplant and tamarind flavours. Kittichai’s signature baby back ribs had the chocolate flavour of his Bangkok version but a naughty chilli twist distinguished them.

The main courses were uniformly good but a slow-cooked Lamb Loin (Rs 1,425) was a standout. In Bangkok, Kittichai does a slow-cooked Kurobuta pork (using Thai pork) and I do wish he would import that here. Two other dishes came with interesting presentation. The garlic fried rice (Rs 595) was finished at the table in a hot stone pot and the curries (Rs 695-825) came in fireproof paper bowls with a flame heating them from below.

At present, Koh imports its ingredients, mainly from Bangkok and Kittichai promises to be in Mumbai every month. As long as these two conditions persist, the restaurant seems set to be a huge success. It is strange that while Bangkok struggles with good, smart Thai dining Mumbai has two outstanding up-market Thai restaurants. David Thompson opened a Nahm in Bangkok this month so the Bangkok scene may well be hotting up. But, as of now, you can stay in Mumbai and still eat excellent Thai food!

Hyde & Seek, Soi Ruamrudee, Ploenchit, Bangkok, +662-16851523

Bo.lan, Soi 26, Sukhumvit Road, Bangkok, +662-26029623

Nahm, the Metropolitan hotel, Sathorn, Bangkok, +662-6253333

The Thai Pavilion, the President, Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, 022-66650808

Koh by Kittichai, The InterContinental Marine Drive, Mumbai, 022-66992222.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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