As we look back on 2016, it was a year full of surprises confounding pundits and laymen alike laying the groundwork for an unpredictable period ahead.
When it comes to year-end travel, one of my favorite destinations is Chiang Mai, now easily reached from Hong Kong via direct daily flights on three airlines. I like Chiang Mai as a place to relax, chill, stroll, and explore Northern Thailand… and of course, to eat.
Adding to the year’s surprises; however, was the discovery of Cuisine de Garden, a restaurant about 10 kilometres outside Chiang Mai’s old walled city centre. Who knew that a “Michelin quality” self-taught chef was cooking up molecular gastronomy-inspired cuisine in the Thai countryside? Unlike certain other surprises which might leave a bad taste, my party of six at Cuisine de Garden earlier this month all found this one to be thoroughly delicious.
The restaurant’s signage
It is highly recommended to order the tasting menu at a very reasonable THB1,800 (HKD390) for this epic five-course gourmet meal, which comes with a “prologue” of amuse bouche and “epilogue” of dessert plus coffee or tea.
The prologue was the meal’s main dose of molecular gastronomy. It started with an homage to a traditional Thai finger food known as Ma Hor or “galloping horses”, named in honour of a Thai king known for his horsemanship. Traditional Ma Hor consists of minced pork atop sliced pineapple segments, garnished with chilli and coriander leaf. The reimagined version here is a delicate sphere of pineapple jelly topped with pork floss and still garnished with the red and green of chilli and coriander. The sphere was served on a spoon for an initial one-bite burst of flavour.
Next came another spoon, on which was a sphere of passionfruit foam quick poached in freezing nitro to, for the brave, be inserted immediately in the mouth. The freezing foam produced an intense burst of cold and sharply concentrated taste of fruit.
To follow, was a beautiful presentation of seafood bites: black mussel in a crunchy edible shell made of solidified squid ink, salmon tartare with salmon eggs, sashimi-grade tuna marinated in yuzu on top of a caviar-garnished lime, and a single prawn served in a seashell with red pepper pesto. Each morsel of seafood was fresh, beautiful, light and tasty.
That was only the start. The first of the five numbered courses was a tartare of wagyu beef served in a beautiful white ceramic bowl that would have been appropriate in a fine Japanese ryokan. The rich finely diced beef was covered with a thin layer of charcoal granita and crispy beet chips. It was one of the most unique tartars I have tasted, with the fresh cool taste of the beef coupled with the lightly crunchy finishes putting to rest any fear we had of eating raw beef in the Thai countryside.
Next came a terrarium of jamon ham, orange confit and a yuzu vinaigrette. This terrarium was served in a covered, smoke-filled jar with the end result like an update on traditional prosciutto with melon. It was a light, citrusy interlude before the heavier courses to follow.
The third course was “the nest”, an adorable rendition of the Japanese dish of roast chicken and soft boiled eggs on rice, oyakudon, which in English translates to the somewhat macabre “parent and child rice bowl”.
“The nest” before cracking the egg
The nest here was formed with crispy rice noodles perched on roasted chicken strips in truffled jus. A soft boiled “onsen” egg, still in its shell, is nestled in the centre, to be cracked onto the nest immediately before consumption. The egg infusing the crispy nest produces a pleasing texture like one gets when eating crispy noodles in a Hong Kong tea house.
“The nest” after cracking the egg
The final two numbered courses were a duck liver foie gras and a choice of either wagyu beef or duck breast. The foie gras, served with peach and mango purée and a black sesame sponge, was rich and delicious but not as airy as a fully engorged goose liver from France might be. The sponge was fluffy and original with its hint of black sesame.
Most of us then chose the beef, which unfortunately was the only disappointment of the night. The staff did not ask diners for a preferred meat temperature and it ended up medium well rather than a preferred medium rare, which would have been more suitable for the high quality beef. The accompanying delicious mushroom cheese gratin served in a hollowed out marrow bone helped save the course.
Matcha chocolate cake before pouring the syrup
Finally there came dessert, a matcha chocolate cake with hot green tea sauce. The cake first arrived as a beautiful chocolate cylinder covered in a thin layer of chocolate ganache and green tea powdered sugar. Then, hot green tea chocolate syrup was poured over the cake, collapsing its centre to produce a gooey chocolate concoction with the green tea adding flavour but not overpowering the rich chocolatey taste.
Matcha chocolate cake after pouring the syrup
The Tourism Authority of Thailand’s longtime slogan is “Amazing Thailand” and by the end of the meal we were not just surprised but, truly, amazed. We came to Chiang Mai expecting great food, but not like this. It was a delicious and unusual addition to the typical tasty Thai fare. If only the surprises of the year end up as well as the meal did. Hope springs eternal.
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year to everyone from this still Hungry Lawyer.
About the Hungry Lawyer: Marc Rubinstein, born in Baltimore, USA, has been in Asia for nearly 20 years with 13 of those in Hong Kong. He has split his career between banks and law firms, and is currently the general counsel of an Asia-based real estate and alternative energy investor. Marc is a co-founder and co-chair of the Hong Kong Gay & Lesbian Attorneys Network, and previously chaired the Nomura Gay & Lesbian Network, Asia. In addition to being a hungry lawyer, he has run three marathons, eight half-marathons and completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker.
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