COCONUTS CRITIC’S TABLE — Singapore is riddled with mediocre Thai restaurants.
Establishments where translucent and tasteless shrimp, most likely caught by slaves, swim in sad and inauthentic sauces below clichéd elephant décor.
Yes, the quality Siamese pickings on this island are unfortunately rather slim. It’s surprising that you can’t find more authentic tasty Thai food here than in Los Angeles or London when we’re so much closer to the country.
In a peculiar twist of fate emblematic of modern Singapore, one of the best places to get your Thai food fix right now – outside of the Golden Mile Complex – is a celebrity chef restaurant in a sparkling new casino.
Indeed it was at chef David Thompson’s Long Chim – which sits on the mezzanine above the bright red and cacophonous gambling pit at Marina Bay Sands – that I had salt-crusted and grilled tilapia (pla tubtim pao in Thai) that transported me to the streets of Bangkok. The mild white fish – “grilled tilapia with salt” on the menu ($29) – was full of the fragrance of the lemongrass and other herbs with which it was stuffed. The smokey saltiness of the skin, the succulent flesh, and the tongue-bruising nam jim chili dipping sauce all combined to bring us back to the crammed sois of the Thai capital, where a fish like this would be devoured with friends on a rickety table and washed down with beer on ice.
Thompson made his name internationally for the runaway success Nahm, a Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in London. He is Australian – which has provoked all sorts of debate over whether any foreigner can truly know Thai food – and is known for researching and resurrecting old Thai recipes from memorial books left when people die, which sounds gimmicky until you taste them. Thompson launched a Nahm outpost in Bangkok in 2010, which was named the best restaurant in Asia by San Pellegrino in 2014.
Unlike the Nahm restaurants which aspire to serve “royal” Thai cuisine, Long Chim chooses to take it to the streets.
The décor is a combination between a Bangkok street corner and a Phuket Sino-Portuguese brothel (if those still exist). The cheap red stools that you find at every hawker stall in Thailand sit in front of stylized, backlit projections of gritty Bangkok streets at the entrance of the restaurant, while inside tasteful Chinese-Thai tiles cover the floor.
The atmosphere is dark and happening. Cooking stations circle the space with the chef’s minions running about, chopping and prepping. When we visited, Thompson himself was frying away at a giant pan on the most prominent stove near the entrance – always a good sign.
“Green papaya salad” ($17) was also a success, with Thompson and his team nailing the balance between the three flavors – spicy, salty, and sweet – and with the requisite crunch provided by ample peanuts and dried shrimp. Anyone can smash chillis, fish sauce, and palm sugar together with unripened papaya, but to make true som tam takes a chemist’s attention to detail and years of experience. They must have some Thai folks in those kitchens.
The “fish cakes” ($15), a classic Thai street snack called tod mun pla most often consumed out of a plastic bag, were delightful, but we could have used more. The little fritters had the right spongey texture and fried fish paste taste, but there just weren’t enough of them. The banana leaf cone in which they were served sadly contained only about 12 coin-sized cakes, but the cucumber peanut dipping sauce was spot on and faithfully served its purpose of cutting through the grease.
Beyond what we ordered, the menu is extensive and covers all the bases of Thai street food classics. We just wish it had Thai translations or phonetics, for those who are familiar with the cuisine.
Service was totally competent. Not obsequious, but present and polite at all the right times.
There was a humorous moment when our server tried to describe what kanom jin was to my dining partner, who happened to be Thai, without having been asked. When the breathless waitress, most likely Filipina, was halfway through her very competent explanation of the dish – a vermicelli-like rice noodle, ladled with curry sauce, and topped with fresh sprouts and herbs – my partner mercifully interrupted to say, “I’m Thai.”
When it arrived, the “kanom jin with Chiang Mai tomato sauce” ($17) was unfortunately the weakest dish of the night. It didn’t taste much different than a canned Italian tomato sauce with rice noodles, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certainly not something you want to pay for in a restaurant. In Thailand, the sauce would most of the time be fortified with ground pork and pork ribs, without which it really lacked any sort of oomph.
For desert, the “banana roti” and “mango sticky rice” (both $10) were both forgettable. These were two dishes where Long Chim was no match for the serotonin-releasing wow-factor of a Bangkok street stall.
But hey, you know what? We weren’t in Bangkok. We were at the gleaming Marina Bay Sands, surrounded by well-heeled tourists and Singaporeans, overlooking Bulgari and Brioni boutiques.
The delicious irony of eating good Bangkok street food in such an incongruous setting makes Long Chim worth a visit alone. The perfect execution of dishes like the grilled tilapia and papaya salad will have me coming back.
Marine Bay Sands Shoppes
L2-02, Casino Atrium 2
Tel: +65 6688 7299
Coconuts Critic’s Table reviews are written based on unannounced restaurant visits by our writers and paid for by Coconuts Singapore. No freebies here.
Photo: Coconuts Singapore
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