If you are a Bangkokian over 30 years of age, I'm sure you've grown up with a visit to a Chinese restaurant as a part of your family's dining out ritual.
The dining room is conventionally set in red, gold and black with round tables to offer the typical mood of a fine Chinese restaurant.
Unfortunately, as the city has over the past several years been overwhelmed by Japanese, Italian, bistro-style as well as fusion cuisines, good traditional Chinese fare has become harder to find, and is very often forgotten in modern conversations.
My recent visit to Xin Tian Di suggests that, even in unexpected places like an American hotel chain, the city's century-old Chinese culinary heritage is being preserved and treasured.
Embarrassingly, I was at the Chinese cuisine outlet of the Crowne Plaza Bangkok, which two years ago was a Pan Pacific hotel, because of its current "pop-culture" food promotion. The attraction was the "Winning Menu" by Chef Lam Kok Weng, the latest challenger to defeat an Iron Chef in the famous culinary TV show battle.
Chef Lam’s winning appetiser features goby fish mousse in a crispy cocoon.
Lam's expertise is Cantonese cookery. And being born, raised and trained in the cultural melting pot of Singapore, he is also keen to combine modernity with traditional prudence _ such dexterity helped him secure the trophy, I believe.
Available from now until Nov 15, Lam's Winning Menu works around traditional Chinese herbs which are infused with the programme's themed ingredient _ goby fish.
At Xin Tian Di, diners can order each dish a la carte, or experience the whole five-course menu which comprises four Iron Chef dishes plus the restaurant's best-selling dessert, all for 2,000 baht.
Kicking off the gastronomic journey into an exotic world of Asian freshwater fish and herbs was a goby fish mousse lollipop (380 baht). In four bite-size portions (of course, ideal for up to four guests), this appetiser was presented creatively to resemble tiny cocoons while urging the diner to enjoy various receptive senses including the look, the touch, the smell and the taste.
The shot glass that accommodated each cocoon "lollipop" displayed a variety of Chinese herbs including clove, goji berry and star anise to offer an initially pleasant sweet exotic fragrance to the dish.
Biting through the light and crispy cocoon made with very fine rice noodles, into which the chef's subtly sweet, herb-leavened plum sauce was freshly injected right before each nibble, I was impressed by the pleasing and flavoursome fish centrepiece, as was I by the nest-like exterior that retained its brittleness.
The next dish, double-boiled goby soup (400 baht), arrived in a clay pot over a portable flame. The clear, golden-brown broth, in which substantial fillets of the well-prepared fish came simmering, tasted marvellously natural thanks to Chinese date, goji berry and star anise that lent a mildly sweet and salty quality and a delicate herbal aroma to the soup.
Lam's victorious main course was presented in contemporary fashion. It's a baked goby with Japanese mayonnaise accompanied by the chef's signature bean curd (880 baht).
Pan-fried tiger prawn with luscious lemon butter dressing.
Diners will enjoy two styles of the baked fish on one plate. One is a fillet of baked fish over wood-flame, the other, which came underneath an up-side-down wine glass, is the baked fish smouldering with the vapour, not the smoke, of a boiling medley of Chinese medicinal plants.
I have to say that the idea was brilliant especially when he uses exotic herbs to scent the meek-flavoured fish. Meanwhile, his home-made tofu, an ingenious creation meticulously prepared with soy bean, egg and spinach, had a remarkably silky texture and supreme taste that went perfectly with the fish.
The last course was fried rice (450 baht). Although it looked as simple as it sounded, the dish, featuring wok-tossed rice with deep-fried cubes of goby, ginko nuts and spicy XO sauce, proved truly addictive. First to impress was the firm-grained quality of the rice, then the pleasant wok-burnt aroma, which is a celebrated characteristic of fine Chinese sauteed fares, and the profound balance of flavours.
Being at Lam's culinary harbour, I highly recommend you also experience his other creations from the extensive regular menu.
I plan to return to Xin Tian Di for quite a few dishes including the pan-fried home-made bean curd with spinach in XO sauce (160 baht), the deep-fried prawn with wasabi salad dressing (420 baht), sauteed Australian wagyu tenderloin with black pepper sauce (800 baht) and the pan-fried tiger prawn with butter, milk and lemon (480 baht). The last treat, which presents a large tiger prawn lightly battered and deep-fried, introduced to me the chef's lusciously creamy dressing that tasted like lemon-flavoured chewing candy. The pungent sauce, made with fresh lemon zest, egg yolk, cream and butter, was given an fiery Asian dash thanks to a sprinkle of fresh chilli peppers.
Another dish well worth ordering is Peking duck (650 baht for a half duck; and 1,300 baht for a whole duck and a choice of side dishes). Real value for money, not only because of the portion but also because of the top-of-the-class quality and taste which is among the best in town.
You shouldn't leave Xin Tian Di without indulging in some desserts. Highly recommended choices include the light and refreshing chilled lemongrass jelly with tropical fresh fruit (150 baht) and the very soothing boiled black sesame dumplings with ginkgo nuts in warm ginger syrup (100 baht). Both sweets proved nothing short of flawless.
The restaurant offers a wide variety of dim sum _ of classic and signature recipes _ at lunch time. All-you-can-eat dim sum is also available for 620 baht per person on weekdays and 800 baht on weekends.
Herb-smouldered baked goby fish with Japanese mayonnaise accompanied by bean curd.
About the author
- Writer: Vanniya Sriangura
Position: News Reporter