Thainess is all around

Ruen Mallika is for tourists, but don't let that stop you

The sour and spicy seafood salad on a bed of crispy deep-fried young acacia leaves.

As an astute local and long-time food journalist, never had I imagined myself in a million years being spellbound by a tourist-centric Thai restaurant.

Such eateries, of which the dining rooms usually boast an antiquated Siamese setting attended to by a staff in glossy Thai costume amid classical background music, are known to serve falsified recipes, mostly overly sugary and under spiced. Let alone the hideous pricing.

However it would be unfair, of course, to label all touristy restaurants with the aforementioned -- and perhaps reckless -- remark.

Ruen Mallika, this week's subject of review, seemed at first glance to have fitted the descriptions.

The old-style interior of Ruen Mallika.

The 15-year-old Thai restaurant is set in a century-old teak wood stilt house and attracts mainly international corporate guests and tourists.

But there are several distinctions that make this 120-seater a much worthy destination for visitors and locals alike.

Among them are exemplary cuisine, a vast array of food choices and budget-friendly price tags.

I was at Ruen Mallika recently to experience its unique dinner concept.

Dubbed "finger dining", it presents an exquisite set meal to be eaten in an ancient Thai manner with your hand.

To complement the cheerful dining style of the olden days, a 10-course menu can be tailor-made to the guests' preference. Price is 1,500 baht per person for a minimum of two guests, inclusive of "refillable" rice and free-flow drinks.

Diners can always opt to dine with conventional cutlery. But those who choose otherwise are promised gastronomic pleasure and cultural grace.

The restaurant serves newly-harvested jasmine rice. Not only does it have a nice fragrance and mouthfeel, but the glutinous quality of new rice makes it easy to be shaped should you eat by hand.

Ruen Mallika is a true disciple of ML Terb Jumsai, Thailand's legendary cooking authority. Thus, dishes are prepared to ML Terb's authentic recipes and with carefully sought-after ingredients to ensure genuine taste, freshness and hygiene.

Because vegetables and herbs play a very significant part in the meal, the produce must be organic or at least chemical-free. Meanwhile coconut cream, a key element in many dishes, is squeezed daily from organically grown Thub Sakae coconuts.

My 10-course dinner was actually made up of 12 dishes. The meal comprised two appetisers, a soup, a curry, a chillie dip (nam phrik), a spicy salad (yum), two meat entrées, a seafood entrée, a vegetable entrée, an egg entrée and a dessert.

Australian beef rib-eye sautéed with Thai herbs and chillies.

For each category, diners have to pick from a mind-numbing selection of dishes.

Literally, you might find the categories a bit intermixed. For example, seafood may be a centrepiece in an entrée, but at the same time presented in salad, curry and soup. But who cares?

Of the appetiser collection, my dining companion and I passed the likes of shrimp cakes, crispy spring rolls and pork satay. Instead we settled on deep-fried assortment of edible flowers and a DIY mieng khana snack.

The first appetiser showcased local flowerets, namely anchan (butterfly pea), dok khae (sesbania), dok khem (ixora), leelawadee (frangipani), fueng fa (bougainvillea), dok khajon (cowslip creeper), Chinese chive and rose, battered and deep-fried and served with savoury sweet dip. The latter features an assortment of goodies and gooey sauce to be wrapped in fresh Chinese kale leaves.

For a soothing yet flavoursome soup, I highly recommend tom kha pla salid, or galangal-seethed coconut cream soup with crispy deep-fried freshwater fish meat and young tamarind leaves. While the tom yum goong boasted a sizeable river prawn and was equally delightful.

But if you're in for an offbeat yet comforting alternative, go for steamed egg custard with minced pork, shrimp, cured egg and crispy garlic topping. This dish alone makes me want to go back to the restaurant every time I think of it.

The curry menu features a comprehensive variety, from red and green, massaman and yellow, to herbal. We had roast duck red curry and were satisfied.

Much-ordered nam phrik khai poo, or chillie and crab roe dip served with assorted vegetables, proved marvellous with rice.

The soothingly delicious steamed egg custard with minced pork, shrimp and cured egg topping.

The yum cha-om, or sour and spicy seafood salad on a bed of crispy deep-fried young acacia (cha-om) leaves, deserved two thumbs up.

Other entrées I remember from the deliciously ample dinner were Australian beef rib-eye sautéed with green peppercorn, herbs and chillies; braised pork spareribs with oyster sauce; Chinese kale, wok-seared prawns with garlic and pepper dressing; and stir-fried cabbage with fish sauce.

All were pungent and exhibiting the authenticity of Thai culinary.

You may also want to consider pandanus leaf-wrapped chicken; stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts; grilled rib-eye with spicy sauce; and wok-tossed minced pork with southern Thai herbs and spice, aka khua kling.

For dessert, bua loy sam kasat, or glutinous pumpkin, taro and pandanus pearls in warm and salty sweet coconut milk, was flawless.

The restaurant's air-conditioned dining room is equipped with low tables and Thai-style seating. Proper dining tables are available in an al fresco hall on a ground level. À la cart dinner menu and set lunch are also on offer.

At an extra 500 baht per person, guests can dine in a traditional Thai costume which the restaurant rents out. Service staff were truly sweet, attentive and helpful.

Deep-fried assortment of edible flowerets.

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