Praça sets a new standard

Hua Hin restaurant mixes a hip beachside atmosphere with refined bar bites

All of a sudden, we are somehow in the midst of a travelling season. With outbound highways congested as soon as weekend approaches, it's clear that many vacationers from Bangkok are banking on holiday destinations accessible via road trips.

For travellers, being well prepared and tuned in can always be handy especially when it comes to gastronomic matters.

This week's subject of review will introduce you to Praça, one of Hua Hin's freshest dining establishments located in the 12 rai compound of the modish, new The Standard Hua Hin.

Inspired by beach clubs of the Mediterranean, Praça -- Portuguese for plaza, a local meeting place -- is set in a restored heritage beach house equipped with an expansive verandah and breezy oceanfront deck adjacent to the hotel's surf club.

The restaurant's name reflects the party-centric vibe of the Standard Hua Hin. It meanwhile hints the style of culinary offerings and targeted guests.

A bowl of khao phad nuea yang, featuring grilled beef and cured egg yolk on a bed of beef tallow fried rice.

The 120-seater restaurant labels itself as a Thai izakaya (Japanese gastro bar). Thus the cuisine is a modern, more refined take on gub glam (Thai for bar bites) crafted up by head chef Jackie Trongvanichnam.

Upon arriving, I was told that Praça was run by two crazy people. One was the chef, whose career profile includes years working at top restaurants in Thailand and the US and also winner of Iron Chef Thailand 2018 season.

Trained in classic French cooking, Jackie showcases his kitchen talent through a unification of his long-honed Western foundation, artisan local ingredients and favourite Thai street food flavours.

The menu here lists the likes of lobster roll with chilli jam and pad phak boong tab han (wok-fried morning glory with foie gras), and with ingredients such as Thai artichoke (sunchoke) and Sattahip sauce, a house-blend flavour to mimic Sriracha with the name of a neighbouring district.

The spicy salad of diced sashimi-grade tuna seasoned with Thai herbs.

Praça's playful cuisine is complemented by folksy service led by funky-haired restaurant manager Issaya "J" Prompong -- the other crazy individual.

J is one of the most unforgettable people you could ever meet on a holiday. He's fun and artsy, and, as a host of the house, very knowledgeable and always prompt to please his guests.

J led a team of 10 lovely service crew members, who make sure the nonchalant dining vibe is always attended to professionally. Each of the staff was hand-picked by J from various fields, some even off the hospitality arena.

To go with the easygoing mood, the house mixologist concocts a selection of impressively luscious cocktails guaranteed to excite the socialiser in you.

My favourites were Born To Rum, a mellow-tasting yet strong blend of Nusa Caña white rum, banana, coconut milk, kaffir lime leaf and lime juice; and Holy Basil, a sweet and tangy unification of The Botanist Islay dry gin, pineapple, holy basil, betel leaf, galangal and lemon (380 baht).

Grilled prawns with lychee panang curry sauce and betel leaves tempura.

Starters are presented in a form of tapas-like small plates. Among the best-selling dishes are kaphrao taco, a flavourful helping of stir-fried minced pork with holy basil and red chillis on crispy half-folded wonton shell; Isan tuna, a spicy salad of diced sashimi-grade tuna, Thai herbs and spices served with housemade black rice cracker (190 baht); and rak bua thord, lightly-battered and deep-fried lotus root chips with nam phrik ong tomato relish (160 baht).

Also worth enjoying are moo krob ban nawk, a dish of country-style crispy pork belly with cha-muang leaves, Ceylon spinach and lemongrass dressing (220 baht); and nuea yang phao taan, or charcoal-grilled skewered Korat Wagyu beef with broken rice crust and tamarind dip (390 baht).

Should you look for a more conventional flavour profile, there's miang kham (160 baht), a Thai-style DIY delicacy encompassing fresh herbs, dried shrimp, toasted coconut flakes, peanuts and caramelised tamarind sauce in a packet of fresh betel leaf. To leave out the DIY mess, the rendition here comes ready to eat and with fluffily crispy catfish meat substitutes for dried shrimp.

For main courses, goong yang gaeng panang, or grilled prawns with lychee panang curry sauce accompanied by betel leaves tempura (360 baht); and gaeng khua pu bai cha-phlu, a crab curry with chopped betel leaves and kaffir lime (320 baht) proved enjoyable.

Miang kham with fluffily crispy catfish meat.

More palate pleasing options for me: the khao phad nuea yang (350 baht) and pad Thai hoy thod bolan (260 baht), arrived in a form of personal dish.

The first featured succulent slices of grilled beef served on an aromatic and warm bed of beef tallow fried rice atop with cured egg yolk and housemade chilli paste. While the latter was a scrumptious combo that offered two popular street-side dishes: pad Thai fried noodles and crispy oyster pancake, at one go.

Desserts also follows the kitchen's concept of traditional Thai recipes with a twist. A khao mao nam kathi (180 baht), or candle-smoked flattened young rice in palm sugar coconut milk that I had was lent a citrusy finish by kaffir lime zest.

When the Sun sets, Praça comes alive as upbeat house tunes and world music are spinned live from the DJ station.

The crowd at Praça on the Saturday evening that I visited was a good mix of Bangkokian families and well-heeled millennials whose obsessions include fashion, fast cars, food and social gatherings.

The hotel also has another dining outlet, Lido, which opens all day. It serves up a variety of comforting Italian dishes including salad, pasta, pizza, steak and seafood. There, octopus salad with balsamic dressing; Wagyu striploin tagliata steak with roasted celeriac; angel hair pasta with crabmeat and chilli; and panna cotta with raspberry sauce are highly recommended.

The flavourful kaphrao taco.

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