The fiery flavours of Isan

Isanista presents a modern twist on dishes from Thailand's Northeast

Isanista, this week's subject of review, is a northeastern Thai eatery and part of a newly-opened multi-cuisine restaurant called Metro Square.

Not your ordinary Isan food joint, Isanista is where the ultimate rusticity of Isan cookery meets worldly-wise gastronomic flair.

The culinary concept is coined by celebrated young chef Weerawat "Noom" Triyasenawat, owner of award-winning Samuay & Sons restaurant in Udon Thani province.

With a Western culinary training background from the US, Noom blends his passion for Thai food and utmost respect for indigenous Isan ingredients with his global know-how.

His menu thus evolves around the region's highly-treasured delicacies including pla ra (fermented salt-cured fish), paddy field crabs, ant eggs, freshwater harvest and even wolffia, commonly known as watermeal. While well retaining its characteristics, these eccentric ingredients are prepared with refined techniques and presented with visual sophistication.

A dish of pon pu na, or field crab relish (250 baht), gave my provincial-cuisine dinner a cosmopolitan beginning thanks to the way it was illustrated.

Pon pu na is a relish very common in a homestyle Isan meal. It is made with field crab meat crushed with fragrant vegetables such as garlic, shallots, sawtooth coriander and chilies and seasoned with pla ra emulsion. The chunky mixture is typically eaten with sticky rice, but is served here in a rather Western style with slices of baguette toast topped with pate-like seasoned crab tomalley.

The sweet and savoury fish stew Vietnam style.

Naem hed yang with rice crackers (180 baht) is another ideal starter that, by the description, the look and the taste profile, promises to please both adventurous and non-gutsy diners. The dish features a salad of chopped grilled fermented wild mushrooms to be eaten with puffed-up deep-fried Vietnamese rice paper.

Another option that provides a mellow introduction to the exotic culinary realm of Isan is larb pla khang khai pham, described in the menu as minced Asian redtail catfish with watermeal (250 baht).

Redtail catfish, aka pla khang, is a common inhabitant of the Mekong River. Of the dish, pan-seared catfish fillets were presented in a disc-shape stack and dressed with a spicy salad of herbs, crispy wok-toasted rice and watermeal, the latter is called khai pham in the Isan dialect.

Considered a protein-rich food source and novelty among up-to-the-minute fine dining chefs, the microscopic khai pham beads lent to the spicy salad an interesting crunchy mouthfeel.

Do not miss tam gai ban, or pounded salad of free-range chicken (180 baht) if a well-rounded dish of sweet, tangy, savoury, nutty and fiery flavours is what you look for.

Steamed redtail catfish with chilli-tomato dipping.

A unification of grilled chicken meat, sweet tomatoes, string beans, leadtree seeds, red chillies and seasonal fruits (that day it was rose apple), flavoured with pickled plum and artisanal pla ra from Udon Thani, the dish was another proof of Noom's dexterous palate.

Khao pun pu na, or fresh fermented rice noodles served with a field crab coulis (250 baht) might be lacklustre for the eyes but the dish was the most awe-inspiring palate-pleaser.

The dark-hued coulis, in which some green veggies came bathing, is prepared with the meat and the stock from hibernated field crab harvested during the dry season. The crabs, hand-caught from deep holes in the paddy field's sandy soil, are prized for their sweet fatty meat and high-tomalley content. Giving an extra umami touch and sweet and aromatic balance to the mixture are pla ra, shallots and dill. The soup-like coulis was complemented deliciously by the rice noodles.

Also highly praised that evening was yum khanom chin jee or pan-fried fermented rice noodle, served with deep-fried mackerel (220 baht)

The spicy salad of minced Asian redtail catfish with watermeal.

A brilliant result of the chef's culinary experiment, the fermented rice noodles, usually served straight from the boil, were pan-fried to showcase a slight crispy crust and wok-burnt aroma, before being well-seasoned with pla ra, vegetables, toasted rice powder and spices, accompanied by fried pla thu mackerel.

Being a fan of springy-meat pla khang I was glad to see on the menu two more dishes that showcases the catfish, and both of them proved scrumptious.

The first featured glossy-white fillets of the freshwater fish steamed in a kombu seaweed packet and eaten with chilli-tomato dipping (280 baht).

The second, described in English as "boiled redtail catfish Yuan style" (250 baht), is in fact a sweet and savoury caramelised fish stew prepared to a Vietnamese recipe and is commonly found in Thailand's northeastern bordering province of Nakhon Phanom.

Should you be in the mood for real gastronomic adventure, go for mhok khai mod daeng, or red ant egg pudding (250 baht).

The stir-fried 'junko' Wagyu beef.

Regarded as a forest caviar, the nutty and sour ant eggs, which are now in season, were mixed with housemade chilli paste, eggs and herbs before being steamed in a banana leaf packet and served with grated salted egg yolk garnish.

There's a dish called stir-fried "junko" Wagyu, prepared to Nong Khai's recipe with skirt steak from Wagyu cattle raised in northeastern Thailand as well as ginger, galangal, pla ra juice and beef bile (320 baht). This peppery dish was lent a slightly bitter tang from the bile.

A number of classic -- perhaps less adventurous -- Isan dishes such as som tam, larb, and grilled meat (chicken, beef or pork neck) served with jaew sauce are also available. All dishes are enhanced in flavour with natural herbs and spice and without the use of MSG.

Beverages can be ordered from Metro Square's collection of soft drinks, fruit juice, coffee and tea, and beer and wine.

Red ant egg pudding with salted egg yolk.

The pounded salad of free-range chicken with seasonal fruits.

  • Isanista @ Metro Square
  • Siam Paragon, G floor
  • Rama I Road
  • Call 025-610-7557
  • Open daily 11am-10pm
  • Most credit cards accepted
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