A starry dinner
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A starry dinner

Life checks out Anantara Layan Phuket Resort's newest restaurant Dara, Thailand's first dining and stargazing experience

Dara Cuisine Phuket is the first restaurant in Thailand to offer a stargazing experience.
Dara Cuisine Phuket is the first restaurant in Thailand to offer a stargazing experience.

Don't let the restaurant name Dara deter you into assuming this is the sort of flashy dining establishment frequented only by celebrities and socialites. Anantara Layan Phuket Resort's latest dining venue, which just celebrated its grand opening in April, serves up astral delights with modern Thai food.

Although the word dara means celebrity in Thai, the restaurant's name was chosen for its other meaning of stars. The star-themed restaurant also features a sky observatory on its rooftop, making this all-encompassing evening enjoyable for all -- be it young children, foodies or lovers looking to indulge on a romantic date.

The celestial glamour starts before entering the dining room as guests are greeted by a constellation wheel they can spin to light up their zodiac sign. If you have the time and aren't ravenous, the host will welcome you with an endless string of your star sign's fun facts. The interiors, featuring sleek warm woods and giant wooden rice grains and carvings, create an understated yet sophisticated showcase of Thai culture. On the menu, diners will find local specialities from all four regions of Thailand, as well as a page of robata grill. The food's theatrics make for a good show, but beyond the extravagant plating, local diners will be pleased to know the chef focuses on a punchy Thai palate as well.

"We want to present newness," says chef de cuisine Supakarn "Hong" Lienpanich. "This is in regards to the concept and presentation. Our food is Thai contemporary where it's 80% authentic Thai flavours, but we incorporate other cultures too in the robata part. I love moo ping [grilled pork skewers] but we made it more special by using the pork belly and glazing it with jaew sauce. It's also served with a sabayon sauce, which is made of egg yolk, fish sauce and Chinese wine. There's a lot more charm in one dish because there are so many different cultural influences to it."

Inside the dome, guests can use the telescope and fly through space with VR goggles.

Plated with pizzazz befitting a superstar, other Thai staples and childhood favourites are reworked in a creative update, such as the grilled corn (450 baht). While its drizzle of soy sauce gives some Japanese undertones, the home-made butter packed with herbal powder deliciously showcases one of Dara's many home-grown seasonings. Curry pastes and fish sauce are among the many ingredients the kitchen makes or ferments themselves, thus ensuring their own distinctive taste.

Right next to the restaurant is its own organic farm, which illustrates the restaurant's farm-to-table ethos. Although not all of the vegetables come from this garden, the majority of the ingredients are sourced from eco-conscious local farms and fisheries in order to minimise the carbon footprint. From noon to 3pm, Dara hosts cooking classes, where students can pick their own vegetables and herbs to cook from the patch next door.

If you're a fool for photogenic bites, appetisers like the humble rice crackers are topped with a variety of mushrooms, including the highly-prized truffle (700 baht). Or head up to the Northeast with the tuna tartare spring roll (700 baht), where generous chunks of tuna are seasoned with fiery larb spices and placed in a crispy (and Instagrammable) cone. The chef's juicy tom yum gyoza (680 baht) is also a show of three cultures. With a warm broth inside the gyoza like a xiao long pao, this multinational delight brings together the flavours of Thailand, China and Japan.

Chef Hong's fusions are nothing short of creative fun -- and she inserts these playful interpretations to local dishes too. Get your fill of Phuket crab curry with Dara's version (900 baht), which comes in a coconut with an extra side of sago crackers diners can dip into the curry.

Spin the constellation board to see your stars before entering Dara.

Another must-try is the southern kao yum (700 baht), which features 12 other herbs alongside the rice. It's unlikely that any other eatery includes pomegranate or fried fish flakes in this salad, but the addition of these well-curated ingredients injects an interesting and crunchy novelty to the southern staple.

Originally, southerners ate kao yum for its countless medicinal herbs to boost immunity and ward off illnesses. People either love or hate the pungent budu dressing that comes with it, but Dara's budu sauce is laced with mixed berries that pleasantly softens the fermented anchovy aroma without sacrificing any authentic flavours.

Another main that displays the restaurant's fresh produce and drama is their grilled fish in leaves (1,400 baht). Featuring a bouncy snow fish marinated overnight with lemongrass, turmeric and galangal, this main is grilled to luscious perfection and lets the fresh catch shine.

On the dessert side, traditional Thai treats get an out-of-this-world treatment. Shaped like planets you need to break into, others come with a dry ice fog. Also, save room for their sweets which let you taste the stars.

Following the space theme, Dao Takrai (450 baht) is a lemongrass mousse cased in a Saturn white chocolate dome. The passion fruit coulis it comes with gives a refreshing, tart contrast. If you'd like to see an upscale incarnation of the mor gaeng puek, Dara's taro version (450 baht) beautifully serves the taro coconut custard in a coconut shell. The top is also torched like a crème brûlée, thus giving a delightful, Western twist to this snack.

Gaeng pu, aka crab curry.

Complementing the food, you'll find celestial-themed craft cocktails which are just as theatrical. Besides being a drink for the camera just as much as yourself, they inventively showcase Thai ingredients and spirits from local distilleries. An extensive selection of fine wines is also available, but what's noteworthy is the property's dedication to providing an equally comprehensive list of non-alcoholic beverages. Be it non-alcoholic wines or mocktail spritz or negronis, these alternatives taste no less intriguing.

Far from being a bland and generic hotel restaurant serving basic staples, Dara impressively turns dinner into a wondrous experience -- with even more stunners awaiting upstairs. It's true when their team tells me this isn't just a place for superstars, it's a place for anyone to come to feel like a superstar.

Visit Dara Cuisine Phuket at Anantara Layan Phuket Resort. Open daily from 6-11pm. Cooking classes available daily from 12-3pm.

Outdoor seating at Dara.

Sublime stargazing

Stargazing has never been so plush. For those looking to admire stars and indulge in constellation-themed cocktails, Dara's rooftop is the place to be. Fully-equipped with a custom-built Ash dome and Phuket's most powerful telescope, this restaurant is now the first in Thailand to offer star-filled experiences with state-of-the-art technology.

Dozens of spacious daybeds fill the observation deck, where guests can look at the stars while sipping cocktails on their own, or choose a guided full session with Dara's Sky Storyteller, Natcha "Mick" Boonroj.

It almost feels too short, as Mick's breadth of knowledge about the stars and galaxy alone could easily fill the session's duration of 45 minutes. Guests will be viewing stars on the daybeds while Mick's red laser points out the magical spaces above, inferring anything from Greek philosophers to Harry Potter, depending on guest interests.

The group will then move into the dome to look at certain stars through the Meade LX200 ACF Telescope -- an approximately 2 million baht instrument. Alongside that, guests will also be able to experience flying through the universe and see pink-tinted planets up close through VR goggles.

Whether you are a novice or expert astrologer, this insightful and enjoyable stargazing experience with their captivating Sky Storyteller will surely bring a newfound sense of marvel to your view of our galaxy.

The Stargazing Package with Sky Storyteller and craft cocktails (45 minutes) is priced at 6,000 baht++ (per 2 adults) and 1,750 baht++ per child. There are two sessions daily, at 7.30-8.30pm and 9-10pm. The Stargazing with free flow drinks package (1 hour) is priced at 3,000 baht++ (per 2 adults). Reservations are required one day in advance.

Kao soi.

Kao yum.

Kao tung.

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