We didn’t know if we should take a boat across the Chao Phraya River. Well-dressed and gorgeous, a woman stood on the pier telling Translator why the restaurant on the other side of the river was worth the trip. “She says it’s about 180 to 250 baht ($5–7) per entrée, and really good,” he said.
“I’d follow her into fire to eat a bowl of dog shit,” said Singular, standing in a puddle of his own drool.
For two days we’d feasted on a mind-boggling buffet of street food. While not all the offerings appealed—I did not, for example, dig the fried maggots, or the sweetened marinated olives, or the many incarnations of the hot dog. But when the food was good, it was amazing. A different curry for every hour, and stir-fried noodles and coconut soup the way god intended.
But on this night we wanted to turn it up a notch. If street food could be this good, then we calculated that restaurant food where trained chefs put their personal touches on one of the world’s finest regional cuisines—would be out of this world.
The place in the guidebook totally did not exist, and the ensuing search, sans reference, took hours. We combed blocks and blocks by foot, past some very tempting decoys, until on Maharaj Pier we spotted a sign announcing Supatra River House: Exotic Thai & Seafood Cuisine. We thought we were following the sign to a restaurant, but soon enough we were on a boat.
We pulled away from the shore and the woman calling the restaurant on her two-way radio. On the river, we glided through a maze of leaves, sticks, seeds and other items from the green heart of Thailand, while dodging a chaotic darting of tugboats, off-duty water taxis, immense barges linked together into trains, and the occasional extra-large neon-lit catamaran party boat.
The menu, which for once we each got a copy of, overwhelmed most of the group and the ordering was left with a small hardcore unit. We ordered some familiar dishes as points of reference, such as a Pad Thai with fried sea bass, and Tom Kha Kai, a classic spicy coconut soup. And even though it wasn’t on the menu we asked for a green curry with deep-fried duck in it. Then we ordered a seaweed stir-fry, a salad of shrimp, grapefruit and coconut, and a bottle of whiskey—to be mixed with soda water and lime juice, Thai style.
A server was stationed at the foot of our table to mix the drinks and keep our glasses full, and another bottle of whiskey was required before the night was over. Meanwhile, a plate of spice-tossed roasted peanuts appeared.
The main dishes were brought out, one by one, each plated in spectacular fashion and garnished with fruits and vegetables carved into flowers and whatnot.
The duck curry, Tom Kha Kai, and Pad Thai, were, as we’d hoped, delicious and creative versions of some of Thailand’s finest dishes, as much art as craft. The shrimp and grapefruit salad, meanwhile, was a spectacular version of nothing we’d ever imagined. Unlike the soups and curries, which manage to simmer a symphony of flavors into something entirely else, the beauty of this salad was how the separate flavors interacted.
“It’s making me wince, sweat and smile all at once,” said Translator. I was only wincing and sweating at that moment, in the process of realizing I’d just chomped a non-minced chunk of chili. This made me want a piece of coconut-flaked shrimp in my mouth right away, to be chewed together with a big bursting juicy bite of grapefruit. All of these flavors together could balance that chili heat, which was now like a glowing-hot rock basking in a cold creek. I was sweating, and happy to be sweating.
A few days later, I was asleep in a hammock. What woke me up was the sound of a bowl of deep-fried barracuda in green curry sauce being placed on a table next to me. Beyond the table, there was no wall between me and the sun, setting above islands that belong to Burma.
I couldn’t stop thinking about that salad. So I pulled out my notes from the Supatra River House meal and read my guesses as to the salad’s ingredients. I was happy to realize that everything was available on the island. My friend Kae, from Koh Chang Resort, helped me prepare it in her kitchen.
Fresh shrimp simmered in salt water while I grated a carrot and a quarter-coconut’s worth of flesh, and mixed them with half an onion, a red shallot of equal size, and six Thai hot chili peppers, all minced. I peeled and added the cooked shrimp, each one cut in half, and the grapefruit sections, each section broken into thirds with the membrane removed.
I squeezed in the juice of six limes and a few squirts of fish sauce, tossed, and garnished with a rose carved from a tomato peel. It was worth walking into the fire for.
Ask Chef Boy Ari: Very sherry morels, plus: a bird in hand
Some time back you wrote an article on a dish that used morels, wine, cream and shallots. We seem to have lost the original and have now been shooting in the dark. Would you please send me the information? In return I am sending you a recipe for wild bird breast that was given to me this fall. I have used it twice on sharp-tail and find it very good.
Jim’s Bird Recipe:
Breast pheasant (or grouse, etc.) and remove skin.
Pound breasts to tenderize. Pound hard, just like abalone, knock it down, tenderize.
Dip breast in egg/milk mixture, then flour that has been seasoned with tarragon and garlic salt. Rosemary also works. Set aside.
Fry in real butter. Use medium plus heat and fry slowly, usually takes about four minutes or less for each side. Do not burn butter. It is better to take it out of the pan just as it cooks through rather than overcook.
Remove from pan and allow to drain on paper towel.
Serve with favorite wild rice (try adding dried apricots and golden raisins which have been soaked in brandy for at least an hour to the rice after it has been cooked).
A: Dear Jim,
Thanks for the recipe, which I’ll definitely try when I get back from Thailand. My neighbor Bill’s buddy, whose name is also Jim (cosmic!), keeps me stocked with duck.
As for your question, just combine, in the following order, butter, chopped shallot, chicken stock, nutmeg, morels. Cook awhile, add sherry before it burns. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Add cream. Cook. Add more sherry if necessary.
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