Some massive work upheaval has kept me from posting this in a timely manner, but last Wednesday I was invited out for a TAC Quick feast in honor of Dave Feldman's visit. With Erik M. as our gracious guide, I was in precisely zero position to refuse such an offer. Here is where it is worth noting... to put my thoughts in context... that I am a child of P.S. Bangkok. I have, quite literally, been dining there regularly since it was a brand new joint, I was into Milli Vanilli, and most people with whom I discussed Thai cuisine thought I was referring to the food of Taiwan. So while I adore Sue and will be a regular visitor to P.S. Bangkok for, hopefully, the rest of my life, I've known for some time now that I needed to broaden my horizons. This seemed the perfect opportunity.
I fear that my dish descriptions will be a little vague, but it was a lot to absorb all at once. At one point, I jokingly said I felt as though I were cheating on Sue, but in some ways this was rather apropos as a metaphor. Our dinner was how I imagine the first rendezvous with the other woman would be, something of a hazy sensory blur punctuated by vague yet powerful impressions rather than detailed analyses. As such, here are my blurry thoughts (and blurry photos, owing to an unfortunate camera mishap) for the evening. As usual, all photos are of the click to enlarge variety.
sômtam puu mãa
papaya salad with fresh blue crab
First dish, a familiar start, as tart, citrusy and fishy as I've come to love, with the crab as a nice inclusion to which I'm unaccustomed. What miniscule morsels I managed to suck out of the limbs that landed on my plate were quite wonderful. The somtam I grew up on was always much, much more tender than any I got elsewhere, I believe due to extensive pounding in a mortar. I've never been certain which texture I preferred, but I know I enjoyed the tougher, chewier texture at TAC quite a bit, and much more than I have at other establishments.
sâi kràwk isãan
grilled Isaan-style pork and rice sausage, served with chile, ginger, and peanuts
I'm a sucker for sausage, so this one was going to be a winner no matter what. This was another familiar dish for me, as it was a favorite from one of my rare non-PS excursions, in this case to Lotus of Siam in Vegas. You can't go wrong with grilled pork and lemongrass. I enjoyed it quite a bit.
Thai-style fried chicken served with a spicy tamarind dipping sauce
This was the first dish that was technically new to me, inasmuch as fried chicken with a tart, spicy tamarind dipping sauce can be unfamiliar. The chicken was clearly marinated before frying, which gave it a really nice depth of flavor. Aggressive frying made for a nice crispy/chewy texture. Very enjoyable.
Isaan-style sour, light, and spicy soup with beef offal
Sadly, this is where my camera started to misbehave, but I've done my best to salvage the photos. On the upside, this was the first dish that I adored. Not to imply that the previous dishes weren't excellent, they all were. But this soup was really fantastic, an opinion that seemed to be generally shared by the table. What impressed me was its ability to be as tart and explosive as it was without losing subtlety. In my experiences, dishes that are as tart as this one are usually overly aggressive, but this one remained grounded. One of my big favorited of the evening.
plaa sãmlii tàet dìaw
crisply-fried butterfish with chile diiping sauce
Aaaaand here's where my camera really
started misbehaving... but hopefully you get the idea. I made the mistake of not getting to this dish the moment it hit the table, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit. The fish was split lengthwise down the middle and crisp-fried to make the entire beast edible. I partook of the head, myself, which I rather enjoyed... but I suspect I really needed to hit this one hot from the fryer instead of 15-20 minutes later, as I did.
phàt phèt plaa dùk
catfish stir-fried with green curry paste, chile, Thai eggplants and green peppercorns
I love Thai fried catfish, and this was no exception. Crisply fried, a little chewy, still flaky on the inside... great stuff. The curry was considerably more restrained than I expected, and I think I need a second dip to decide whether I consider that a good or a bad thing. To be clear, it's a second dip I'll enjoy no matter what. It was undoubtedly delicious, I'm just trying to determine where my preferences lie.
khâo khãa mũu
red-braised pork hock in a sweet and savoury sauce with pickled cabbage
This is the kind of pork dish I love... a very slow-cooked, moist, fatty, intensely porky fellow with lots of fat and skin that was very, very similar to the kinds of dishes I get in Hong Kong and Shenzhen. In fact, I believe Erik mentioned that these types of dishes were brought to Thailand by Chinese traders, but don't quote me on any of that. I'm sure he can elaborate. It was a little drier than the Chinese pork I'm used to, but quite delicious in any respect.
náam phrík kà-pì plaa thuu
shrimp paste “dip,” served with grilled mackerel and crudités
This was the second huge winner of the night for me, perhaps because the dip reminded me so much of the Italian anchovy concoctions that I love so dearly. The dip was spicy, fermented and sour, very complex and potent. I loved it. The mackerel certainly wasn't for those who don't like fishy fish, but I thought it was great. Very nice fried eggplant and random crudites. But the best pair, in my mind, was the thin egg crepe. I don't recall the exact composition, but it was eggy and slightly crisp, with some kind of vegetable and seasoning cooked in. Really, really fantastic. Incidentally, Erik informs me that the dip is colored so because the shimp used are so tiny that the black eyes comprise a significant portion of the beast. Of course, this only makes the dish as cool as it is tasty.
krà-phrao kràwp khài yiaw mûa
deep-fried holy basil with minced chicken, stir-fried and served over preserved eggs
This certainly wasn't one of the flashier dishes, but I did enjoy it quite a bit. Hooray for fried basil. Incidentally, I've never understood the aversion fo preserved eggs that seems quite common. I see how the color might be off-putting to some, but the flavor is really quite gentle.
kũay tĩaw reua
spicy rice noodle soup with tender beef, beef balls, beansprouts and Chinese broccoli
, what a finish. After the planned menu was completed, we ended up with one additional dish by special request of the guest of honor, and I'm glad he wasn't shy. This soup is so complex that I don't even know how to begin describing it. There were about 62 different things going on, all of them incredibly potent. It had a deep, dark intensity that immediately brought liver to mind, though I have no idea if any liver was involved in its composition. In typical Thai fashion, however, it was simultaneously punched up with very bright herbal and vinegary accents. I wish I could speak about this one more intelligently, because there's a lot to dissect, but I was mostly busy being blown away. Potent stuff, and my third big winner for the evening.
This really was a new experience for me. In some ways, I feel like it's going to take another trip or two before I can get over the initial sensory wash enough to gather my thoughts and speak more intelligently. It'll also be easier when I can tear into a good chunk of a dish rather than having a small taste of everything. I really, really enjoyed the evening, both for food and company. Many thanks to Erik for putting together a great menu, and to all else present for a lovely evening. It's a great starting point for me, and I look forward to digging deeper in the future.