Friday, March 21, 2008

Ruen Urai, Bangkok, Thailand

The house of gold

Ruen Urai
The Rose Hotel,
118 Soi Na Wat Hualumpong,
Surawongse Road, Bangkok
10500 Thailand
Tel: (66) 02 266 8268-72
Open: Noon to 11pm

Bangkok is a city of interest. On teeming Surawongse Road, in the heart of the city, for example, you encounter a bewildering blend of seedy bars, restaurants, hotels, fortune tellers, Internet cafes, and even a Starbucks outlet. It is also here that you will find Ruen Urai (which means Golden House), a five-month-old cult restaurant du jour.

Recently restored at the cost of 4 million baht (about RM400,000), the 72-seater eatery of the Rose Hotel is set in a century-old building crafted in Central Plain-style. Made from golden teak, it was once the home of one of the herbal medicine practitioners to King Rama V.

Serene: Ruen Urai boasts of 72-seater, made from golden teak. The location was once the home of a medicine practitioner to the King.

Some 40 years ago, the side-streets in the area were once canals where monks would journey on canoes, seeking alms. The waterways soon filled up as the city matured.

As its moniker suggests, the restaurant is imbued with a sense of history and offers authentic and stylish Thai cuisine.

“We’ve built upon the history of the building as a herbal doctor’s residence and created a style of cuisine that’s light and healthful, yet genuinely Thai,” explains Tom Vitayakul, the general manager of the Rose Hotel and the restaurant.

With a menu spanning 70 different varieties of appetisers, mains and desserts, Ruen Arai should please anyone but the most fickle.

I found the Pohr Pia Sod (RM9), bite-sized servings of fresh spring rolls wrapped with prawns and fresh salad, and infused with a delicate hint of mint, to be excellent. The Kratong Tong (RM9), crispy cups filled with minced prawns, garden vegetables and spicy chillies, resemble Nyonya cuisine’s famed pai tee.

For a spice-filled experience, the Mieng Pla Krapong (RM18), pan-fried cubes of red snapper in Thai herbal dressing artfully presented on betel leaves, assail the taste buds and made me a little hot under the collar.

Artistic food: Fresh mango is served with sticky rice and coconut cream. — MARK LEAN

Thankfully, we were seated in the air-conditioned section. Our much loved satay, the pride of our national airline’s business class, have a place there too. Ruen Urai’s Satay Ghoong Rhue Pla Salmon, or salmon satay (RM18) is presented with √©lan as four sticks of salmon fillets sit majestically atop a bed of finely chopped colourful greens, and accompanied by their signature peanut sauce.

More surprises lay in store that afternoon. Shortly after the salmon was served, an unexpected visitor paid Ruen Urai a visit. Dressed in the usual tourist garb of grey T-shirt and jeans, and without a trace of make-up, jazz superstar Laura Fygi sauntered into the restaurant. Ms Fygi was, predictably, accompanied by her entourage, presumably comprising the members of her band. We soon found out that the Dutch singer, a regular diner at the restaurant, was in town for the recent Bangkok Jazz Festival.

“I had been performing at the Oriental in Bangkok, and have just returned from a two–night stint at the Peninsula in Hong Kong,” she tells us.

No wonder she looked tired.

Ms Fygi’s surprise appearance, however, couldn’t distract from the next dish. The Dtom Yum Ghoong (RM35), or spicy soup with river prawns, had the ability to hold its own even in the presence of a true star.

It’s a privilege to taste traditional dishes in the country of their origin, and this soup did not let us down, being fiery with very fresh prawns.

For a touch of sweetness, consider Ruen Urai’s Khao Neaw Mamuang (RM11), fresh mango served with sticky rice and coconut cream. Adorned with tiny edible golden leaves, the delicacy is quintessentially Thai. As expected, the rice was lightly scented with a subtle whiff of coconut, while the juicy mango slices were just desserts.

In the few months since its opening, the restaurant has been gaining fans ranging from the Bangkok glitterati and society matrons, to clued-in expatriates and, of course, a certain jazz superstar.

This house of gold looks set to prosper.

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