|A palate pleaser from the green heart of Thailand — a spicy salad of shrimp, grapefruit, and coconut. Photo By Chef Boy Ari|
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 flames 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 were appealing — 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 we selected from 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 called 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 so the ordering was left to 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. Then we ordered a deconstructed 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 with a pause between, 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 simmered 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 all wince and sweat at that particular moment, having just chomped a very 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. At that point I was smiling wider than I had all day. All of those flavors together balanced the unstoppable chili heat, which was now like a glowing-hot rock fizzing in a cold creek. I was sweating, and happy to be sweating.
A few days later, I was awakened from a nap in a hammock when a bowl of deep-fried barracuda in green-curry sauce was placed on a table next to me. Beyond the table, there was no wall between me and the sun, setting behind 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 flames for.