Tuk-tuking into seriously good Thai food
|Hello or should I say sawasdee?: Nathalie's is authentically Thai in every respect, from the menu and interior decor to the tuk tuk standing by the entrance to the restaurant.
|Simply aroi mak mak: Som tam (Thai green papaya salad) is an enticing combination of flavours and textures. — VNS Photos Xuan Hiep
Add: S9 Hung Vuong 3, Phu My Hung, Dist 7, HCM City
Tel: (08) 54 100 822
Price: VND60,000-285,000 (US$2.8-13.4)
Comment: Authentic Thai food, reasonable prices, prime location, great view, attentive service, take-away available, credit card accepted
Nathalie's Restaurant assured reporter and foodie Xuan Hiep
that his craving for authentic Thai food would be satisfied. And it was.It does not get more authentically Thai than the distinctly designed three-wheel tuk tuk of the Southeast Asian kingdom, right?
So I felt the sighting of a tuk tuk shaped stall as we entered the Nathalie's restaurant was a good starter.
It told me that the restaurant was serious about serving authentic Thai food which, as most people already know, is seriously good.
And although I have been crazy about Thai food for a long time, I had not been able to make it clear, even to myself, why this was so. What was it that made Thai food so good? Was it the combination of a variety of tastes – spicy, sour, salty, sweet and even bitter? It was, of course, but there was something more to be said, I felt.
Then I came across a comment from a well-known Australian chef: "Thai food ain't about simplicity. It's about the juggling of disparate elements to create a harmonious finish."
I could not agree more. I have actually travelled to Thailand many times, and each time the food has been a factor in making the decision to travel.
If Nathalie's lived up to its initial promise, I would not have to do this anymore. So there was much at stake.
The restaurant is located in South Sai Gon, commonly known as Phu My Hung, at the intersection of Nguyen Van Linh Avenue and Bui Bang Doan Street.
It's a prime location and easy to find. Furthermore, the ambience of the new urban area, with its high-rise buildings and green trees planted along spacious streets made me feel I was having dinner in a corner of Singapore.
The restaurant's ambience itself is modern and chic. And as I mentioned earlier, an eye-catching tuk tuk stall greets you at the door. It was once used as a stall to sell hu tieu (noodles) in the morning, but had been turned into a decorative piece.
We arrived at Nathalie's on a lovely evening last weekend, on a day in the rainy season when it was not raining. So we decided to sit outside on the restaurant's pavement, although there was the rather annoying aspect of having to become a passive smoker. Well, the choice was ours. The air-conditioned inside was a non-smoking area.
The menu attests to the popularity that the restaurant has acquired over the seven years it has been in operation. Dishes were explained in four languages: Thai, Vietnamese, English and Chinese.
I did not need the menu, however, to order my first dish. My all-time favourite Thai dish is som tam (papaya salad), a dish that has complex flavours, with its spiciness playing a prominent role. So we ordered one dish of som tam even before we opened the menu.
The dish's main ingredients are green papaya, tomato, cucumber, cabbage and Chinese long peas as well as chilis, garlic, lime, anchovy sauce, tamarind sauce and peanuts. Pounding these fresh ingredients in several turns in a mortar creates a blend of flavours and textures that make this an awesome dish. Its spiciness can be adjusted, of course, to the diner's request, but I like mine just the way they do it in Thailand, very spicy.
I was nodding in appreciation and acknowledgement as the owner explained that they import some key spices and other ingredients from Thailand to ensure the food's authenticity. The som tam certainly passed the test.
Then we ordered the tom yam mor fai (hot and sour seafood hot pot), probably the most popular hot pot ever, given that hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants and other eateries advertise the Thai hot pot.
Getting the combination of lemon grass, galanga, chilli powder and other ingredients to work together is an art, and a lot of Thai hotpots fail to make the cut. This one, however, was so good we finished it to the last drop with gusto. The seafood in the soup was fresh and wonderful. I was particularly impressed by the large fresh shrimps.
Because we had requested a high spicy level, my lips were burning by the time we finished the hot pot.
I personally thought it was somewhat of a shame that the restaurant does not serve the hot pot with instant noodles, which I believe to be a perfect match for the dish. But this is not a complaint, because the vermicelli worked well.
The generous portions made light of the VND285,000 (US$13.4) price tag for the hot pot (for two). Since my friend and I were both ravenous that day, we still had enough room for two other dishes – thod man pla (fried fish cakes) and yam wunsen phak gra-ched (glass noodle with seafood and water mimosa salad). We found nothing wanting in these dishes as well.
Satiated, we had to ask ourselves whether we really needed any dessert. But the Thai sticky rice with mango and coconut milk is not just any dessert, and it did not take long for us to convince ourselves that it would cool us after so much spicy food.
I am so fond of this dish that I wanted to know how it is made. I learnt that the sticky rice soaked with coconut milk should be steamed for one and a half hours to ensure that the rice is well cooked and mixed with coconut milk. This was the most difficult step and would decide if it was a good dish or not, I was told.
Fresh ripe mango slices are later placed next to the sticky rice on a plate. The dish also includes a small cup of sweetened coconut milk that is poured over the sticky rice before it is eaten. Needless to say, we were smacking our lips and wishing we had room for more. There simply wasn't.
The menu has a variety of other Thai dishes for reasonable prices, from VND60,000-285,000 ($2.8-13).
However good the food, the quality of a dining experience also depends on presentation and service. Nathalie's did not disappoint with its attentive staff, many of whom could speak both English and Thai.
Time for the verdict. HCM City's gain is Thailand's loss. This does not mean that I will not visit Thailand again, only that Thai cuisine will not be the deciding factor as it had been before. — VNS