At The Arundina restaurant, the dining showpiece of The Tubkaak Krabi Boutique Resort, superstar chef David Thompson has created a menu of authentic southern flavours that defies expectations
Having checked-in at The Tubkaak Krabi Boutique Resort mid-afternoon – on a postcard perfect, sun-drenched day – I’ve got some time to myself before dinner at The Arundina, the property’s charming, open-air, beachfront restaurant. As I sit myself down and look out over the gentle waves lapping lazily at the resort’s wide expanse of sandy beach, I’m asked if I’d like a little snack from the kitchen while I enjoy the view. I leave the choice of dish up to Rachakorn “Jan” Nanthavisai, the resort’s genial General Manager, and she soon presents me with a plate of rose apple wedges dolloped with cashew nut relish.
Knowing that the renowned David Thompson – whose various restaurants have been awarded multiple Michelin stars over the years – is the consulting chef at The Arundina, I’m surprised by this rather humble-looking appetiser. But the first bite is a veritable depth charge of flavour. Pungent and powerful, it stops everything for a moment and my palate is utterly transfixed. The relish is a smoky mix of stir-fried shrimp paste and cashew nut, together with a sprinkling of roasted coconut flakes. As for the rose apple, my vote for most boring fruit in the Thai pantheon, it’s employed perfectly here, adding crunch and moisture simultaneously. My bouche is thoroughly amused, and I suddenly can’t wait till suppertime.
When evening comes, Jan joins me at the table and over dinner she recounts several amusing and enlightening stories about chef David and his meticulous methodology. Jan’s family, who opened The Tubkaak almost two decades ago, have long been fans of Thompson’s cooking, making regular pilgrimages to Nahm when he was helming the kitchen there. Her mother’s friend-of-a-friend connection eventually led to a formal introduction, and in July of last year plans got underway for chef David to begin revamping the menu at The Arundina.
“He came down around August, and we had our first Chef’s Table dinner in October,” Jan recalls, adding that while her family’s upscale resort has been championing sustainable local and organic produce for quite some time, David’s involvement brings it to a deeper level.
“He goes back to the way the locals actually do things. If they char-grill it, we char-grill it. The first time he came here we went to visit different villages to see what they grow in the backyard in their own gardens. Then we looked at the suppliers, to make sure they are the villagers themselves. David created the dishes based on what he had available. It’s also all hand-picked, and the leaves are torn by hand, with no sharp knives used for cutting. Everything imitates the local life of the ancient people.”
Jan remarks that he doesn’t really change the recipe, he just “makes it a little more in his own way. Even in the presentation he teaches us every single little step to make it ‘David Thompson’. How to tear the cumin, how to mortar the curry paste, how to marinate the chicken the right way – it’s a lot of preparation.”
Precision preparation is very much needed in a restaurant where the star chef is not physically there most of the time. Maintaining consistency is vital, but the expertly trained staff are up to the task. David’s focused menu lists just under two dozen dishes and, along with another serving of rose apple and cashew nut relish, Jan and I begin our dinner with the intriguingly named ‘Five Spice Eggs’. Normally I sidestep eggs at dinner, but these beauties are a revelation. Here, organic duck eggs have been slow-marinated in a parlow (a spice mixture of cassia, clove, pepper, star anise, and dried ginger) to fully absorb the flavours, then cooked with garlic, shallots, fresh coriander and orange peel, and seasoned with sugar, and fish and oyster sauces. And while the eggs taste marvellous, it’s the delicately cooked yolk – firm on the outer edges and soft in the middle – that makes the whole thing virtually melt in your mouth. “Like a lava egg,” says Jan.
During my meal there are many such moments where the ingredients appear familiar, but the taste is on a whole other level. The dish of sun-dried squid and plump tiger prawns – all Krabi caught – is superb. Lathered in curry paste and authentically char-grilled, this seafood duo arrives to the table beautifully presented on an elongated ceramic plate (a nod the traditional gorlea fishing boats for which the dish is named). The fresh local mussels, meanwhile, bathe alongside yellow beans and chillies in a tasty broth enhanced by red shallot, lemongrass, bean paste, palm sugar, and dried garcinia (a small, sour fruit). As for the Southern vegetable soup, the bowl is packed with sataw beans, bai liang, coconut shoot, and dried shrimp, but it’s the flavour of the local coconut cream from the nearby village that really elevates it.
“Coconut cream doesn’t travel well,” Jan points out, “so the source has to be very close by. When it’s very fresh, it has such a good smell and adds such a nice touch. That’s why David uses a lot of it.”
As the meal continues, more and more dishes fill the table. A hearty nam prik (shrimp paste dip) and vegetable assortment surprises with the inclusion of yummy sea grapes, while a serving of sun-dried local beef comes with a zesty sriracha sauce, and the shrimp dipped in curry batter and deep-fried with garuda leaves arrives piled high on the plate like a mini-mountain. I also discover a new personal favourite in the form of mackerel cakes, with coconut and young chilies, which are stuffed into bell peppers and char-grilled.
Moving on to poultry – there’s no pork served at the restaurant, except during the hotel’s daily breakfast – we first sample the signature Tubkaak organic fried chicken. Uniquely flavoured with galangal, and sprinkled with toasted cumin and fried shallots before serving, it comes paired with a nam jim priaow (sour) dipping sauce loaded with fried garlic. It’s comfort food of the best kind. However, as I have long been a fan of David’s more fiery delights I’m keenly interested in the ‘Southern curry of chicken with cumin leaves’, as it’s described on the menu. In a deep red curry gravy – again utilising village coconut cream – sit meaty chunks of organic chicken that’s been marinated overnight. Cumin leaves add some visual contrast, and a few stray green and red chillies warn you of the heat that’s in store. It’s pretty much perfect, and while the spice is wonderfully intense it’s nothing a seasoned curry connoisseur can’t handle.
Dessert begins with the refreshing glacéed pineapple in perfumed syrup, served with ice and coconut shavings (a very similar dish can be found at Aksorn, Thompson’s recently launched Bangkok restaurant), but for me it’s the caramelized coconut dumplings that truly cap the meal. Resembling little snowballs, they’re served warm, with a gooey centre of coconut meat and coconut sugar that’s topped with coconut cream and a liberal dousing of shaved coconut.
In addition to the all-organic fare, our meal has been complemented throughout by a nicely chilled bottle of 2017 Lois, Grüner Veltliner, a biodynamic white wine from Austria. Jan shares that the entire wine selection at The Tubkaak has been curated by FIN (Fabulous Is Needed) Wines, and all are sustainable, organic, and biodynamic labels – a perfect match for David’s dishes. (Hint: for reds try the 2017 Blaufränkisch, MORIC, also from Austria.)
The harmonious balance achieved at The Arundina is rooted in a shared philosophical outlook. Chef David obviously respects Tubkaak’s pro-organic policy and, in turn, they trust and respect him enough to let him work unencumbered, doing things his own way and getting to the heart of what makes Krabi cuisine special. For diners interested to explore the earthy flavours of this richly diverse Thai province, there’s probably no better place to start your journey.
This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of Prestige Thailand.
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