When our Thailand frequenter friends who are foodies told us the street food in Thailand is so good you won’t want to eat in a restaurant, we didn’t believe them. Then we spent 3 days in Bangkok and 1 in Chiang Mai, and we understood what they meant. But that didn’t mean we weren’t curious to find out what a restaurant experience would be like. What would a gourmet Thai meal comprise? So when the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai invited us to try out their authentic Lanna cuisine at their star restaurant – Le Grand Lanna, we jumped at the opportunity.
Nothing could have prepared us for what awaited us.
The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi has 9 dining options. The entire hotel property is modelled after a traditional Lanna kingdom, and Le Grand Lanna is what would have been a nobleman’s house. We walked into a beautiful terraced structure hidden between the trees a fair distance from the residential area of the vast property. It was intimate, charming, cool and quiet. The outdoor seating comprised wood tables and chairs hidden from the overhead sun by the shade of the trees. Lest any leaf have the audacity to interfere with your meal, they had beautiful bright pink umbrellas (undoubtedly sourced from the local paper umbrella industry that we had visited earlier that day)
We were ushered into one of their three indoor private pavillons. It was opulent with an extremely traditional Thai decor. A beautifully delicate chandelier sparkled from the ceiling, and the teakwood panelling on the walls and floors gently hushed the ambience along with the aubergine coloured drapes. Art and antiques from the area adorned every nook and cranny. The table was laid out impeccably, with purple Thai silk runners and napkins held in place by decorative pewter napkin rings that resembled the Mandarin Oriental logo.
The menu was extensive, featuring some Thai favourites as well. But we stuck to what we had come here to experience. Lanna cuisine, we were told is a unique cuisine from the ancient Lanna Kingdom that is very different from the Thai cuisine we had been eating in Bangkok. Traditionally, Lanna cuisine is best enjoyed as a Kantoke dinner, meant to be shared around the table, accompanied by Thai dances and other performances. Something that happens at Le Grand Lanna every night. We decided, however, to let our waitress decide for us, so we told her to go all out Lanna, insisting the chef keep the quantity of spices authentic, and not tone it down like he normally might for Westerners. We were so glad we trusted her judgement.
Our waitress made her picks exclusively from the Northern Thai Menu. She said we couldn’t start our meal without trying the Hors d’oeuvre Mueng– an appetiser platter that comprised Chiang Mai sausage, sour pork sausage, crispy pork skin and steamed vegetables accompanied by green chilli dip and pork tomato dip. The Chiang Mai sausage was a spicy herbed mix of flavors we’d never tasted before. It hit all the right spots. The sour pork sausage was like a pickled terrine that just tasted kind of rancid. An acquired taste perhaps? The crispy pork skin was like eating pork flavored crisps. The dips? Fire in a teaspoon!
No Tom Yum soup we’d ever had could prepare us for the Tom Yam Goong that came next. Piping hot spicy river prawn soup with fresh herbs and straw mushrooms. Usually, all you can taste is the fiery hot roasted red chilli paste, but the complexities of flavor in this soup just made both of us keep dipping back for more. That’s got to stand for something considering neither of us usually enjoy soup. And knowing we had to keep some free tummy space for the rest of the courses.
Up next was something that intrigued both of us, simply because we were to learn to cook it at our Blue Elephant Cooking Class later on the trip. The Yam Som O was a fresh Pomelo salad with prawns-chicken coconut sauce and crispy shallots. The Pomelo was a fruit we’d never tried or even seen before, and it was really stunning, the way they’d managed to leave the plump juicy segments free of this gigantic citrus fruit completely intact. I loved the way they burst in my mouth mingling almost instantly with the spicy flavors. The shredded bits of chicken held the entire salad together giving it a nice creamy balance.
Up next were the mains. Even though I couldn’t possibly imagine eating another dish. And then I knew I had to leave some space for dessert else my sweet tooth wouldn’t be too happy with me. Charles, on the other hand, seemed to have a second stomach, or so it seemed when he told the waitress to go ahead and pick a dish for him. I promised to have just a taste. Unfortunately the Gaeng Hang-Lay Moo with Khao Jee unleashed my inner glutton as I ended up polishing an entire serving. This original Lanna mild curry with pork, pickled garlic, peanuts and ginger was dense, spicy and divine. Especially when it was eaten with spoonfuls from a cake of the local style grilled sticky rice with egg. We fell in love with this dish as soon as the first notes of its complex flavors hit our tastebuds. It seemed to bear a lot of similarity to South Indian preparations.
I rolled my eyes and almost gagged when Charles told me he wanted to try the Tum Tib Krob, because it sounded a lot like the Bird’s Nest dish we’d tried in Bangkok. Over-rated and tasted like.. well.. nothing quite literally. But I was wrong. I had to eat my words quite literally, as I had a taste of the lovely chilled water chestnut rubies in coconut milk. It was crunchy, cold, and had just the right amount of sweet.
I on the other hand stuck to a safer Oriental staple, the Gluay Hom Thord Gub Ice Cream Vanilla, that sounded just like Banana Fritters with ice cream. And it was. I had a couple of spoonfuls to satiate my sweet tooth.
We dragged ourselves out of Le Grand Lanna in a food coma, our vision blurred by the drowsiness that stuffing ourselves silly had caused. We walked away feeling enriched, not by the experience of being served so well in a beautifully decorated fine dining restaurant but by the fact that we had discovered a new secret cuisine, and fallen in love with it.
Le Grand Lanna, Mandarin Oriental Dhara Devi, Chiang Mai www.mandarinoriental.com/chiangmai/fine-dining/le-grand-lanna/(+66 53 888 888) serves classic and Northern Thai and is open for Lunch from 11:30 – 2:30 and Dinner from 6:30 – 10:30
Click here to Reserve a table.
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