Given the nature of my calling, I get to stay in hotels quite a lot. Sometimes it’s a pleasure; at others, a chore. The best hotels envelop you like a silk dressing gown, helping you endure the stresses of air travel, which are, as I’m sure you know, considerable. The worst are like a penitent’s hair shirt, the constant itch reminding you it was folly to leave home.
I have my favourites – and for different reasons. I love the calm and karma of the Japanese rooms in Munich’s Kempinski Vier Jahreszeiten; the ‘feels like home’ reassurance of the Hyatt in Adelaide; the friendly staff at the Poseidon in Positano; the sinful luxury of Villa D’Este on the banks of Lake Como – all these help balance the far more numerous ones where ‘comfort’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘civility’ are alien concepts.
My favourite hotel in London is The Halkin. First time I stayed there my bed was so capacious I had an urge to phone up old friends to say “Come over, we’ll have a party, re-enact The Summer of Love.” There was this massive remote, the size of a dinner plate, that seemed to command everything from the curtains to the temperature of the bath water. Best of all, it had a Thai restaurant on the premises that grew to be one of my all-time favourites. It’s called Nahm.
Nahm, brainchild of talented Aussie chef David Thompson, is the benchmark by which I judge Thai food. The cooking there has what you could call ‘an unbelievable lightness of being’ – the broths are not muddy, the spices not fused into a ‘sweetness’ or ‘hotness’ remain identifiable yet, concurrently, contribute in sensible manner to making the whole dish memorable. Difficult to explain, but I know what I’m looking for and I’m always disappointed when a Thai restaurant misses the mark by a country mile, as is too often the case.
I took Daughter Two, over on a flying visit, for a pint in The Clarence. Then we walked over the Millennium Bridge and down the alley. Koh is located at the far end, incongruous among the Italians and Italophiles that populate this sector of the daftly-named ‘Quartier Bloom’. I had tried a couple of times to book a table when the restaurant first opened but someone else’s favourable review had the place packed.
There were tables outside but only a couple of hardy souls were using them; inside, a hubbub of conversation, entirely female. Apparently Koh’s ‘Mixo’ is a smart lad who’s won prizes for his ingenious alcoholic confections so the ladies who lounge were all climbing into cocktails. How could we not follow suit? We commandeered a Manhattan and a Pomegranate Mountie, speciality of the house. The Manhattan, made properly, is a thing of wonder. From the ingredients you’d expect it to taste sweet and cloying but it doesn’t.
After a civilized interval we were shown to the restaurant, a decently got up dining room with a couple of private booths, tables round the edge and a long communal table (in true Thai fashion) down the middle of the room. We took one of the peripheral tables and settled down to the task of choosing food and suitable accompanying wine. Thai is not the easiest cuisine to match. White works best but the out-front spicing renders Chardonnay anaemic and Sauvignon Blanc aggressive. Some say Gewurztraminer, some say Riesling but I’m not wholly convinced. Thai food, I find, needs a touch of something dark-natured with a mite of viscosity; Gruner Veltliner fits the bill, as does Albarinho, which is what we settled on.
Thai desserts tend to be pretty mundane and, as neither of us has are particularly sweet-toothed, we figured that four starters to share, plus two mains would suffice as well as permitting us to take a wide-ranging look at what was on offer. And so it proved. The starters excited, particularly that ‘mange tout of the sea’, soft shell crab, which came accompanied by green papaya salad, cherry tomatoes and cucumber. Rachel had not had it before and loved the sea-zingy freshness and the crunch texture. The coriander, lime and cashew nut chutney that formed a bed for pan-seared king scallops was unexpectedly delightful, something I’ll try and reprise at home. The baby back ribs, glazed with hoi sin and char-grilled, were meaty and satisfying. I was glad to find the mussels Thai style were small, sweet natives not of the rubbery green-lipped inedible ilk. There was eating and drinking in this dish and the accompanying broth, which managed to be both spicy and subtle, providing a stimulus for the mains that followed.
Herself, something of a Phad Thai veteran, opined that this one was the best yet, prawns big and tasty. Praise indeed. Saucing of my red duck curry was well up to snuff and the duck, tender – something of a novelty in Dublin Thai restaurants where this dish frequently pops up. I should also make mention of the waiting staff who paced the meal beautifully. Afterwards we repaired to the bar where we made the acquaintance of the proprietor. I compliment him on the food. He said “Yes, we have some good chefs here. They don’t allow us to muck about with their mothers’ recipes.” Nice one. A convivial Galway man, he had trained at Manchester’s Midland Hotel. Rachel, also a Hotel Management graduate, had worked at the nearby Ramada so the rest of the evening passed pleasantly by in a detailed analysis of Mancunian shebeens.
Koh, Millenium Walkway, Dublin 1 Tel: 01 814 6777
The damage: €117.20 ex-service for 2 cocktails, 4 starters, 2 mains, bottle of decent wine.
Verdict: Not Nahm but not far off. Gives Dublin suburban Thai something to aim at.