Food Review: Mekong at Anantara The Palm

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Food Review: Mekong at Anantara The Palm

The restaurant is offering the Khan Tok experience every Monday evening: 'communal food' on an elevated platter with diners sitting around. If you thought your Thailand culinary trail has been done and dusted, you'd be a fool to miss out on this one!


Sushmita Bose

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Published: Thu 9 Mar 2017, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Tue 21 Mar 2017, 5:48 PM

I've not been to northern Thailand. Done the usual (and predictable) Bangkok-Pattaya-Phuket circle and absolutely loved the food: the spices; the fresh vegetables and meats; the generous hints of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and coconut milk/cream; the fiery chilli paste (takes the mickey out of soya sauce!); and, then, the gorgeous amalgamation of south Asian flavours with Oriental bursts of spontaneity (for instance, Thai food is never overcooked). "The juggling of disparate elements to create a harmonious finish" is how this cuisine has been famously described.
Mekong, the Thai-Vietnamese-Chinese restaurant at Anantara The Palm, has been running a special Thai supplement (no overlaps with Vietnamese/Chinese) since last month - every Monday. Khan Tok. So, Khan Tok, I hear, originated in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand (which is why I was cribbing about my not having been to the north of this beautiful country), and stands for the 'raised pedestal' that serves as the harbour for the food; diners sit around it, on the floor and dig in. In the case of Mekong, of course, the Khan Tok was placed atop the table, and we were (seated) on chairs, not on the floor!
Moving away from the food for a moment, Mekong is a stunning piece of visual treat: very red-and-gold and Oriental-type resplendent, with motifs and ethnic imagery strewn all over. and beautifully spatial. The restaurant is opulently large but it still manages to be cosy in corners. You need to, however, step out into the al fresco area - the "terrace" - to get a real "feel". Sitting on one of the rickshaw (quaintly called 'tuk tuk' in the lands of the Thais) seats that dot the area, you have a breathtaking sea view. In our case, we opted to sit indoors (since it was a cold, windswept evening) but managed to snag a perch close to the outdoors - so we could factor in both al fresco and sea in our line of vision.
The menu is a set one (and only available on Monday evenings - be warned. maybe it's because it has something to do with the lunar calendar - see box - and that Monday, well, is the day that's aligned to the moon!). Appetisers, served altogether, harboured within the confines of a beautifully dressy, elevated platter (the Khan Tok), consisted of Plah Goong (spicy prawn salad with Thai herbs), Tod Mun Pla (Thai fish cake with peanut and sweet chilli sauce), Nuea-Yang (sun-dried marinated beef with tamarind sauce), Nam Prik Num (mixed green salad with tomato chilli dip) and Gai-Yang (grilled chicken with lemongrass). The fish cake was the star in this line-up: crunchy yet light, the peanut flavour giving it a new twist. The prawns were fresh - you could almost smell the sea - with the Thai herbs lending a magic formula to give it some more leg-up. Nice green salad, but the accompanying dip overshadowed the veggies. I didn't have the beef but my friend didn't seem particularly chuffed with it - "too tough, so the punch doesn't carry through" he said. probably because it was "dried".

Next up was the Kaeng Som Goong - hot and sour prawn soup and veggies. I've rarely had Thai soup that's gone wrong; this was deliciously tangy/spicy but I'd have preferred a dash of coconut milk to offset the tomato infusion.
On to the mains. The Pla Sam-Rod - deep-fried sea bass with chilli sauce - was a winner, the chilli invading the composite fish, and doing wonders with it. I was looking forward to the wok-fried mixed vegetables with oyster sauce - the Phad Phak Benjarong - since I was dying to try out the glutinous rice that came with the package. Really lovely, and acted as a good interrupter in the spice route. The Ho Mok Gai - grilled chicken mince Thai curry in banana leaf - was spot on taste-wise but I'd have liked my chicken a bit more fibrous; this felt a tiny bit rubbery. Unfortunately, the Kaeng Hung-Leh Nuea - beef curry with tomato, baby potato and bamboo shoot - couldn't be demolished by my friend since it had traces of gluten, and he's 'intolerant' in that aspect.
For dessert, we tucked into coconut ice cream with mango sabayon - straight out of a real coconut shell. This was brilliant: mango lending just that right dose of wicked tartness to the wholesomeness of the coconut ice-cream.
Khan Tok is a concept that originated in northern Thailand - reportedly, in Chiang Mai (if we want to get specific). In a kind of a throwback to iftar in this part of the world, it draws from the fact that food - and eating - is a communal affair, and diners, who, traditionally (in northern Thailand) sit on the floor, around the Khan Tok (the raised pedestal-platter) dig in together! Dishes for each course come all at once (presentation-wise, it is much like an extended thali), and everyone assembled around helps themselves to carefully-curated grub while indulging in easy chatter. The Khan Tok concept also enjoys pride of place at family functions (birthdays, anniversaries etc) and even ceremonial affairs (weddings and cultural festivals).
The etymology hails back to a time - centuries ago - to when the Mon people occupied the Central Plains. To mark the first day in their lunar calendar, the Mon offered gifts made of 'khantoke' (songkran rice) to the female guardian spirit of the New Year. The name was later modified to Khan Tok, and incorporated as a popular culinary concept.

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