It’s Not Thai, It’s Tai Tai

I walk into TaiTai on a picture-perfect Monday afternoon with one of my closest friends to check out Gautam Krishnankutty’s new menu. Choosing to sit indoors instead of on the rooftop – a decision we later regret – we admire the way the restaurant manages to assume an intimate air without resorting to dim lighting and overstuffed seating.

Done with scrutinizing the décor, we devour the menu with greedy eyes. Ceviché of Norwegian Salmon with Sesame Oil, Chilli, and Garlic. Baby Spinach and Grilled Zuchchini with a Sesame Paste and Soya Dressing. Curried Roast Duck with Sweet Potato Fritters and Grilled Sticky Rice. Huh? This is supposed to be a Thai restaurant, isn’t it? Where’s the red curry? Oh well, who cares, at the very least it’s going to turn out to be an interesting meal. We’re barely done salivating when Gautam joins us – only to inform us that he’s going to be tweaking his menu. Again.

Explaining the transition from a more traditional Thai menu to this rather avant-garde version, Gautam says that he “got bored”. He says he likes to “try new things”, and “have fun” in the kitchen. He admits that his menu is sparse on vegetarian choices, saying that there are several off-menu options for diners who prefer their meals meatless. He bemoans the fact that he’s probably going to have to relegate scallops and Norwegian salmon to weekly specials, because “people aren’t ordering” them from the regular menu. My friend Marianne and I exchange the kind of quick glance that comes from years of closeness – a bare flicker of eye contact that conveys an entire conversation in the fraction of a second:

Marianne: This guy certainly knows his food.

Me: Ohhhhhhh yeah. He probably dreams about it too.

Marianne: I like that he’s not afraid to state his opinion…

Me: …but it’s clear that he respects the fact that taste is a subjective thing.

In unison: We like him!

Gautam recommends that we begin our repast by sampling the house special – House Cured Beef Tenderloin seasoned with Wasabi-infused Soya Sauce and Candied Ginger. It arrives at our table looking almost too good to eat. Thin slivers of cured beef curve around the rim of a pristine plate, encircling a generous mound of daikon flanked by a four basil leaves with candied ginger. The beef has been sprinkled with freshly ground pepper and drizzled with wasabi-soy sauce. The flavours stop our girl-gossip dead in its tracks. As I write about it almost 24 hours later, I can still feel the bite of the pepper, the saltiness and slight resistance of the perfectly marbled beef, and the clean, light taste of the wasabi sauce. This appetizer does exactly what it’s supposed to – it stimulates the appetite without filling you up or overwhelming your taste buds. The serving is generous – enough for at least three (and probably four) people to share. At Rs. 225, it’s not just a steal – it’s a full-fledged bank heist.

Disappearing into the kitchen, he personally prepares a soup for us – a culinary experiment that’s going to feature on the new “new menu.” It’s a clear broth, fragrant with roasted garlic. Mouthful-sized parcels of cabbage sit serenely alongside slices of shiitake mushroom. The soup is aromatic, vaguely reminiscent of miso minus the heavy salt component. A very slight sweet aftertaste offsets the garlic, and the woody, slightly chewy texture of the mushrooms adds substance without bulk. Each cabbage parcel encloses prawn; although its presence is evident, the flavour of the broth completely overwhelms that of the hapless crustacean. However, we like the way the leaf retains its crunch, as well as the textural contrast it provides to the prawn. Replacing the prawn with tofu might be a good idea.

Perhaps for the first time in a long while, I am not feeling half-full before our entreés arrive. A good thing too – the half-portions of the Honey Glazed Rack of Pork Spare Ribs with Oyster Chilli Sauce and the Almond Crusted Fillet of Seer Fish with Kaffir Lime-infused Coconut Milk Reduction we’re sampling look suspiciously like full portions to me.

The fish is outstanding for the way it surprises you. At first glance, its appearance suggests that it would feel more at home in some little Parisian bistro – it seems like yet another artfully-plated fillet of fish in cream sauce. The thin crust of roasted almond slivers encasing the fish further reinforces this notion, and the rice noodles alongside it seem completely incongruous. One mouthful, however, and the phad thai-like noodles make perfect sense. The palate explodes with the flavours we’ve come to associate with Thai cuisine: kaffir lime, coconut cream, chillies. Delicious.

There’s nothing spare about the ribs – they’re a healthy size with a generous layer of fat on them. They’re coated with a sweetish soya glaze, and served with (sit down for this) caramelized peaches, herbed potatoes, and garlic rice. Although the medley of flavours is wonderful, Marianne and I find ourselves struggling to slice the ribs elegantly, and eventually give up. In this case, the food encourages you to eat with your fingers, but the ambience does not.

For dessert, we opt for the house dessert: pear poached in wine. Although technically it’s the right choice, cleansing the palate and cutting the pork fat, we’d prefer something sweeter, and maybe richer. Girls will be girls…

All told, I’d give TaiTai 8 out of 10 – one mark lost for the lack of adequate vegetarian options, and one mark lost because Gautam didn’t tell me he was a Scrabble genius before we started our online game.

First published in Food Lovers ’08

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Thai, It’s Tai Tai

  1. Love your style of writing Su. You should write a novel. I think you’ll be a superhit….one of those that can then be made into a movie and then win 8 Oscars.

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