MANILA -- It’s not often a Michelin-star chef visits Manila. It’s even more extraordinary when the chef collaborates with one of the most revered Thai restaurants in Manila.
The result was “Epicurean: A Thai Gastronomic Journey,” a dinner hosted by Benjarong at the Dusit Thani Manila.
That chef is Thanintorn Chantharawan, or Chef Noom as he is affectionately called, who sharpened his skills at the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal. He gained popularity when he went back to Thailand during his two-year stint on "Iron Chef Thailand." His restaurant, Chim By Siam Wisdom, in the culinary hotspot of Sukhumvit in Bangkok has a Michelin star to its name.
Collaborating with Chef Noom was Benjarong’s resident chef, Watcharaphon Yongbanthom. Chef Ja, as she is known, was specifically mentioned when CNN Travel cited Benjarong as one of the hot new global restaurants in 2018. Known for not being shy with her strong flavors, this collaboration with Chef Noom was a Thai food lover's dream.
Featured in the dinner were the Gran Monte Wines with grapes from the Asoke Valley vineyard in Khao Yai, Thailand. Oenologist and owner Nikki Lohitnavy brought their award-winning wines for the two chefs to pair with their creations. The pairings for the dinner were unexpected and unusual, exhibiting a deep understanding of the Thai flavors of sweet, sour, and spicy.
The first course was a duo of a leaf amuse bouche, and a shrimp and cucumber salad. The leaf course reminded me of a betel nut dish where crushed nuts and spices wrapped with a whole leaf had to eaten in one bite. In contrast, the salad of fresh shrimp had a sour dressing that went well with coolness of the underlaying cucumber. This was paired with a Gran Monte Sakuna Rosé, which was not overly sweet and which nicely complemented the flavors of the first course.
The appetizer was a dish of seared scallops with aubergine chutney on top of sweet onions with a dried shrimp twill blackened with squid ink. This had sophisticated flavors owing to the sweetness of the chutney, the heat from the cream, and the salty umami from the twill. The accompanying Gran Monte Spring Chenin Blanc’s fruitiness nicely tempered the heat.
The next dish was a bowl of crispy noodles topped with a mochi-like blue butterfly pea flower with a crab puff on the side. The wait staff poured a crab bisque with hints of lime and lemongrass. We were advised to the let the noodles soak in the soup to make them chewy and absorb the flavors from the broth. Pull apart the crab puff and the blue mochi to let all of the flavors and textures mingle for an exquisitely tasty soup course. A Gran Monte Viognier was served with the crab course and sips of this bold white wine added to the creaminess of the crab and the broth.
The intermezzo was deceptively simple looking. It looked like plum tomatoes in shaved ice served in a martini glass. But with one bite of the unusually soft and sweet plum tomatoes, I knew there had to be something more to it. It turned out that plum wine was used in the concoction. Who knew plum and tomatoes could be mixed to make a refreshing palate cleanser?
The first of the mains was Gaeng Phed Gam Moo or pork cheek in red curry. The curry used was surprisingly mild, nicely enhancing the fat and tenderness of the pork cheeks. Another fine touch was sprinkling the dish with grapes, lychee, and pineapple. This entrée was a lovely exercise in balance. Each bite introduced different flavors when combined with the curry, not at all overpowering the fruits’ sweet notes. The somewhat spicy Gran Monte Spring Syrah Cabernet that was served seemed to amplify the curry, though the heat was reined by the fruits.
Normally, red wine and seafood don’t mix. A premium Gran Monte the Orient Syrah was paired with the torched river prawn drizzled with red curry and coconut milk. The red curry in this dish was somewhat spicier than the one used in the pork cheek. However, the coconut cream, made from the burnt coconut meat from the curry, provided sweetness and creaminess to balance the sauce. The wine pairing worked because the Syrah had sweet notes that contributed to balance out the heat.
The Gran Monte Bussaba dessert wine that was served to pair with the dessert was a not as sweet as expected. It turned out that it was the dessert that turned in the sweetness. The visually stunning mess of guyabano pearls, bits of meringue, coconut snow made with liquid nitrogen, and guyabano ice cream blanketed with coconut water gelatin balanced out the wine. This dessert was a great conclusion to dinner with unusually clever wine pairings.