Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Durian Dirge, Part 4 of 4

Durian, Detected

I wore my new custom-made dress from Hoi An. At the Bangkok hotel, I blow-dried my hair and even risked applying makeup for the first time in sweltering Southeast Asia. It was just a sweep of mascara, but Dave noticed that something looked different.

We were preparing ourselves for a treat.

For the past two days, Dave and I had fueled ourselves on the city’s amazing (and amazingly cheap) street food. Platters of fiery-sweet noodles, fragrant soups, complex curries, and chunks of fruit dipped in spicy salted sugar overflowed from Bangkok’s street stalls, food courts, and curbside caf├ęs. But Bangkok is also home to some of the world’s great fine dining restaurants, and for tonight we picked one called Nahm.

Dave had read about Nahm months earlier. Founded by an Australian living in London, Nahm was the first Thai restaurant to earn a Michelin Star. When a second branch opened in Bangkok, Thai critics were split: some raged that Thai cuisine cooked by an outsider could never claim authenticity; others raved about the incredible food.

I hoped to take a taxi even though the restaurant was quite close to our hotel. Tonight was for living in style, and a pounding tropical rainstorm ensured that walking would destroy my careful coiffing efforts. But Dave and I quickly discovered that catching a cab is impossible in a Bangkok storm. Our raincoats provided little protection against the wind-blown drops as we walked backwards in the direction of the restaurant, arms out in hailing position.

We looked like beached merpeople by the time we stepped through Nahm’s gleaming doors. My once-perfect hair was dripping and bedraggled; the hem of my new dress clung to soaked knees. Dave’s rain-speckled glasses steamed up in the indoor air. A smiling young woman seated the two of us at a large table set for four, where I used a spare napkin to dry off.

A meal worthy of kings would soon heal the wounds of our less than royal arrival.

As recommended by the New York Times, Dave and I both ordered the tasting menu – his vegetarian, mine with seafood but no meat. We started with an identical amuse bouche that packed all the flavors of an excellent pad see ew into a single, glutinous bite. Then came an appetizer: we each received four crisp, flavorful betel leaves filled with different exotic, highly spiced goodies. The idea was to pick up each one and eat it like a soft taco.

“I’m already feeling sort of full,” I said as our server cleared away the licked-clean dishes.

The half-sized appetizer plates were replaced with large dinner plates, which our server mounded high with steaming rice. Then she brought out the main course – or rather, main courses. There was a fiery, tangy seafood salad for me and a vegetable version for Dave, two soups that sang with lemongrass, a wonderfully creamy yellow crab curry with Thai flavors and a rich vegetable curry that tasted like India. We spooned food onto our rice and ate Thai style, using our forks to load morsels onto our spoons, then bringing the spoons to our mouths.

“So. Delicious.” Dave said.

Then more food arrived. A savory tofu stir fry, earthy mushrooms paired with bright greens, incredibly flaky fish nestled in sweet soft eggplant. Dave undid his belt. We were barely halfway through the excellent bottle of wine that the flamboyant sommelier (there was a sommelier!) had recommended.

Then more food arrived.

Fortunately, in Thai culture, it is considered polite to leave food on the table at the end of a meal. The host is expected to provide more food than the guest can eat, and the guest should leave a bit food behind to prove that the host provided enough.* By the time Dave undid his pants button, it was clear we had to concede defeat – leaving behind three quarters of the feast. It hurt to watch all the sublime food go to waste, but it would have hurt more to take another bite.

“And for dessert?” our server asked after the plates were cleared.

Dave and I looked at each other. We’d forgotten that the tasting menu came with a sweet course and considered forgoing it altogether. But we looked at the menu. Well, why not sample two dishes? We could take a taste apiece and call it a night. Dave chose an icy lychee-based pudding that was served with a bit of cake and fried shallots. I knew what I had to order instantly.

“I’ll have the durian dish,” I said. The server smiled.

“You know durian?” she said. I nodded.

Dave’s dessert arrived cold, mine warm. We explored his first: clear, a bowl of jelly-like fruit swimming in its own icy juice that paired beautifully with the soft cake and even the rich shallots. Then I pulled up my dish, a coconut tapioca pudding topped with a mound of warm cooked durian. I dug in a spoon. Steam rose up.

Garbage! Sewage! Putrefaction!

My nose was under attack. The stench rising from the bland-looking bowl overwhelmed me. Dave was giggling.

Now do you smell it?” he said.

“Oh my God,” I said. But I had to try one bite. Breathing through my mouth, I pulled the bowl close and ladled up a small spoonful. The pudding was wonderfully rich, sweet, and creamy – but the flavor of the durian interrupted these sensations with all the putrid intensity of its aroma. I don’t know why this durian tasted so awful. Maybe I was too full to enjoy anything, or maybe heating the fruit intensifies its odor.

I pushed the dessert to the far end of our huge table, hopefully out of smelling range. Soon our server came to clear up.

“You don’t like the durian?” she said, seeing my barely touched dessert.

“We’re just so full,” I said guiltily. Her eyebrows rose but she said no more, though there was no reason why a bulging belly would force me to push to durian halfway to Cambodia.

Despite this pungent experience, I didn’t acquire an eternal detestation for durian. But the fresh fruit is nearly impossible to find in this part of the world, so I’ll have to wait for my next trip to Southeast Asia to try durian again.

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