SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) "Is it safe?"
On the one hand, that's what Laurence Olivier kept asking Dustin Hoffman in the movie classic Marathon Man, as the psycho Nazi dentist drilled into Hoffman's teeth to uh, extract information about a hidden stash of diamonds.
On the other hand, that's what some people are asking about Long Chim, which has been through several setbacks in food quality since it opened hesitantly almost two months ago. After much trial and error, the answer is now yes, although it's a different kind of torture you undergo at this no-concessions-to-delicate-tastebuds tribute to Thai street food. Yes, your stomach will burn like it has not done before but there is a masochistic pleasure to be had from it.
It could be sadism on the part of Australian-born chef David Thompson, but mostly it is his uncompromising respect for the original Thai cuisine - before the country opened up to immigrants who brought in their own cooking influences and shaped Thai cooking into what it is today.
#02-02, Atrium 2
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He does the same thing at his acclaimed Bangkok restaurant Nahm, which tends to polarise diners into those who appreciate the cuisine's complexity, richness and strong flavours, and those whose palates are overwhelmed by it. For this reason, not many Singaporeans are fans of Nahm because they veer towards the more accessible and milder flavours of Nara and its ilk.
Long Chim - Thai for "come and taste" - is a different animal since street food is something we all have in common even if we don't know anything about Thai history. We all know about satay, curry and noodles, even if they're done a lot differently from what we're used to. And Long Chim's concept to serve authentic cooking in stylish surroundings at prices hovering in the S$20-S$30 price range is already a winner from the start.
It's what it delivers between that and the finish line which is a little tricky. You really have to give it to Chef Thompson - one of the most hardworking celebrity chefs around who can be seen most nights personally sweating over the blazing fire at the noodle station, frying up everything from glass noodles and squid to slippery charred rice noodles in yellow bean sauce.
The aromatic beef skewers (S$15) - mind-bendingly salty in the early days - now feature meaty chunks of perfectly grilled beef, intensely fragrant and vigorously marinated with Indian spices that are nothing like the limpid sticks lifted off a hibachi in Or Tor Kor market. You can really get your teeth into these kebabs and if you still find it too salty, ask for a bit of rice to even out the flavour.
While the salt levels have been deliberately tempered as a concession to local taste buds, little else has been tweaked, as we soon find out with the deceptively mild-looking Chiang Mai chicken relish with cabbage, chilli and mint (S$10). Little cabbage cups are filled with a lethal but addictive mix of chicken, dried shrimp, onion jam, chilli paste and herbs that dull your senses but not enough to stop you from polishing it off.
Crunchy prawns with herbs (S$12) is a wimp in comparison - a crispy vadai-like snack of prawns in a crunchy batter that tries to frighten you with its shower of dried chillies and herbs, but has no heat so long as you avoid the chillies.
But the reprieve is short-lived as the real meal starts. Green curry with beef (S$22) is the best we've had - none of that thin gravy with bits of meat, but coconut milk-thick sauce that coats braised wagyu chunks, slightly let down by the doughy, not-flaky-enough roti. Nose-tingling sour orange curry delivers a hot-sour sting of tangy gravy and stringy kangkong and snakehead fish which is too intense for us.
Deep-fried fish with three flavoured sauce (S$38) is dry and misses that crisp-skinned touch that Thai chefs are so good for, although we like the treacly sauce of caramelised onions, tomatoes and garlic.
When the intensity and heat start getting the better of you, the silky soft, smoky grilled eggplant salad with its tart dressing and soft-cooked egg (S$21) helps to bring down the temperature.
Finally, stir-fried glass noodles with squid, pork, shrimp, onions and and vegetables ($24) that Chef Thompson cooks personally is an instant trip to Bangkok on a plate as the smell and the jumble of sweet, sour, salty, spicy and bitter envelopes the taste buds and reminds you of the very essence of Thai food that distinguishes it from other cuisines.
To end off, don't miss the house-made durian ice cream - a rich, sticky and chewy frozen treat made with Thai, not Malaysian, durians, which almost but doesn't quite remove your bias against Monthongs.
To fully appreciate Long Chim, it's important to remember that Thai food is meant to be eaten with rice - lots of it - which explains the complaints about the too-spicy, too-salty nature of Chef Thompson's cooking. Traditionally, rice has always been the centre of a Thai meal - the dishes act more as condiments, while it's the other way around for us.
Another note is that Thai food - if you've ever tried cooking from Chef Thompson's encyclopaedic tomes - is ridiculously cumbersome and complicated to do, and it's not easy to train people to do it right. And this has been the main stumbling block to Long Chim's efforts to create and maintain cooking standards.
Still, we're willing to wait, because this is Thai food you won't get at other Thai restaurants. Long Chim is not quite there yet, but it's getting better by the day. Chef Thompson will need to stick around for a little while more yet, but as long as he and his core team are around, Long Chim is in pretty safe hands.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on May 4, 2015.
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