BANGKOK - It is a purely serene glimpse of paradise. The calm and pristine restaurant with teak, ceramics and fine Thai silk is afloat in a magnificent pool of lotus blossoms. The cuisine is an intelligent blend of traditional and modern Thai cooking, intended to merge a feast for the eyes and one for the palate. The six-year-old Celadon restaurant is just a corner of the Sukhothai Hotel, a gleaming white complex that, too, is a well-considered mix of modern and traditional, with ancient temple doors, a palm-lined drive and six acres of lily ponds, in the center of Bangkok.
In these harmonious and elegant surroundings, diners at Celadon (which takes its name from the ceramic glaze as well as the grayish yellow-green color of traditional and modern Asian pottery) can choose from a labyrinthine menu of Thai fare. Seated on chairs upholstered in crisp beige linen and dining off thick, hand-crafted celadon plates on white linen place mats, we feasted on a palate-stimulating spicy beef salad, paired with plenty of cucumbers and raw onions for cooling down the palate. The winged bean salad was a perfect balance of spicy and sour, with lots of giant shrimp in a peanut-based sauce. And other starters - such as deep-fried minced pork and shrimp wrapped in bean curd sheets and rice flour crepe stuffed with crab meat, minced chicken and mushrooms - showed how cleverly the Thai chefs borrow curries from India and stir-fry and noodles from China.
soup imitates art Thai soups are an art, and one of the most popular is tom yam goonglai rue goong maenam, a spicy sour soup that blends tiger prawns and river prawns, seasoned with fragrant lemongrass, lime juice and fresh garden chili. The brilliant red, pink, and green soup is the perfect blend of the iodine richness of the sea and the herbal freshness of the garden, a true layering of flavors, harmonious and so evenly spiced that one marvels at the cook's controlled hand. Heavier, but no less fulfilling was the also popular tomkha gai, the regal herb-, chicken-and coconut-based soup that balances sweet, spice and fatty richness.
Main courses include no less than 13 curries, and ours was one of the most traditional, a southern Indian-inspired chicken curry - gaeng mussaman nuea rue gai - a gently sweet dish, and one of the rare Thai dishes containing potatoes - that was all spicy mellowness, laced with Indian herbs and one that left you with a lingering smile on your palate.
Despite common belief, Thai food is not universally hot, for paralyzed palates no longer note the subtleties of fine cuisine. So we followed with a very delicate steamed white snapper, topped with lime juice and just a gentle hit of chilies.
Desserts offer a gentle close, with glutinous rice balls in sweetened egg in coconut milk, and soothing pumpkin custard. Lemongrass tea ends it all, to soothe the palate and aid digestion.
A total contrast to the elegant Celadon was an open-air feast at the northern city of Chiang Mai, where we dined at the Pongyang Garden Resort on a shaded teakwood terrace, surrounded by the soothing sounds and midday coolness of a rushing waterfall. Seated at bare wooden picnic tables and sipping the cooling Thai Singha beer, we ate simple country fare. Abundant platters of raw vegetables - green beans, herbs, lettuce - revved up our appetites, which were ready by the time the parade of courses arrived: a rich meat salad of pork that had been marinated in salt, sugar and coriander and then dried in the sun; Burmese pork curry, and minced chicken salad.
TWO highlights of the meal were the beautifully bitter grilled pork in fermented tamarind sauce, which perfectly balanced out the heat and richness of the other fare. Then came a whole Cambodian carp-like fish, deep-fried so the skin was crisp and vibrant, smothered with fresh chilies and topped with a carpet of fried basil leaves. The days' soup - the traditional tom yam ghung - was refreshing, a mix of half chicken stock and half shrimp stock, laced with lemon juice, galingale, lemongrass, chilies and shrimp.
Dessert could not have been more simple: giant platters of papaya, watermelon and pineapple, which the locals sprinkle with salt for perfect digestion.
Celadon, Sukhothai Hotel, 13/3 South Sathorn Road, Bangkok 10120, Thailand. Tel: (66-2) 287-0222, extension 5722. Fax: (66-2) 287-4980. Open daily. All major credit cards. Vegetarian menu at 520 baht ($11), and tasting menus at 580 and 620 baht.
Pongyang Garden Resort, KM 14 Maerim-Samerng Road, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Tel: (66-53) 879-151 Fax: (66-53) 879-153. Open daily. No credit cards. About 200 baht per person.
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