Thailand’s bounty, the way it should beThai cuisine is one of the world’s most sophisticated feasts, a culinary art embracing thousands of ingredients, sauces and styles, influenced by cuisines from Chinese to Japanese, Malaysian, Indian and Portuguese, and embracing the harmony of all five basic tastes ―sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy.
But the Korean dining public has tended to perceive it as little more than pad Thai (stir-fried noodles), tom yang kung (spicy prawn soup) and khao phad sabparod (pineapple fried rice). In the past, imported Thai ingredients were scarce here, making it tough for chefs to concoct genuine Thai flavors.
Now, however, there are a few authorized distributors specializing in Thai ingredients. And a whimsically named new Thai restaurant tucked behind the gallery street near the Blue House, After the Rain, is catering to epicures with a more sophisticated, authentic Thai cuisine. It’s Seoul’s second After the Rain restaurant, but this one offers more choices than the first, which opened last year in trendy Cheongdam-dong south of the river.
Passing under a diaphanous lavender curtain, diners enter a richly decorated space glowing with amber light. Walking on new Persian carpets, brushing past tropical branches, one can sense that a pleasurable experience looms. The restaurant, which can seat 70, has three small private rooms and one private floor for parties of more than eight. Preparing its sophisticated dishes are four Thai and two Korean chefs.
“Most of the time, we’re catering to ordinary Korean palates, but our Thai chefs can whip up original Thai dishes that are spicier, sweeter and stronger in all spices,” says the manager, Hyun Seung-hoon.
Upon request, dishes can be served “very Thai.” Or, if you want to go halfway, a bowl of coconut milk or fresh coriander leaves can be served on the side. You won’t find the elaborate fruit carvings characteristic of Thai royal cuisine; presentation is tasteful but minimal.
A perfect aperitif is Thai iced tea for 6,000 won ($5), dark, bitter and delicious when mixed with condensed milk and syrup, served on the side. Forget about calories, please, and add a generous amount to enjoy the full flavor. This is the only beverage to which I’ll add a sweetener of any kind. If you’d prefer something warm, go with a nice cup of lemongrass tea (6,000 won). (Matching European wine to Thai food is difficult, but if you want wine, try a rose or a fruity red.)
For appetizers, try chicken satay and/or Thai spring rolls. A plate of rolls comes with three kinds, including a small, steaming shrimp pancake, deep-fried in crispy batter. The chicken morsels are hot and plump with traditional flavors.
Course meals for lunch or dinner can be a decent deal, priced from 26,000 won to 47,000 won. Or ask Mr. Hyun to customize the special of the day.
The popular yam un sen (spicy vermicelli salad with seafood, 15,000 won) and tom yang kung (16,000 won) are exceptional, if you can stand the biting heat of Thai chili, which had a couple of my guests taking deep breaths.
Yam makha muang, or eggplant salad (15,000 won), features grilled sliced eggplants and soft eggplant flesh topped with fried chopped garlic. This is an impressive, creative recipe, using the sweeter Korean eggplant, not the bitter variety used in traditional Thai cooking; it doesn’t taste like garlic at all.
Main dishes can be arranged in many ways. Planin tod rad prig (whole fish with chili sauce, 48,000 won) comes with, again, fiery red pepper sauce, over the contrastingly tender, mild, white flesh of especially fresh cod. Kai phad tag khrai (stir-fried chicken with lemongrass and Thai chili, 17,000 won) is almost a Chinese dish, except that it is free of starchy sauce, thus light, and about 10 times spicier than Chinese, thanks to the tearjerking Thai chili.
Phad kapao pon kari (stir-fried soft-shell crab with curry sauce, 18,000 won) is the best-selling dish here. Stir-fried together in a blazing wok aresoft-shell crabs, eggs, coconut milk, garlic, red and green peppers, celery leaves and oyster and curry sauces, making for sweet juices and a blend of spices that last a long, long time, not just in your mouth but in your memory. If you want a quick and memorable meal here, order this crab dish and steamed jasmine rice (1,500 won) ― one bowl won’t be enough, though.
Less filling but equally delicious is phao kimao thale (fried noodles with seafood and basil, 17,000 won). Succulent clam shells, squid, scallops and prawns over semi-transparent rice noodles, speckled with basil leaves and red peppers, this is a fine seaside treat.
If your tongue is almost numb by now from the chilis, then hold those pepper slices. Or match your spicy dishes with mild fried rice. Khao phad sabparod is sweet with pineapple bits and crunchy from roasted cashew nuts and shrimp. And don’t miss dessert ― once you’ve tasted a fresh mango slice and a small, deep-fried banana with creamy sauce (7,000 won), saku (tapioca pearls, 4,000 won) or sangkaya faktong (steamed pumpkin custard with coconut milk and palm sugar sauce, 5,000 won), you’ll start wondering whether the next After the Rain will show up near your home.
After the Rain
English menu: Available.
Location: 117 Hwadong, Jongno district.
Subway: Anguk Station, line No. 3.
Telephone: (02) 730-2051~2.
Hours: Noon-3 p.m., 6-10:30 p.m. daily.
Dress code: Elegant or smart casual.
by Ines Cho