Friday, September 12, 2008

Thanying, Amara Hotel Singapore

Thanying has been a hallmark of high dining, Thai style in Singapore for 20+ years. I remember a colleague introduced it to me in 1988 when our office was in IBM Towers (now Fuji Xerox Towers) and Thanying was situated at one corner of Amara Hotel.

To me, it remained one of the best Thai restaurants in Singapore. One of my Thai colleagues explained to me that Thanying is a title given to a lady of high rank, usually within the court. The implication is that the owner/chef used to cook for His Majesty himself, and thus would be the best of the land.

Indeed, the food was consistent, and was a standard bearer in its time. But success got the better of them, and they opened a large restaurant branch in Clarke Quay which never seemed to take off. I too became less of a fan, and had not dined there for the last 5 or 6 years. The Clarke Quay establishment was soon closed for lack of business - also due to refurbishment of the Clarke Quay, and I understand at one point the owners changed hands. Recently I heard the original owners have returned, and quality was improving. They have now still two branches, one in Amara and another in Sentosa.

Fast forward to today, there are a few more good/great Thai places to eat in Singapore than in those days, and I returned to sample if they have gone astray. Other Thai restaurants of note that I like in Singapore include the newish, hip Bangkok Jam in Great World City, Aroy in Funan Centre, Suan Thai in Killeney Road, and Patara in Tanglin Mall (BTW, though the same chain as Patara in Geneva, the quality of the cooking is immensely different...the Swiss restaurant is not only very expensive - Phad Thai for CHF50 per plate!!, but also inferior. The Bangkok main branch in Soi Assumption, however is excellent. I have a post in Timezone somewhere which I will dig out later on this fascinating restaurant in the heart of Bangkok). But I digress.

We started with the stuffed chicken wing. Giant chicken wings, seriously huge, were de-boned, and stuffed with minced chicken, chestnuts and other ingredients, and deep fried.

Crisp from the deep frying on the outside, and beautifully golden brown, biting into it was hugely satisfying. The red chilli sauce which accompanies was also excellent. Sweetish, spicy, with a tinge of was radiant in red.

My all time favourite Thai dish is phad phet kapow moo. Short Thai lesson (I am not proficient in Thai, but understand some words) Phad means fry or to fry. Phet mean spicy (hot). KaPow is Thai Basil leaves. And Moo is pork.

This dish is deceptively sauce, minced pork, chilli, basil...stir fried in a hot wok...but to get it right with the right balance of taste is not easy. The dish had to be at the same time spicy hot, salty, slightly sweet, slightly pungent, while remainding well balanced. The Thanying chef excelled in this. One of the best I have had in Singapore. Sure some roadside stalls would whip up one in Bangkok for B30 and taste even better, but in Singapore, this is hard to beat.

One dish I love in the old Thanying, but not found as good elsewhere is the paneng nuer. Paneng is thick red curry. And nuer is beef. The same dish can be done with pork, but I prefer beef.

The thick curry smothering the beef was excellent. Great taste and texture...curry must not have a powdery texture so common these days where the chef takes a short cut and instead of preparing the sauce from ingredients from scratch, use a curry powder. Though curry can be excellent with curry powder, my mom's chicken curry is superb in this and all other aspects, but often times, especially in restaurants where the chef is not fastidious enough, the powdery taste persists.

The beef, however was a bit tough. It was heavily striated muscle tissue, and tough to the palate. I wonder if the chef had used a grade 8 wagyu, would be an interesting dish.

The traditional side dish with the panang is fish...thin, whole, including bones have been deep fried till the whole is crunchy. Interestingly though the fish is deep fried, no oil residue, in fact it was dry to the touch and no greasy taste persist. The crunchy saltiness of the fish works hand in glove with the rich smothering curry very well.

The mixed fried vegetables which used to be very good, was a let down.

A variety of vegetables - young corn, brocolli, mushrooms, carrots are quickly stirred fried with fish sauce (nam pla) in a hot wok is a common dish in Thailand. The vegetables were still very crunchy and not overcooked, the sauce tangy, salty and hot, but was a tad too sweet. The Thais have this habit of adding sugar in almost everything, and usually an even hand ensured only a pinch of salt lands on the wok and provides some counter-taste to the spicy, salty sauce. But this time, the sugar was a tad in excess, and spoilt the dish. Aroy in Funan makes a fine version of this dish, and is my preferred kitchen to sample this.

Friedn crispy catfish in mango salad (yam pla duk foo) was the next dish. My most memorable tasting of this dish was some 8 years ago in Anna's in Thanon Withayu (Wireless Road) in Bangkok. That was my first encounter with this dish...and I waas amazed at how this dish was created. The fish were crispy flakes, more like whipped fried eggs than fish. I understand the traditional method to prepare this is to scrape the catfish meat with a fork into tiny bits, and deep fried till golden brown.

Firm mango is used as an accompaniment. Firm, still not fully ripe, the mango was slightly sour to the palate, and not sweet. It provided a firm bite and good counterpoint to the wispy, crisp fish. A sprinkling of roasted, cashew nuts and a sweet, sour, spicy hot sauce complete the dish.

I love Durian Khao Niao (durian with sticky rice), and some restaurants would serve you this dish even when durian is not in season, and it is hard to find good durian. Thanying chosed not to. And instead offered the mango variety - khao neow mamuang.

This time, a sweet Thai Honey mango, fully ripe was used. But as the Pakistanis exporting Mangos found out, the Thai preference is for mangos which are sweet, but with a slight sour tang. Pakistani mangoes are totally and completely sweet. And when first exported to Thailand, the exporters could not understand why their sweet mangos were not popular in Thailand.

The glutinous rice was firm to the bite, and very sweet, and thick coconut milk was poured over the rice. Delicious.

BTW, the restaurant also featured a full buffet table of desserts...beautiful to look at, excellent to eat.

Overall, definitely one of the better Thai restaurants in Singapore, and certainly one of the more expensive ones...of those I listed above, only Patara is similar in price. Lunch for 4 of us was almost S$130, while a similar meal in Bangkok Jam would probably be no more than S$80.

165 Tanjong Pagar Road
#02-00 The Amara

Photo note. I experimented with a different raw processing workflow this time, per recommendation of a good friend who is an excellent photographer.
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