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Publication Date : 20-11-2012
Every time a foreign friend asks me to recommend a standalone Thai restaurant in Bangkok's Sukhumvit area, which offers authentic Thai cuisine in a homey ambience and also has adequate parking, I think very carefully before answering. The downtown area is home to many restaurants but finding the right one to meet such demands is not easy.
The opening of the new branch of long-time favourite, Taling Pling, on Sukhumvit Soi 34, will make my job a little easier. About 300 metres from the mouth of soi, the new branch of this family-run eatery is located in a renovated house that was built in the 1940s. The high-ceiling facade has been expanded to allow for a more spacious dining area and wrapped with glass from floor to ceiling to let natural light stream in and provide guests with a view of the front garden.
Sooklek Chanyavongse and his wife Thipmani opened the first Taling Pling back in 1988 on Pan Road in the Silom area. Sooklek's father, Prayoon was a newspaper cartoonist whose column "Ka Buan Kan Kae Chon" ("Mission to overcome poverty") in Thai Rath newspaper dwelt on his love for Thai food. The couple adopted Prayoon's sharp illustration of himself grinding ingredients with a mortar and pestle and giving a thumbs up as the restaurant's logo.
Prayoon himself named the restaurant after a rare Thai fruit that's used in Thai cooking to enhance the sour taste. The Taling Pling tree is known in English as bilimbi and belongs to the star fruit family. The trees are plentiful in the new Sukhumvit branch and provide the fruit for the cooking while the back garden is planted with pomelo and rambutan trees as well as a herb garden boasting cumin, Thai holy basil, mint and chillies.
The first Taling Pling on Pan Road recently relocated to Baan Silom Arcade and four other branches can be found in the city's department stores.
The Sukhumvit branch, which opened in August is in the former home of Thipmani's parents and thanks to the spacious area that can accommodate up to 200 diners and parking for 70 cars, has became the flagship location. It's being run by the couple's daughter Praethip, who like her mother, is a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
The menu is extensive with more than 100 Thai dishes on the menu ranging from spicy salads, curries, nam prik or chilli paste sauce, to deep-fried and stir-fried specialities as well as local desserts that are rare in today's restaurant world. Available only at this branch are a selection of charcoal-grilled dishes served with brown sticky rice like strip loin with Isaan-style jaew dipping, pork rib with garlic and black pepper and sea bass in salt crust with spicy garlic lime sauce.
To get an idea of what the taling pling fruit tastes like, you should sample yum pla salid taling pling, a delicious crispy fried fish salad. The dish offers a well-balanced combination of tastes and textures, with crispy morsels of salid fish tossed with finely sliced lemongrass, taling pling and shallot together with cashew nuts, coriander, chilli and lime juice.
Another delectable dish is nam prik khai poo, spicy shrimp paste in coconut cream dip with crab roe and crabmeat and seasonal vegetables. The nam prik is mild and full of crabmeat tossed with crab roe and comes with an assortment of rare Thai vegetables like white turmeric, bael leaves, thong lang leaves and pak tiew.
An all-time favourite of this restaurant is gaeng khiew wan nuea or beef green curry with bird chillies. The beef is slow-cooked in a charcoal oven for two hours while the curry is prepared fresh. I didn't found the curry fiery enough for my taste though the beef was tender. It is best enjoyed with thick and soft roti.
I preferred the gaeng kua hed poh or puff ball mushroom curry with acacia and wild betel leaves. Brought in directly from Chiang Mai, the mushroom is fresh yet crispy and overcomes the oiliness of the curry. For a spicy and sour dish, san nai moo kana or spicy pork fillets with Chinese kale is pleasing, with the tender pork contrasting well with the crispy Chinese kale.
You can tone down the hot dishes with gai sen tod makham - fried chicken strips with tamarind sauce. The chicken strips are lightly dipped with batter, fried until golden brown and crisp, then cooked with tamarind sauce for a combination of sweet and tangy tastes before tossing with roasted chilli, golden fried shallot and roasted cashew nuts.
Another home-cooked delicacy is khai palow, braised egg and pork with five spices which is slowly cooked for six hours.
The selection of Thai desserts should not be missed. The two favourite are khao niew dum khao mao, black sticky rice and taro in coconut milk topped with crushed ice and rice crispies and lord chong, pandan noodles with taro in coconut milk tossed with rice crispies.