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Way back in the 1960s when Chinese food was egg foo yung and no one in the USA had heard of sushi, let alone Mexican food, you can still remember eating your first Thai food in NYC. Though you forget the name of the restaurant, you’re pretty certain it was the first to open there. The interior was done up like a royal barge. The food was so exciting you felt like you’d eaten a fireworks display (in your enthusiasm, you ate an entire Thai chilli, which knocked your head off. Surgeons reattached it, with only partial success). The flavours were so vivid they seemed psychoactive, like they were messing with your brain chemistry. Instantly, you were addicted and have spent the rest of your life jonesing for those tastes. Over time, you learned that other Southeast Asian food – Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Indonesian and so on – could jangle your endorphins as well. It is the rare restaurant that can showcase different cuisines without detrimentally mushing them together. Monsoon – which showcases several Southeast Asian cuisines, not just Thai – is that rare restaurant. Every dish you tried there was sharply delineated, no sense whatsoever of them drowning in one master sauce.
An entire phylum of Southeast Asian sauces is based on fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. Aromatics such as kaffir lime leaf, Thai chilli, shallot, lemongrass, garlic, galangal, mint and coriander (or coriander root) are commonly added. Minute variations of proportion that affect the balance of salty, sweet, spicy and sour can lift a sauce from humdrum to thrilling. Monsoon’s sauces have the force.
This is immediately evident with their beef salad. The beef is cooked to medium in a Josper, a high-tech oven fuelled by wood (they use coffee wood and tamarind), which imparts an irresistible char. It has the vegetal contrasts of red onion, cuke and cherry tomato. The sauce is scintillating: sharp, limey, keeled by salty fish sauce, balanced by palm sugar, which is made from palm tree sap and has a light caramel quality. It’s garlicky with a tingle of chilli. And then the secret Thai ingredient, for some reason less and less common, is deployed: a good sprinkling of toasted rice powder. So as you bite in, you not only get the luscious satisfaction of wood-charred beef, the snappy vegetal contrasts and the vibrant sauce, but you also get a thrilling crunch. It’s a scrumptious cherry bomb.
Their take on larb, as essential to you and your wife as oxygen, is unique. It contains minced duck but also shredded bamboo shoot as well as mini oyster mushroom, enoki mushroom, leg mushroom and fresh black fungus. Of all types of larb, duck is the least common, and it’s your favourite because you adore duck. It is decked by coriander, mint and lemongrass, those lilting aromatics. The duck is duckalicious. The sauce, while similar to the beef salad’s, is less sharp (or maybe there isn’t enough of it). It could use a little more lime. You eat it from lettuce leaves. The unique addition of mushrooms is wonderful (though only one type is all that’s needed since you can’t tell them apart). There’s rice powder on top (you would have liked more). As excellent as it is though, to be brutally honest there is better duck larb to be had in Hong Kong. Chachawan’s duck larb – portion smaller, price higher – is better because it contains fried pork rinds (something you’ve never had elsewhere). Their crunch is howl-at-the-moon good. Would Monsoon consider a similar manoeuvre? Go ahead – copy Chachawan (imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). Or how about a sprinkling of duck-skin crackling? That would be life-altering!
You love the char on the Thai chicken satay so much so that you hanker for more, like burnt ends on BBQ brisket. Would there be some way to do this without drying out the meat? It’s marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar, coconut milk and pong gari spices, a fissile compound of coriander seed, fennel seed, cumin seed, mace, cinnamon, clove, green cardamom, dried chilli and turmeric powder. This is outrageously tasty, taking unfair advantage of your addictive personality. There’s a peanut butter sauce containing garlic, chilli, lemongrass, coconut milk, hoisin sauce and dark soy, which you like a lot, though you think it is a bit too thick and could use a little more coconut milk. Your wife disagrees and thinks it’s just right. The intense intelligence focused on this small, standard dish uplifts it to the level of memorable.
And so it is with the pad thai. In the United States, unscrupulous pad thai traffickers will use ketchup in the sauce, which is infuriating. Is there any punishment sufficient for this crime? All great pad thai is made with tamarind, as is Monsoon’s. The bane of the dish is all the rice noodles clumping together. By some genius, Monsoon avoids this. One of your companions says it’s the best she’s ever had. That’s a bold statement considering the competition, but it just might be the best you’ve ever had too.
You thought the “amok” in their salmon amok was based on the Malaysian word, which means to violently rage in an uncontrolled manner like the Hulk. It’s what you do when you’re served pad thai made with ketchup. So you expected that the dish would be violently spicy. In fact, this mild dish is Cambodian, and “amok” has a totally different meaning there: steamed curry. It is finely ground salmon mixed with red curry paste, fish sauce, palm sugar and coconut milk that is steamed in cute banana leaf baskets. There is coconut milk on top and a side bowl of fish sauce, sugar syrup, lime and chilli. From its description, it’s the sort of dish you’d anticipate loving. But the heart is fickle, and you moderately like it. If their amok ran more amok, you’d probably like it more.
Monsoon has seven curries on its menu (not to mention specials), all made completely from scratch, which is rare and amazingly commendable. Bravo! All is redeemed by their snapper curry, snapper in a sauce of coconut milk, curry paste (garlic, shallot, galangal, ginger, shrimp paste) okra, coriander seed and mustard seed. Snapper in curry is a dangerous move because the fish is so mild that its flavour is easily lost. This is not the case with this snapper. The dish is slightly sweet, coconutty, mildly spicy and the fish nothing less than superb. If you could drink the sauce like bubble tea through a wide-bore straw, you would.
The HK$168 free-flow option warrants special mention. You happily only drink one item, the Monsoon. Unlike so many cocktails made by earnest dabblers (add a random liqueur from Bosnia, another based on lichen from the Pitcairn Islands, list the provenance of every ingredient, give it a weird name, charge HK$188), the Monsoon has the right stuff. The fact that this is a tiki drink served in a small copper bucket makes it all the more amazing. It’s vodka, beer, simple syrup, passion fruit juice, fresh lemon, kaffir lime leaf and Thai chilli in golden proportion. The flavour of passion fruit is so uniquely delicious it’s beyond the power of metaphor. The best you can do is say that of all fruits it is the most concupiscent– oh my, yes. The flavour and scent of the kaffir lime leaf is poetry. The chilli adds a tantalising tang. With the free-flow package, get four (your liver can take it), and they come to HK$42 each, less than a brewski at a burger joint.
The restaurant is in an odd location for you, massive ELEMENTS mall by the W hotel and the Ritz in Kowloon. You live in Repulse Bay, and getting there without a car takes doing. Actually, one bus did the trick, but it took well over an hour. On the other hand, this meal, which cost HK$880 for two, including the free-flow option and service charge, would surely have been more in downtown HK, with its blistering rents factored in. Considering the food quality, the trip was eminently worth it. Though it’s handsomely decorated, there are no windows facing out and everyone (but you) felt malled in. Your wife says it lacked a “date feel”. The service is polite and well-intentioned but haphazard.
Putting aside the rustic Thai restaurants of Kowloon City, which are in a category of their own, the only serious competitors for Monsoon in Hong King that you know of are Chachawan, Samsen and Soul Food Thai. All are excellent (though their menus are exclusively Thai and Monsoon’s is Southeast Asian, imperfect equivalents). You think that all are roughly equal in terms of service and ambience, though your wife (not you) ranks Monsoon’s ambience lower owing to its interior location. Notwithstanding Chacahawan’s supreme duck larb, Monsoon is your favourite by a nose because its menu is far more wide-ranging and interesting, it aims higher, has more omplexity and takes more risks. That may mean some slips, but it means more triumphs too. Also, you must say that you are extraordinarily impressed by its seven made-from-scratch curries, since pre-made mixes are common. As soon as COVID protocols are lifted, you intend to return with a large group so you can really dig into the menu and measure the magnitude of its excellence. There are so many exciting dishes to try!
If you love not only seeing fireworks but savouring them, come to Monsoon. If you burst into flames of pleasure, you can douse them with their superlative Monsoon cocktail, one of the greats in Hong Kong. Your wife doesn’t think it’s right for dates. Yet two may disagree and both be right. You think it’s great for dates and very highly recommend it to anyone not seeking tablecloths and butler service, just superexcellent eats.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 3.5
Out of a long and complex menu, you ate a small fraction of Monsoon’s food and loved everything, with one exception. You have a feeling that when you return with a large group and have a chance to excavate more of the menu, you might give the food and overall value even higher scores – there’s a strong sense of hidden gems.
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.
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