Header image: Thai on High selection (photo credit: Deliveroo)
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Red Thai (bird’s-eye) chillies with enough Scoville units to jump-start a fusion reactor. Boiled to dissipate their capsaicin. Deep-fried to a crunch and salted lightly. Oil free. Served in a bowl like peanuts. You’ve never heard of nor conceived of such a dish. Tigerish heat declawed, for the first time you can fully taste a Thai chilli’s sprightly flavour. You love it! The dish is straightforward and scrumptious. This, you come to learn, is the culinary ethos of Thai on High.
They don’t skimp on kaffir lime leaf. Not only is their pork larb packed with its taste and perfume, it also contains house-made roasted rice powder, which brings a gratifying granular crunch. Rich in mint, red onion, lime, it is the model from which all other versions derive. This makes sense since Thai on High’s founder and original chef, Kea, grew up in Thailand cooking with her mum, honing her talents in the kitchen at Berghotel Leiterli hotel in Lenk, Switzerland. Monsoon adds wild mushrooms to their larb. Chachawan adds crunchy pork rind. These dishes are delicious showboats. Thai on High’s is the mother ship.
Their thin fishcakes, the ideal rubbery texture, are also zippy with lime leaf. And nubbins of green bean. Though you wish they were nubbier, you’ve never had better. They taste of fish without fishiness, just like those you’ve had fresh-made in Bangkok markets.
Sweet-and-sour pomelo salad is amongst the finer versions you’ve had, dressed in tamarind, fish sauce and palm sugar (the maple sugar of the tropics, sweet like a fine tenor), studded by the baritone sweetness of caramelised shallot, toasted coconut, chopped chilli and Vietnamese mint. It is a joyous jumble of tangs and textures.
The papaya salad’s sauce has a similar profile. In addition to long shreds of green papaya, it’s loaded with long shreds of carrot. You like the papaya so much you wouldn’t have missed the carrot were there less. There are raw green beans, tomato and peanuts. It is a classic rendition.
Spring rolls are filled with bean-thread noodles and mushroom, no hint of oil. Texture is everything with a spring roll, and these, made with rice paper, are crunch-perfect. Having had your own spring roll restaurant years before, you feel you speak with particular authority. There’s commercially made sweet chilli jam in which to dip them, the kind you can buy bottled at many grocery stores. It’s fine. However, there are many other crazy-delicious Thai sauces that balance sweet-sour-salty-spicy (based on some combination of lime juice, fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, chilli, garlic, cuke, herbs). Having such a sauce here, house-made, would up their game.
Chicken satay uses chicken breast imported from Thailand. Dusted with turmeric and curry powder, you appreciate the way they’re simultaneously moist and charred, sign of a sure hand in the kitchen. You love char, and because these are cut quite thin, there’s maximum char per volume. It comes with a peanut-butter-coconut sauce tinged with massaman curry. You’ve had countless versions of this sauce. This is top tier.
Red curry chicken doesn’t let down the team. Kea explains they use chunks from a large aubergine because some customers don’t like the taste of pea aubergine (or pea eggplant or turkey berry). Pea aubergine is what you pine for though with its textural pop, like roe. The curry paste is from a Bangkok market, handmade.
Pad thai, made with a “secret sauce” that includes tamarind, doesn’t clump, the bane of this dish. You like the sauce so much you wish there was a little more. You request extra lime to squeeze over, which answers nicely. It’s a serious kick-boxer.
A mixed vegetable dish with artfully sliced carrot is slightly overcooked and bland.
Always in peril of dehydration, you sip a mango martini made with honey-sweet mango. Lychee liqueur bewitches it. You taste your wife’s lemongrass mojito. Lemongrass is reluctant to release its essence, clenching it within, unsusceptible to threats and violent force. You don’t know how Thai on High’s mixologist coaxes it forth – maybe with loving-kindness – but she gets it. This mojito is to thirst as epinephrine is to anaphylaxis. In a city with too much faux, ridiculous, random, ignorant, pretentious, wildly overpriced mixology, these drinks have stature.
Like a dog with pups, your wife becomes dangerously animalistic with mango sticky rice. Touch her portion, lose the hand. Look at it, you’re in for an eyepatch. She pronounces Thai on High’s superb. Unquestionably, the mango is ideal – tart, sweet, firm. However, you wished for a large pinch of salt in the coconut sauce to counterpoint its sweetness. You prefer black rice. You also like it sprinkled with crunchy, dry-fried yellow mung beans, missing in this version.
You finish your voyage culinaire with excellent Thai iced coffee. You wouldn’t have objected had they brewed it in front of you, into your glass, with a miniature Thai drip-coffee maker, which is cool to behold.
There are large picture windows, an open kitchen, an open bar, sparkling glassware. The interior is bright, clean, casual, comfortable. You’d be happy here on a date, with das Kinder or with fellow ruffians.
Thai on High does not have a Michelin star like Aaharn. It does not have a self-proclaimed “celebrity chef” like Monsoon. Other than Kea, it has no marketing agency. Other than Kea, it has no design team to refresh its interior, as Chachawan recently did. It does not go to infinite lengths to source ingredients that are more exotic than those elsewhere. None of their dishes are star-spangled Instagram centrefolds.
But it has one inestimable greatness, as described recently in The New York Times’ article “Do You Have Nafas, the Elusive Gift That Makes Food Taste Better?” (Reem Kassis, 1 April 2021): The Arabic word refers to a mysterious factor that renders some people’s cooking exceptional. Whether it’s innate or acquired is up for debate… It is an energy some people possess that makes their meals not only good, but exceptional.
Thai on High has nafas. Its food is not just good, but exceptional. They have two branches (soon, a third) and a large yacht for private meals (obviously, what you need). You sense the beginning of a nafas empire. You ate at the branch on Bridges Street. Go.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Service: you can’t tell what it would ordinarily be like, because you were personally served by the owner, Kea
Overall greatness: 4
This meal was comped. Because you’re writing a review, you were treated to much more food than you ordinarily would have ordered. This meal, ample for six or more, would have cost about HK$1,258, including service charge – an outstanding deal.
17 Bridges Street, Central, Hong Kong, 2406 9996 (there’s another branch on High Street in Sai Ying Pun, hence the name)
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