A small fish cake at Benjarong, the Thai restaurant at Abu Dhabi's newly opened Dusit Thani hotel on Muroor Road, forcibly took me back to Bangkok, a city I once called home.
My husband and I pulled up at the hotel last week with much trepidation because, after nearly five years of living in the UAE capital, we were still to come across a Thai restaurant that was the real deal.
Benjarong occupies an intimate space at the back of the Dusit Thani, with wood-panelled walls, soft lighting and contemporary decor with a stylish Thai twist. Flickering candles in bottle-green glasses sit on each table, and soft Thai music fills the air. The staff, elegant in silk sarongs and matching cropped tops, said sawasdee (welcome) and showed us to a table, then brought cold towels and a complimentary appetiser each: fish cakes on a bed of cabbage and greens.
That first tasting told us everything we needed to know, and we placed our order swiftly and surely.
The appetiser platter arrived in no time - the thod man pla (prawn cakes) and tofu in rice crepes were delicious and perfectly seasoned; the chicken satay, though, was nothing like the juicy, caramelised meat on skewers found all over Bangkok. For our salad, we chose yum woon sen (glass vermicelli with seafood). It was served chilled, the flavours all correct and accounted for, the slivers of red bird's-eye chillies offering a fiery contrast to the lemon dressing.
Picking our main courses took a little longer: should we plump for the tom yum kung (spicy prawn soup) and pla nung manao (steamed fish with lemongrass) or try something else? In the end, we decided on kung thod kratiam (prawns stir-fried with garlic) and the ubiquitous Thai green curry with chicken. The main courses, which are served with prawn crackers and a tiny pot of jasmine rice, did not disappoint: four enormous tiger prawns came artfully arranged in a pool of dark, garlicky oyster sauce sprinkled liberally with coarsely ground pepper. The curry, with Thai aubergine halves, succulent chicken and aromatic kaffir lime, was good enough to be spooned up all by itself, although it was a tad paler than we're used to.
There is something to be said about the wisdom of offering tiny servings of rice with the main courses, especially in a restaurant with a delectable dessert menu.
Not that we needed to see it to make up our minds: kluay thod (deep-fried banana with home-made vanilla ice cream) for my husband and, for me, an all-time favourite: khao niao mamuang - slices of fresh mango with sticky rice and coconut sauce sweetened with palm sugar. Simple though these desserts may be, there are a million ways to get them wrong, but ours were faultless.
Looking back, Benjarong truly did me in. With the authentic food and the graceful, smiling staff, I hadn't felt this homesick for Thailand in a long time. But, incredibly, it also felt a lot like coming home.
A meal for two at Benjarong costs Dh550, including service. For reservations, call 02 698 8888 or visit www.dusit.com. Reviewed meals are paid for by The National and all reviews are conducted incognito
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