As the self-appointed safe-keepers of Thai culture would have it, real, authentic local cuisine is something set in stone. But the truth is that the Thai culinary universe didn’t just fall from the heavens fully-formed, but evolved slowly through hundreds of years of imports, adaptation and experimentation.
If we accept this as gospel (and only the foodie equivalent of a creationist wouldn’t), Ruen Urai might be one of the most genuinely traditional Thai restaurants in town. On a recent re-visit, we were reminded that many of the dishes here are unorthodox, and in a subtle, restrained and ultimately satisfying way. Ranging from raw tuna rolls stuffed with fresh herbs and served with a lip-tingling nam jim to the decadent devilled soft-shelled crab stuffed with crabmeat and pork, these ‘new creations’ walk the tightrope between progress and tradition, and, more often than not, make it across to the other side.
Other thoughtful deviations from tradition include the snow fish with pad krapao. Pairing the delicate white fish with bold, assertive basil shouldn’t work but does, and very well. Unusual blends of fragrant herbs, veg, pastes or spices also appear in dishes such as the penny wort salad, which, as far as we could tell, is similar to yum tua puu (wingbean salad) in everything apart from the key vegetable used. To wash your repast down, there are herb-infused cocktails and a well-curated selection of wines available too.
Should purists not be convinced by the playfulness, Ruen Urai has some other tricks up its sleeve. First and foremost the menu, which includes a picture book version for newbies, features many of the usual suspects, from your spring rolls to Royal Thai cuisine, albeit often with a Ruen Urai tweak or flourish. Secondly, there’s the setting, which is just plain gorgeous, despite being only a couple of minutes walk from the dancing neon signage and Disneyland sleaze of Surawong Road.
A century-old, gracefully curved teak house amid a lush, palmfronded garden, it could have been ripped from the pages of an old Thai folk epic. The main downstairs dining room has a contemporary feel, plate-glass windows on one side allowing you to gaze across the Rose Hotel’s swimming pool. But it’s upstairs, in the space reserved for special occasions and busy nights, where the ancient heritage of the house is most evocative and alive, with weathered antiques and heirlooms from the proprietor’s family adorning an intimate teak panel room with a pointy Ayutthean-style roof.
With modern towers hovering all around it, it’s hard to imagine a more fitting setting for a meal that tangos elegantly between Thai cuisine’s past and future.
Ruen Urai The Rose Hotel
118 Surawong Rd | 02-266-8268~72 | BTS Sala Daeng, MRT Sam Yan | 11am-11:30pm | ruen-urai.com