La Gritta truly delivers the best in Italian: By Brian Baxter

I am totally hooked on Italian food, which ranks alongside Thai as my favorite national cuisine. Although I have eaten many times at La Gritta at the Amari Rincome Hotel over the past few years, the visit for this article was somewhat ‘orchestrated’, in that chef Stefano wanted to offer a selection of signature dishes (all available on the current menu) in smaller portions so that the Chiang Mai Mail’s photographer and my guest from India could sample a cross section of dishes. This was an exception to the ‘paper’s policy of arriving unannounced.
Since the November theme is sea food we were more than happy to have a meal devised for us. There are four key aspects to any worthwhile eating place, so I judge La Gritta by the highest standards on all of them: the quality of the ingredients, the skill (and the passion) of the head cook, the service and support given by his staff and that indefinable thing we call ambiance. The last is, like love, the only thing that money cannot buy.
A top chef can be poached from another restaurant (or country), staff can be recruited and trained and ingredients can be sourced from the best local suppliers with a firm eye on seasonal availability. But the welcome which is conveyed and says sit back, relax and enjoy yourselves in comfort cannot be so readily acquired. A great orchestra has a special sound, just as a fine restaurant has a special feel – one that is never self-conscious or pushy.
Chiang Mai has an increasing number of five star hotels and smart venues, with trendy décor, plush walkways, gleaming pools and lighting as dim as the architects who think of appearance above function. After several decades, the Amari offers confidence and warmth and a determination not to rest on its laurels, with monthly changes to its menu, special events to reflect holidays and festivals such as Thanksgiving, Loy Krathong, Christmas and my favorite their Valentine’s Day special. The menu reflects seasonal specialties (currently avocado among others) and market availability.
So we are talking about dining out with all its attendant pleasures. Not pit stop eating, filling up with a bowl of tasty noodles before a disco or a steaming dish of pasta after a concert but a leisurely evening with good food and hopefully entertaining conversation.
On to the table with its elegant cutlery, gleaming glasses and immaculate linen where on a recent Sunday we began the meal with a salad as the base for four mini starters, offered attractively on individual side dishes. Surprisingly, the salad was not from the excellent Royal Project but was sourced from local producers, who also proudly showed off the rich purple basil, its aromatic green sister, the spiky rosemary and other herbs which gave off a heady scent that was as good a stimulant as any fine Champagne.
With the salad came salmon smoked on the premises, prawns lightly poached in wine, scallops on an avocado bed and finally marinated finely chopped zucchini with a Parmesan crepe. Only the last signaled a slightly wrong note, with its intensity slightly overpowering the delicacy of the fish dishes.
The main course was almost as good, which is saying a lot since the salad with its orange and rendered Balsamico dressing was a triumph. We enjoyed a duo of delicate filo pastry parcels holding chunks of perfectly baked cod and salmon, served on porcini mushrooms and leeks with a light cream sauce. Delicious!
And finally an over indulgence. A sample quartet from the dessert menu - the palest green pistachio ice cream, a rich chocolate mousse a slice of (rather heavy) tiramisu and - best of all - a tiny soft centered warm chocolate cake. All surrounded by a light raspberry sauce. An intense espresso cut through the sweetness and rounded off a memorable meal, which had been accompanied by plenty of mineral water and – far more excitingly – by an Australian Shiraz, with enough fruit and depth so as not to override the seafood dishes.
Many locals and tourists take advantage of the specially prepared pasta dishes, or a chance to eat ‘off the menu’ or come for the monthly events ranging from Oktoberfest to ‘national’ months. But for me it is the main menu which attracts, alongside the fact that it is a cozy place to enjoy a leisurely meal alone if the mood suits. Among personal favorites are the lettuce leaves with gorgonzola cheese and walnuts in a sherry vinaigrette dressing (240 baht) and the luscious risotto (280 baht). From the pasta selection, I prefer the fettuccini with olive oil, chili, garlic and fresh herbs (280 baht) and from the main menu the delicate snow fish with asparagus (500 baht).
That chocolate cake served with frozen Grappa cream at 230 baht also beckons on occasion. A short, well chosen wine list starts at around 300 baht a glass and there are naturally plenty of other drinks on offer, including superb Grappa.
Not then, an inexpensive place to eat. How could it be, since it sets itself standards on all four fronts listed above and offers high comfort and quality service, plus that extra element of passion all creativity needs. There are plenty of excellent Italian restaurants in Chiang Mai and certainly many offer more robust food at more affordable prices. But, put at it s most simple, La Gritta offers the best Italian inspired food in the city.
La Gritta is located in the Amari Rincome Hotel at 1 Nimmanahaeminda Road in Chiang Mai. Tel. 053-221-044. Open daily for lunch and dinner.


Coconut chicken

This is another way to present chicken starters for your guests. Select chicken breast or chicken thigh fillet, skinless. The marinade is important and best done in Ziploc bags inside the refrigerator.

Cooking Method
Chop the chicken fillets into large, bite-sized pieces. Combine lime juice, salt, curry powder and ginger in a small bowl. Add chicken pieces, then place in Ziploc and refrigerate for at least two hours. To prepare coconut coating and beer batter, lightly toast coconut on cookie sheet at 375 degrees for three to five minutes. Set aside. In another bowl, mix beer, flour, white pepper, sugar and paprika to make the batter.
Now heat oil in heavy pan or deep-fryer. Dip chicken pieces in batter and fry until pale brown in color. Remove quickly (do not overcook) and roll immediately in toasted coconut. Serve with skewers or fondue forks and any dipping sauce of your choice as an appetizer.

Ingredients                    Serves 6
Chicken fillets                          400 gm
Lime juice                                 ¼ cup
Salt                                         ½ tspn
Malaysian curry powder             1 tspn
Ginger                                    ½ tspn
Grated coconut                        2 cups
Beer                              330 ml (1 tin)
Flour                                      3 cups
White pepper                          ½ tspn
Sugar                                    1 tbspn
Paprika                                2 tbspns
Oil                                         2 cups
Skewers or fondue forks