The Spirit House:  By Brian Baxter

Atmospheric bar and restaurant on Viangbua Road

I woke up the morning after a visit to The Spirit House thinking of menus. A little odd you may think, but bear with me, please. Steve, who runs the restaurant with his Thai partner, and does much of the cooking, has a special way with a menu - something of a rarity in Chiang Mai compared with conventional places.
For example, take Café Nimmen or Mo’C Mo’L. They have huge, book-like offerings. A vast array of choices, bewildering on occasion. How many times have I heard a farang say in such places, ‘You choose’. Shifting the responsibility to a Thai. Then there’s Eat at U Hotel which I reviewed recently. They have dinky little boards held up invitingly by a member of staff. Nothing printed. At Krit’s they opt for a large menu and supplement it with a notice board for ‘specials’, St Germain des Pres is something of a model. They print their offerings (changing several each month or season) in French, English and Thai in clearly defined categories. On the other hand the otherwise commendable Arco’Baleno prints an extensive menu very clearly but offers no Thai translation. I wonder what an Italian would make of a Thai restaurant which opened in –say – Milan and chose to print off its offerings only in Thai. Clearly the French do not have a monopoly on arrogance.
I noticed recently whilst visiting Maze 2 that they had improved their menu. It was too bulky before and there were many duplications within different sections. Now it is clearly laid out and had photographs of the different dishes. Not a bad idea in a tourist area, although not much use in a place near Thapae Gate which I went to recently where the pictures did not match the words! That place has been around too long to change but Moxxie’s at D2, (which is a model of how to run a restaurant in a hotel), had the sense to change their menu from the wildly impractical silvery version with its self-coloured lettering—now the menu prints black on white. It looked elegant before. Now it is readable. The House makes no concessions to readability with its subdued, romantic lighting but they offer individual little torches which add a touch of camp, as does the even more subdued Chedi.
Anyway, by now you might have got the point that menus vary greatly, so I won’t list more. And what has this got to do with Steve at The Spirit House? Well, he doesn’t have one. A menu, I mean. He has a little board at the entrance which lists a few choices and once you are seated and have been given some iced water and offered one of the very inexpensive drinks, (best value is a large beer Singha), he offers a little scrap of paper on which are the day’s extra offerings. A home-made soup, a pasta dish, corn on the cob or one of his delicious puddings. He will then – rather over-optimistically I feel – assure you that if there is nothing on either the board or paper you fancy then he will prepare something that you ask for. I am not sure how many people take him at his word.
To be honest I think few people go to The Spirit House in search of haute cuisine. About the same number who look for spiritual enlightenment I guess, and probably with as much success. They might sensibly go there for one of the sweets. On the last occasion four of us chose, (actually, there was no alternative except fresh fruit which we also had), the latest creation. It was what we in England might call a trifle. In Italy a tiramisu and anyway in truth it was neither. Just a delicious approximation to both. featuring sponge, liquor, cream, raspberries and chocolate shavings.

The Spirit House. Open daily on Viangbua Road.

So why go? Well it’s handy if you are heading for a drink at The Garden Bar or visiting friends at the near by Viangbua Mansions or are simply in the area. Or, if you want to buy one of the opera DVDs or second hand books on offer. Or one of the intriguing artefacts decorating the large space. Or are going to one of the occasional concerts which are held there.
Or, of course, if you want a cheap and cheerful meal. The staff are friendly, if mildly disorganised, the seating and rustic tables are reasonably comfortable and the background music wafting through decent speakers is usually from the baroque period, sometimes later. But not much later. With a beer and two courses and a tip you should spend around 200 baht and it would be churlish to complain about the cost. One member of the last group I went there with craved more organization and muttered something about computers and updating the ‘system’. I think he rather missed the point of this somewhat exotic eating place. And I’m 100 per cent sure that what the world does not need is a computer to take the place of any human being, least of all an amiable one trying to offer something just a little out of the ordinary in Chiang Mai.


Thod Mun Gai (deep fried chicken cakes)

This is an interesting variation on the more usual fish cakes (Thod Mun Pla). Like its fish counterpart, it is important not to overcook, as the final dish can get rubbery in texture. It is also important to drain the chicken cakes well as otherwise they can be unacceptably oily.

Cooking Method
In a bowl combine the minced chicken with the pounded coriander, garlic and pepper. Now add the egg and knead thoroughly. Add 100 gm of bread crumbs and continue mixing. Now add the salt, sugar and fish sauce and continue to mix well.
Shape into balls and then roll in the remaining breadcrumbs until they all have an even coating.
In a deep frying pan heat the oil over a medium heat. Slightly flatten the chicken balls and deep fry quickly until golden brown. Remove and drain well over paper towels.
Serve hot with your favorite dipping sauce.

Ingredients          Serves 2-4
Minced chicken                 200 gm
Bread crumbs                   200 gm
Pounded coriander root,
garlic and pepper                1 tspn
Egg                                    1
Vegetable oil                      3 cups
Salt                                   1 tspn
Fish sauce                       1 tbspn
Sugar                                1 tspn