TENGOKU de cuisine

Same, same. But, oh, so very different…

Mark Whitman
Tengoku, I am told, translates into English as ‘heaven’, which in turn means, once the unearthly aspect has been eliminated, as ‘supremely blessed: excellent’. In which case this superb new Japanese restaurant is aptly named.
Mount the few steps to the left of the smart ground -floor sushi bar and you enter a tranquil, unostentatiously elegant 30-seater restaurant which proves to be – well – just heavenly..
The owner, Sun Suebsaeng, is also the mastermind behind the design and the overall concept and he has obviously decided that whatever standards of culinary excellence exist in Chiang Mai, his new venue will equal or, hopefully, surpass them. The Tengoku is located directly facing the grounds of the Dhara Devi (the Mandarin Oriental at Chiang Mai) and is entirely separate from the hotel. Happily, they will allow you to park your winged chariot or whatever whisks you there in the car park directly opposite.
I must be honest and say that this is a difficult review to write, since the little group I dined with was out for a treat. We were sampling a whole range of dishes: the best of the very best. In an attempt not to reach for my Thesaurus and superlatives at every course, I will – hopefully- let a little objectivity take over and attempt to write about the whole meal without embellishment. A tough job, believe me.
The rectangular restaurant seats, as mentioned, up to thirty guests. It is reasonably sized, neither cramped nor cavernous. It is warmly lit and decorated, with handsome individually designed tables and chairs. There are a handful of striking pictures on the walls and apart from a splash of red silk, the colours are muted and the whole effect one of slightly masculine elegance.
The plates and serving dishes are all chosen with the same care and are functional and handsome. The effect is of supreme confidence, an ambience difficult to attain even after many years. Tenguko is only a month or so old, but the ambience and the service suggest somewhere that has been fine-tuned and running smoothly for much longer..
And what, importantly, about the food? The first thing one notices is the unusual menu, which is printed on heavy quality whiter than white paper, bound with a simple ribbon. It resembles a legal document. The many pages are clearly laid out in heavy black type, the dishes, a brief description and the prices, which range from the fairly modest (noodle dishes from 220 baht) to the inevitably costly (Wagayu steaks at 1500 baht). Overall the prices are higher than even the most expensive of the ubiquitous Japanese chain restaurants in such places as Airport Major. Any comparison has to end there, simply because there is NO comparison. It is the classic case of same same, but very very different.
To begin, as they say in fairy stories, at the beginning, which in this case was the sashimi, draped glistening over a dish of shredded Japanese salad. There were four different fish presented – the only four on the menu, since freshness and quality are the key words and they are imported from Japan and expected to be used quickly. The tuna, salmon and so on were quite thickly sliced, yet so tender that they ‘cut’ into smaller pieces with just chopsticks. The accompanying wasabi relish was unique to the restaurant, which takes the whole of the horseradish root, including the skin and core and adds a little salt and some ‘secret ingredients’. In comparison with its fiery, smoother green brother, this was intriguingly less potent but more complex in taste..
The succession of dishes which followed ranged from finely cut beef, which cooks at the table in 3 to 15 seconds depending on how rare or well done you want it,
to the little bowl of noodles, served Japanese style at the end of the meal. Inevitably each of the five of us had a particular favourite among the dozen or so choices, but since I am the one given the pleasure of stating an opinion, I must opt for the wonderful ‘eggplant’.
Did I hear a little gasp of disbelief? Eggplant over the best tuna money can buy, the lightest of tempura or the sushi? Or the simply grilled fish? Well yes, but this was not eggplant as we know it.
The vegetable came served in its own ‘shell’. I learned only that it had been cooked twice (not salted and dried out as often happens with what we in the U.K. called aubergine, not eggplant). The first time it is quick fried at a very high temperature and later it is grilled and served with a ‘secret’ sauce, which was very slightly caramel in texture and taste and gave a crispy texture on top. The result is smoky, smooth and subtle. And subtle is the overriding word for all of the food. There is nothing ‘in your face’ here.
Almost on a par with that favourite, was the salad with the cooked Nori seaweed or the fresh seaweed, draped over a large bowl of cracked ice. Or perhaps you’d prefer the mixed vegetable and prawn tempura, with which many of us are all too familiar, though perhaps not as served here: light and pale gold, not heavy and oily. Or
the small selection of sushi? Or the little chunks of apricot like fruit served at the very end of the dinner?
The amazing thing about such a meal was the complete lack of heaviness, replete, yes, but no sense of having over indulged.
This is, of course, healthy eating: high on super -fresh ingredients with omega rich oily fish and salad and vegetables. High on protein and very low on ‘carbs’. With it we drank excellent white wine until the very end of the evening when a little carafe of (cold) sake was served. This came in seemingly inappropriate, chunky and colourful glasses from Italy. They were in jaunty contrast to the simple elegance of everything that had preceded. It made one aware that this is not a stuffy place, there is no prissiness here or undue formality. A table of friendly Norwegians, with several children, sat across the way and a group of young Thais were further down the restaurant. All were relaxed and out to enjoy the experience.
Naturally such quality and style comes at a price. There is a set lunch menu at just 300 baht and the sushi bar is located on the first level. And you can easily enjoy a more simple meal than the one outlined above. The green tea, also, is a perfect accompaniment. This too is special, since it is prepared with Japanese rice along with the tea and has a wonderful flavour. The menu is extensive and as said prices range widely, so you can take your time about choice and cost. But once, if only once, join with a small group of friends, choose a version of this tasting menu and lift yourself heavenwards At least this one is real, not fantasy or wishful thinking.
Tenguko de cuisine is located opposite the entrance to the Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi Hotel. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tel: 053 851 133.


Capsicum (Bell Pepper) Som Tum

The som tum range of Thai salads is much greater than you would imagine, much more varied than the usual green papaya and salted crab varieties. Most som tums, however, are very spicy, and often beyond the palate capabilities of the average foreigner. Even some Thais find the Isaan som tums nuclear! I have tamed the temperature in this recipe, but if you want it to Thai taste then double the garlic and chilli in the recipe and be prepared to sweat.

Ingredients                                        Serves 4
Yellow and green capsicum chopped        4 cups
Medium prawns, cooked, de-shelled                 8
Garlic                                                  4 cloves
Chillies medium                                              4
Roasted peanut                                   4 tbspns
Lime juice                                           4 tbspns
Tamarind juice                                    4 tbspns
Fish sauce                                           2 tbspn
Palm sugar                                           1 tbspn

Cooking Method
Using the mortar and pestle, crush the garlic and chillies. Be careful not to splash any juice in the eyes, or rub the eyes during preparation of this dish. Add the fish sauce, lime juice, tamarind juice and palm sugar and continue pounding until the palm sugar is dissolved. Add capsicum, prawns (cooked and chopped roughly) and roasted peanuts and pound lightly while mixing and turning the ingredients. Serve immediately (with sticky rice if you prefer).