TENGOKU de cuisine
Same, same. But, oh, so very different…
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Roasted peanut 4 tbspns
Lime juice 4
Tamarind juice 4 tbspns
Fish sauce 2 tbspn
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).
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