Oregano: Restaurant of the Year

Plus a short selection of the ‘best of the rest’

By Brian Baxter

It seems appropriate in the last issue for 2010/2553 (and my final review for quite a while) to select a handful or so of – to use an impossible word – ‘best’ eating places in Chiang Mai. These personal suggestions are better termed ‘personal favourites’ from among the scores of dining places I have visited in the past months. The other contributors to this column including, Shana, Heather and Neil would no doubt have suggestions too.

Oregano owner Rose and her staff are seen here at the reviewers favourite restaurant of the year.

It’s important to say that I have gone for value rather than price. If the sky’s the limit and five star service and associated flummery is your bag, then only a couple listed come anywhere near that. These notes relate to venues where a mixture of several aspects is in evidence: well prepared food, of decent quality, served pleasantly and efficiently in clean, comfortable surroundings offering value for our ever more precious baht. In other words, fine cuisine in lush surroundings, but with unctuous service and a fat bill and mediocre house wine (L’Auberge, please note) would score few points.

So first, to a number one selection, my most regular eating out choice: Oregano off Canal Road. I don’t think a week or so goes by without a visit there, with a wide range of friends and acquaintances and –most regularly – with my Thai friend for whom it is – happily – a mutual favourite.

Rose the owner-chef offers Italian and Thai food of a consistent standard at very reasonable prices, in a simple but pretty dining room. The service is amicable, unobtrusive – by a trio of staff – and the ambience unfussy and welcoming. It will not win gold medals for innovation or as cutting edge haute-cuisine, it is not chic. But after 30 plus visits this year I am looking forward to the next one – in three days time – whilst I write this.

The menu is given in Thai and English (as it should be, other restaurants please note) on a sort of loose leaf series of pages which at first look a little repetitive or oddly linked, but soon make sense. So order a glass of the highly drinkable house wine (only 70 baht) a couple of the garlic rounds or crispy pizza bread (home made), sit back and take your time.

There are some delicious starters: grilled vegetables, soups, a chicken liver pate with home made rolls, a little bowl of mussels, a hearty tuna salad – as good as Giorgio’s – which Song and I usually share, tapas and so on. Average cost around 60 baht.

For mains the list is long and divides between six or seven Thai dishes, including a massaman curry, pork and beef dishes among others. There are two casseroles, hunter’s chicken and a rich beef stew served with mashed potatoes, which I am assured is delicious. The Italian side of things is represented by a wide selection of thin crust pizzas, with some very original toppings and an Oregano special which I like best. There are many pasta dishes, including classics such an arrabiata, with or without sea food, (better than at Pasta Caf้) vongole (rather heavy on the chili), meat sauces, plain with olive oil, garlic and chili and one that an Italian-American friend swears is authentic, spaghetti with Italian sausages. Main courses are under 100 baht.

The puddings are fewer in number but usually include home made ice cream (Mango is superb), almost in line with Gianni’s. There’s a chocolate mud pie and a very light panna cotta with seasonal coulis and on occasion a tiramisu. More please. I’d also welcome a fish dish (perhaps a simple grilled sea bass?) and a second pate – perhaps mixed smoked fish or vegetarian? Oh and a little less rapid serving of the main course once the starter is cleared. But these are minor points, not detracting from the overall quality and the amazing value. Water is served ad lib, by the way and other drinks are available including beers and non alcoholic beverages.

You can eat in the main room which seats around 24 people (they tend to be busiest early in the evening) or on the enclosed terrace which surrounds the room. It’s rather like being in someone’s home, which is light and airy. The average cost per head including a glass – or two- of house wine (you can take your own bottles or there is a small selection of superior wines on sale), with a starter (easy to share the pate or salads), a main course and pudding should cost around 300 baht with a tip.

Oregano can be found at 99/8 Kongcholpraton Road, Suthep or – more easily – in the Nandakwang Garden Mall, which is just off Canal Road. To get there from town head up either Huay Kaew Road or Suthep Road and turn left and head along the dual carriageway for a couple of kilometres until you see the large B2 Hotel (previously Best Western) on the right. Make a u-turn at the large brightly lit Seven- Eleven which is near the hotel and head back into town but for only a few metres. The leafy mall is on the left and is well sign posted. Parking is very easy. Coming from Hang Dong you will naturally find it heading into town. Telephone: 089 759 2992. They are open for lunch from 11 until 2p.m. and for dinner from an early 5p.m. until 9p.m. Oregano closes on Monday, except during December.

And here are a few other highly recommended alternatives, but only one -Taste from Heaven – offers food at the same price level or less, though none is expensive (depending with the non Thai venues on choice and drinks, of course). You will find reviews of these (and Oregano) on the Chiang Mai Mail web site and elsewhere, with full details of location and prices.

In alphabetical order the half dozen places are: Gianni di Burchio (Italian), Krit’s Nimmen Kitchen (Thai), Rico de Rica (Japanese), Taste from Heaven (Vegetarian/Thai), La Terrasse (French), Wanlamun (Thai). And for fancier dining let’s not forget Moxie (Fusion) at the D2 Hotel and for a ‘fun’ evening Chez Marco (Mediterranean).


Boiled Mussels

This dish is practically universal, anywhere that seafood can be found. This version is a spicy Thai recipe, but if you want more spice then substitute small red chillies for the larger green ones!

Ingredients                         Serves4
Fresh mussels                                  4 kg
Lemon zest (chopped fine) From one lemon
Salt                                            2 tbspns
Green chillies (coarsely chopped)            6
Shallots (coarsely chopped)                    6
Lemon juice                                 5 tbspns

Cooking Method

Rinse the mussels under running water and remove any that are already open.

In a large deep pot with a lid, bring 300 ml of water to the boil and add one tablespoon of salt. Put half the mussels in the pot and sprinkle half of the lemon zest, half the chillies and half the shallots.

Now add the remainder of the mussels and sprinkle with the lemon zest, chillies and shallots and follow that with the lemon juice and the second tablespoon of salt.

Cover the pot with the lid, turn up the heat and bring to the boil again. Shake the pot while coming up to temperature, but be careful not to burn yourself.

Take the pot off the stove and bring out all the opened mussels and place in four pre-warmed plates and serve.