Feb 20, 2019
NAKHON SI THAMMARAT faces the Gulf of Thailand, with its back to the hills, making the city militarily defensible, and bequeathing on the region a cuisine that blends seafood, wild animals and herbs. Put another way, says Supaksorn “Ice” Jongsiri, who comes from there: “It’s soldier food. A lot of rice, and small portions, and intense in flavor partly because it needed to be preserved with lots of salt or sugar to be carried for duty.”
It’s rare that an haute Thai eatery can get the society set in a tizzy, but Sorn Fine Southern Cuisine has been booked out months in advance, Noma-style, practically since it opened last June. Exactly no one was surprised when they, serving hyperlocal common-folk food from villages in 14 southern provinces, won a Michelin star just five months in. Executive chef Ice, head chef Yodkwan “Yod” U-Prumpruk who hails from Surat Thani, and their mostly southern-born team take diners on a spicy, smoky, layered tour through the country’s hottest region. Pop some deep-fried, garlic-and-chili-powdered Phuket sand crabs in your mouth and listen up, because the stories that accompany each dish are worth the price of admission.
“When I was young and my grandma made beef curry, she’d tell me to go to the Muslim village. Halal beef is really good,” Ice says. Sorn buys eight-year-old former milking cows from a Muslim community in Pattalung. “It’s not grass-fed or grain-fed. It’s whatever-they-had-fed. But when the cow is old its beef has more flavor and a soft texture with a milk taste left over. It’s very Thai, the breed is very mixed, but it sure tastes good, right?” Beyond right. The milk marinated strips grilled in a date-sweetened curry sauce make for the best meat-on-a-stick I’ve ever eaten.
This dish is, on my visit, the last of a parade of majority-seafood small plates (lobster claw and head with coconut cream, turmeric and lemongrass on a rice cracker, for example) that precedes a table-takeover of shared dishes—curries and soups and rich meats galore. It’s a pleasant process, moving from the omakase-like individual portions to an avalanche of a family-style feast. You get to ooh and ahh for a bit, then sit back, discuss the flavors, and admire the stunning renovation of this Edenic villa, where there are handcrafted dishware created for each course, clay pot stoves in the garden, and Art Deco light fixtures overhead.
It’s a far cry from the backstory of southern staple khua kling, which recurs on the menu. Soldiers packed fermented shrimp paste with them when they went to camp in the forest, Ice says, and stir-fried it with stinky beans they foraged from the woods. Last month the restaurant shut for 10 days (despite the waiting list) for its own foraging trip: the entire staff went south to source ingredients. “Everyone takes part in crafting the menu,” Ice says, “with me as a leader.” Or, should we say, general? instagram.com/sornfinesouthern; tasting menu Bt2,700.