Lots of people come to Thailand with visions of extravagant seafood meals. And the country's seafood dishes are generally pretty tasty and satisfying. But having eaten a lot of these meals over the last decade, I have to admit that I've grown increasingly disillusioned. The low point probably came last summer, after I got back from my first visit to Barcelona, a place where I can honestly say that I really tasted seafood for the first time. After that trip, I finally began to realise what was wrong with much of the seafood in Thailand, specifically, the fact that it never tastes like much.
Much of Thailand's seafood is farmed and the emphasis tends to be on quantity over quality -- think huge but tasteless farm-raised prawns, the American chicken breast of seafood. To give the seafood dishes flavour, many Thai seafood restaurants compensate by serving dishes with heaps of lime juice and chili or bottled sauces. The inherent flavour of the seafood -- if indeed there was any -- never had a chance.
But occasionally one encounters a place in Thailand where the seafood is good and better yet, they treat it with respect.
Ruea Lae Le takes some effort to reach: it's located about 60km from Bangkok, nearly straddling the border between Phetchaburi and Samut Songkhram. And when you finally get there, it will most likely be something of a letdown: the current dining room is a wonky open-air raft, next door to which the new dining room -- a shockingly horrendous concrete 'boat' -- is being constructed:
Yet despite the questionable aesthetics, I can't say that I've been to a better seafood-based restaurant in the Bangkok area.
Returning to the restaurant for the second time, we again ordered the restaurant's simple but tasty hoy malaengphu op (หอยแมลงภู่อบ), mussels steamed with Thai herbs:
The medium-sized mussels are steamed in lidded pots with a bit of broth, galangal and lemongrass until just cooked. This leaves them tender, and with the relatively light seasoning (relatively speaking -- this is, after all, Thailand), actually tasting like mussels. (Alternatively, you can dip them in the restaurant's excellent spicy/tart Thai-style seafood dipping sauce -- I did, and this was tasty as well.)
Another re-run was kaeng khua pu bai chakhram (แกงค่ัวปูใบชะความ), a coconut milk curry with crab and chakhram, an aquatic vegetable associated with Samut Songkhram that Dylan told me is known in English as samphire:
Kaeng khua is a popular vehicle for seafood, but more often than not, it is as bland and insipid as the fish it's meant to carry. Ruea Lae Le's version has a wonderful balance of herbal spice and coconut creaminess, not to mention lots of fatty (literally -- there were chunks of bright red crab fat floating in the dish), meaty crab and crunchy samphire. An awesome dish.
Hoy siap phat chaa (หอยเสียบผัดฉ่า), briny little razor clams fried with Thai herbs (garlic, fresh peppercorns, chili, lime leaf) was one of my favourite dishes of the meal:
I'd been on the lookout for a good version of this simple dish for the last few months, yet had been let down several times. The version here is pretty much exactly what I'd been looking for: spicy, pleasantly oily, herbal and including good-quality shellfish, although I was a bit disappointed that it didn't include thin slivers of krachai (Chinese key).
The only dish I didn't care for on this visit was tom som pla duk thale (ต้มส้มปลาดุกทะเล), a soup with saltwater catfish:
The fish was tasty, but the broth, which is seasoned with slivers of young ginger and tamarind, was far too sweet for my taste.
If you're feeling cholesterol deficient, they also do a great pla muek phat khai khem, thick rings of squid fried with the yolk of salted duck eggs -- a dish encountered on my first visit.
As evidenced from the view from the Ruea Lae Le:
one of fish and shellfish farms extending to the horizon, the restaurant is no doubt using some farmed seafood. But the seafood here had flavour and was prepared in a way that allowed these tastes to come through. It's not quite Barcelona, but for Thailand, it's not that far off.
Ruea Lae Le Bang Tabun, Phetchaburi, Thailand 032 489 046 10am-9pm
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