ThaiDay: Gourmandise in a grotto

Gourmandise in a grotto (ThaiDay, 30/03/06)
Enjoy upscale Chinese in a subterranean eatery at Siam Paragon.

Why is it that restaurants feel a need to intimidate us? Take for example the entranceway of the new Crystal Jade Restaurant in the basement of Siam Paragon. Perhaps its design is based on some ancient method of feng shui meant to deter less wealthy diners, but this dark, towering cavern doesn’t exactly say Come, dine with us! Meeting with some friends for the purpose of this review, we met in front of the restaurant at 5:00 on a Saturday afternoon, only to find the place seemingly closed. Given the day and time, we knew the restaurant had to be open, however, I was the only one who dared ventured down the intimidating, cave-like hallway. Wishing I had brought carabeeners and some rope, I plunged in and was eventually able to find somebody who told me that the restaurant didn’t open until 5:30, but that we were welcome to come inside.

My first experience with this Singaporean chain of restaurants was at the somewhat less frightening but preposterously named Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao at the Erawan Bangkok. At this informal restaurant, dough is slapped, twisted, pulled and stretched before one’s eyes into what must be some of the most delicious Chinese-style noodle dishes in Bangkok. The atmosphere here is bright and friendly, and to date it’s the only place in town where I’m willing to pay 150 baht for a bowl of noodles. The latest Crystal Jade enterprise specializes in Cantonese cuisine and is a more formal effort: lotsa glass, lotsa bottles of wine, and numerous tanks of semi-live seafood—no kitchen views or slaphappy doughboys here.

We cowered into the lofty but empty marble-and-glass dining room, and took our seats around an immense round table. Our waitress was from Singapore and couldn’t speak Thai, and when asked for her recommendations, did her best to steer us towards some of the pricier dishes (“Do you like lobster?”). I abstained, and dove directly into the interesting list of appetizers: The crispy eel (170 baht) lived up to its name on both fronts, and was coated with a dark sauce suggesting the brininess of soy sauce and the sweetness of tomatoes The smoked pig shank and jellyfish (180 baht) was a bewilderingly bizarre combination on paper that somehow worked well in reality, coupling chilled slices of stuffed pig’s trotter with chilled preserved strips of jellyfish. The crispy beancurd with pepper and salt (130 baht) was no more or less than the name suggests, but reminded me of how delicious simple ingredients can be when prepared the right way.

The crispy fried eel.

My dining companions chose the entrees, and the highlight of these was without a doubt the sautéed pork collar with XO sauce (285 baht). The Chinese rightly appreciate fatty cuts of meat, and the paper-thin slices of pork neck were flash fried with chunks of celery and just enough dried chili to rise above the XO sauce (a Chinese flavoring sauce—not the brandy) to make the dish stand out from the others.

The pork collar in XO sauce.

Similar in form but not in flavor was sautéed sliced beef with mixed mushrooms (220 baht). The beef was almost ridiculously melt-in-your-mouth tender, but the presence of gelatinous oyster sauce—also evident in some of the other dishes we had ordered—was tedious. Indeed, maybe it was our bad luck in ordering, but much of the food seemed to be of the sticky stir-fry, slimy soup variety that Chinese restaurants outside of China seem incapable of moving away from.

Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce.

Smartly avoiding the cornstarch altogether was the excellent steamed garoupa (100 baht/100g), which was just barely cooked, and served with a silky-smooth broth swimming with scallions and laced with hints of sesame oil. We also ordered a few soups, including the “Sichuan” hot and sour soup (120 baht) and the crab claw, bamboo fungus and vegetable soup (200 baht), both again, of the slightly slimy variety, the latter being of the extremely flavorless variety.

Due to the fact that there weren’t many diners, and perhaps realizing that I was doing a restaurant review, there were at least four service staff at our command at all times. This meant that, in the tradition of good Thai service, we were kept thoroughly watered. In the course of our one-hour meal, I consumed enough tea to put the Chinese National Mah Jongg Team to shame.

In the end, our meal certainly did not turn out to be the intimidating experience that we feared, but rather, somehow oddly familiar. The food was probably better than average, but seemed for the most part to be the same dishes we’ve all seen before, but in a sleeker package. Maybe it’s got something to do with the feng shui?

Crystal Jade Restaurant
Street Level, Siam Paragon
02 129 4343