Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Monday, July 2, 2012

‘Tasty, Delicious & Authentic Thai Cuisine at Busaba Restaurant – IWFS 26th June 2012’

Chili. That little pepper of infinite variety and flexibility whose sole purpose is to inflame the mouth and fire the senses. Loved and adored by the global millions, revered by scientific doctors as a cancer preventative anti-oxidant, in many ways chili is truly the spice of life.  

Especially in Malaysia. One gets used to the near hysterical and apoplectic shrieking of "Oi! Chili where got ah?" shouted at a high decibel level when the chili is absent from the coffee shop table. As a result it always gets quickly brought, more often than not by a young smiling man of Myanmar origins who will normally get thanked with a curse for the stupidity of such an heretical omission. 

Notwithstanding twenty plus years in Malaysia, and despite the exhortations of well meaning yet incredulous friends, chili has not become part of my daily diet. As a sparing and occasional enhancer, it lends a nice gentle heat to chicken and prawn. More than this and I find its mouth numbing quality reduces the tasting abilities to zero. My first and only encounter with the chili remains etched on my tongue and the memory even now is making me break out in a heat flash (though this could be early onset menopause). Consequently, I found it easy to resist the allure of the siren pepper, hence my preference for a dish that is milder than an old school British vicar. Small amounts which showcase the chili as spice rather than fire are acceptable. A sprinke rather than a liberal dump so that wine can remain tasteable. The only sensible thing to do when a fierce chili storm strikes is to douse the mouth with copious amounts of ice cold beer (a la Mexico and the USA) or coconut milk as they do in Thailand. Not for nothing do the wine writers of the world generally feel that the grape is perhaps not the best accompaniment for chili based dishes.

Not that that stops our intrepid IWFS Committee from trying. Whilst the initial email notice for the dinner noted that wine pairing with Thai style food was not easy, it was felt that the selected wines would do a good job. They did indeed look good matches. Equally, the restaurant ambience sounded interesting -  Busaba in the Thai language means ‘Flower’ and that the restaurant owners sought to conceptualise their restaurant as "a graceful haven where authentic Thai delicacies and courteous, attentive service reign supreme amidst a luxuriously understated setting." Promising enough. At under two hundred ringgit. Done deal. Authentic delicacies should mean not so much fire in the food. Should. 

Arriving at the restaurant in Bangsar Shopping Centre was pleasant enough (though the leaving experience was a bit harsh - eight ringgit for parking is going to be a future deterrent). Subdued and dimly lit with lots of bamboo and a baby grand piano dominating the main dining area. The Nearest and Dearest wondered whether any of the members were going to play. Visions of  debauched singalongs of off key pub songs came to mind, though these ultimately did not materialise.  As IWFS members arrived with pleasant exchanges and new friends met and bonded with each other, all were greeted with a cheering glass of Argentinian Extra Brut Fizz from the Trapiche winery. It only struck me later that perhaps this was somewhat politically incorrect for our British contingent, given the current note of sourness existing between the two nations over the Falklands. But we are in Malaysia. And the fizz was a pleasant and not too sweet distraction. Nice crunch and fruit in the mouth, a good crisp and friendly throat slaker. Perhaps HMG can overlook this small exception. 

The Busaba owners had decided somewhere along the design decision line to park sofas against the wall and use these as seating for the diners. It is a feature I have seen in many of the Thai restaurants I have visited, though it is not one that I particularly like. Comfortable and plush as they may be, they do not always make for the most pleasant of dining experiences. One can sink so low in the sofa that eating is akin to sitting up and begging at the table. Thankfully, long thick bolster cushions were provided so a bit of resourceful placing meant that both one's back and rear were suitably supported and elevated.

IWFS President Dr Rajan called dinner to order and gave a delightfully brief talk about the upcoming wines. One got the sense that he was as thirsty as the rest of us. Sensible man. For some reason the Pomelo Salad and Prawns came out first as opposed to the stated Fishcake, but since the paired wine had just been poured into everyone's glasses it didn't seem to matter too much. The Terravin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2008 had been billed as a Bob Campbell 91 pointer. Mr Campbell is a Master of Wine and Wine Educator of New Zealand origin. Some wag found this to be somewhat amusing since he thought that the man only made soup. Indeed. Mr Campbell's note said the Terravin was an "Intense sauvignon Blanc with attractive pure tropical fruit and red capsicum flavours together with a slight mineral influence. Further complexity has been achieved with a subtle bready yeast lees influence. Powerful wine with character and class". The wine was indeed a belter. On its own it was full bodied and nicely balanced, and with that sleek smoothness that a bit of age does to a good SB. Not at all grassy or overdone with the lemon limes we tend to get in the supermarket offerings. However, it was with the food that it came into its own. The prawns and pomelo brought out a delightful rose petal aftertaste. But for some reason it exploded with the Thai sauce that paired with the fishcake. The chili and lemongrass sauce brought such a multitude of tastes and sensations in the mouth. My note says "rocket fuel" but in a nice way - taking the tongue and the throat to the great beyond. Gently structured, the Terravin kept its freshness and elegance long in the glass, though the consensus was that it didn't have much longer in the bottle and we were enjoying it at its peak. A great food wine and the total star of the night. 

Food-wise, the pairing of prawn and pomelo lent texture to each other and the prawn was large and succulent yet firm. It had that bite and resistance that gives the mouth a good satisfying chew. I would return to Busaba for these. The fishcake was firm and tasty enough, though a bit non descript (as I do find most Thai fishcake to be). There didn't seem to really be anything from the pairing with the Trapiche, mostly because there wasn't much in the Fishcake to pair with and the Trapiche was close to guzzled. Experimenter that I am though, I tried the pomelo with the Fizz before it totally vanished and the combo lent a somewhat crunchier finish to the wine. Yes. At least we now know.

The Tom Yam quickly followed with the Gewurtztraminer Trimbach 2010 having already been poured. I do like it when the wine is on the table before the food. The classic choice to pair with spicy Asian food, the Gewurtz was billed as "full, balanced and intensely aromatic… exhibits lots of perfume, classic lychee, rose, ginger and geranium aromas…  finishes clean and leaves the mouth refreshed." On its own, I got soft fruits with the lychee, some peach and apricot for some reason. Lovely balance, maybe a little thin in body, but a clean, crisp and slightly sweetish crunch on the back end. 

The Tom Yam had been heralded as the dish of the night, though trumpeted predominantly by friends whom I know to like some food with their chili. And indeed it was excellent - light fire and lemongrass with little oil covering excellently cooked prawns and mushrooms. The pairing was magnificent, with the spices igniting the wine's lychee and flowers in the mouth and robustly facing down the combative fire of the food. Someone later commented to me that they thought the prawn in the Tom Yam was "the dog's". I understand this to be a term of superlativity meaning totally excellent and comparatively peerless. It was difficult not to agree. 

It was around this time that I remarked upon a previously unnoticed yet thoroughly refreshing aspect of IWFS dinners - no one had taken a single photo of any of the food dishes. One gets a tad weary of being subject to flash phone cameras of dining companions snapping away at every dish that comes out of a restaurant kitchen. I have been subject to entire photo albums from friends who have been touring the globe containing nothing but photos of food dishes from their travels. I fail to see the fascination, yet goo and gape because they are friends and it makes them happy. Where the chef has artistic tendencies in a three star Michelin or similar, then maybe. But a lamb chop with potato and vegetables remains a lamb chop with potato and vegetables. Please. And thank you IWFS members for not flashing. Your phones, that is.

As always seems to happen, my notes got fuzzy around this time of an IWFS evening. Single word comments that meant everything at the table always lose a bit in the overnight cooling off. The word "dogs" seems to have been written quite a few times. And this got exacerbated by my Chili nightmares being realized and my tongue losing all sense of taste as a result of the highly peppered Stir Fried Slice Beef with Hot basil leaves. It tasted wonderful but it totallty burnt off the taste buds. The remains of the Gewurtz came to the rescue and served double duty as a fire extinguisher hosing down the flames. Individually the dishes were fine with the Green Curry Chicken and Stir fried Chicken with Cashew Nuts being most enjoyable. The Steamed Siakap felt a bit overcooked, and combined with the lime chili and garlic put me in mind of a Ceviche - marinated and textured. I have no memory of the vegetable. 

It seems the Clifford Bay Pinot Noir 2010 was darned good. Bob Campbell found it to be a ‘Delicately perfumed wine with gentle floral and cherry flavours… Soft-textured with subtle sweetness balanced by fruity acidity (with) lovely purity and a charming ethereal quality’. Maybe. I was pretty much breathing fire by this time and could have toasted a muffin at ten paces. Not the best of palates to pass comment on the pairing. Not that I wasn't enjoying the sensations - after a while, the mouth settled into a kind of pleasant after-burn and all the tastes of the mains coalesced into a sweetly crisp slightly fiery warmth. The sum was greater than the parts. Maybe cold beer would have been a good match for everything. At least it would have toned down the beef.

For some reason, the D’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2008 only came out as the mains plates were being cleared. Given the fire of the food, this was maybe no bad thing. The pepper and spice and full body of the wine would have chain reacted with the beef and probably blown a few members' heads off in the process. As it was, it necessarily got paired with Iced Water Chestnuts served with Coconut Milk and Jackfruit. This dessert was almost as good as the Gewurtz in damping down the internal flames, with the sweet coconut milk soothing the tongue and really helped in sufficiently neutralizing the palate to taste the Magpie. Dark as the bird itself in the glass, It felt big but not too big. Friendly enough, fullish body with good berry fruit and not too intimidating. The Viogner took out the leathery bramble that often marks a big Shiraz but kept the fruit and acidity visible. The notes say it will drink into 2020 and they are probably right. Whilst the balance is pleasant enough at present, there's a lot of time left in this one. Big fruit but not overblown and blowsy, this one should go well with a less peppered beef rib au jus or something similar. It became a good finisher for the evening, allowing people to mingle around the tables with a glass to cheer good health to all. 

At the end of the meal President Dr Rajan introduced the Maitre D' Mike and the chef Khamtuean Bunrat, who barely looked out of his teens. He just looked impossibly young to be creating the dishes that he did. In Asian cuisine terms, maybe one to watch. 

In sum, the food was a useful representation of good Thai cuisine and the combinations of fire and spice and sweetness that mark the style. Busaba has a pleasant ambience in lighting and mood terms. The service staff were most helpful and wonderfully pleasant throughout the evening. The wine pairings worked extremely well and the price point of RM180 for members was most agreeable though the RM8 for the parking could use attention. If hotels can discount parking, venues at the BSC should surely be able to negotiate with the owners. Dishes I'd go back for would be theTom Yam and the Green Chicken Curry, with the Prawn and Pomelo second. I would tone down the stir fried beef or have a crate of Singha beer on ice available. Note to self -  find out whether there's any more of the Terravin at the wine distributor and snag a few bottles for the next occasion at the Sage. Cheers!!

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