To enter Pali Thai, you must first go to Pali Bhavan.
When we stepped in, the maitre d' at the entrance waved in the general direction of the wall on the right. The title of artist Marina Abramovic's memoir came to mind – until someone noticed our puzzled faces and pointed to a barely noticeable darkly lit narrow curtained archway. Pali Thai is not a speakeasy, but it has the same sense of being let into a secret.
And such a delicious secret it is. The downstairs room of this Ashiesh Shah-designed restaurant is dark and beautiful, pools of light and moody palm leaf shadows on the walls and ceiling. Pendant lamps said to be inspired by ngob, or Thai farmers' palm leaf and bamboo hats, sway gently, making the rattan and thread-work mat under the tables gleam. If you're on a date, or want to Instagram your meal – you should! – choose your lighting, and sit here. It's also easier to walk over to the bar and watch the bartender stir a Fook It (gin, muddled fennel root, Thai pomelo, grapefruit, fennel sprig, and exactly two deeply savoury roasted and brined pink peppercorns) and drop a golfball of ice into it. Try not to inhale the fragrant drink nose first; make sure to savour the pepper when you bite into it.
The pomelo salad has a dressing that is so bright and tingly, the server provides a caveat.
Pali Thai's upstairs is more relaxed, less sexy. Shiny forest green velvet sofas offset pink ones, a shallow pitch roof frame is draped with cloth. We chose downstairs; better to photograph our miang kham, literally “one bite leaf wrap”. On four chaphlu (known as wild betel leaves in English, even though chaphlu is unrelated to the betel plant), are little jewelled piles of julienned toasted coconut, roasted peanuts, chopped onion, a quarter of unpeeled green lime, and bits of bird eye chilli. Each is, in a bite, what defines Thai food and makes it delicious – complexity, intensity, and balance in its five flavours, in texture and in taste.
Pali Thai has a one-page menu that does not make choices easy. We want to order all the appetisers. With saku sai hed, which translates to “shiitake stuffed sago”, and yom som-oh je or “pomelo salad vegetarian” (also available with prawn and chicken) we also realise that the Thai simplify the names of their dishes, leaving you unprepared for what are, frankly, flavour fireworks.
Watch the bartender stir a Fook It (gin, muddled fennel root, Thai pomelo, grapefruit, fennel sprig, and exactly two deeply savoury roasted and brined pink peppercorns) and drop a golfball of ice into it. Try not to inhale the fragrant drink nose first; make sure to savour the pepper when you bite into it.
The chilli sauce that accompanies the glistening jade sago balls is redundant; there is enough crunch and tang in their filling of fungus and pickled turnip, and the covering has the firm addictive stickiness of Japanese mochi. The pomelo salad has a dressing that is so bright and tingly, the server provides a caveat. We had to set aside our drinks to concentrate. There are plenty of restaurants serving Thai food in the city, but what makes Pali Thai worthy of re-visits is its menu edit of little-known dishes and polished classics.
The night we visit, the owner (of Pali Bhavan, and Pali Village Cafe as well) Mishali Sanghani is working the room in a black apron. She comes by with a few recommendations, and is keen on feedback. When we ask, she says that while a partnership was considered for a while, her friend and actress Jaqueline Fernandes does not co-own Pali Thai. She also says that every ingredient – fruit, vegetable, herb or spice – has been imported from Thailand. As have been two chefs. While Mishali is in the room, the appetisers come out at express speed, but when she steps out for a while, we need to wave our arms about for attention.
The menu also makes us want to call for all the mains, and then, when the first dish arrives, we don't want to. Our very pale green curry, bejewelled with chunks of delicious roasted golden beetroot, turns out to be a (palm) sugar rush. As excited as we are to find that it has the head-filling aroma of a kaeng khiao wan, and none of the typical sappy pea-green saturation found in the city's curries, we can't help but think that frozen, it would make a decent ice cream, it's that sweet.
On paper, the tom yum fettuccine sounds great. What's not to love about springy pasta lightly coated with soup paste à la aglio e olio studded with prawns? It turns out to be a dish of soupy, spicy-sour noodles in a creamy coconut milk sauce. Mishali notices that we're unhappy, has a taste of each main from our bowls, concurs, speaks with the chef, and we later realise, takes them off our tab.
Perhaps to make up to the excessive syrupy-ness in the mains, Mishali recommends the vegan durian dessert. This custardy sweet fruit is said to taste of almonds, butter, cream cheese, and sherry. But it's also known for its formidable odour – described variously as old wet socks, halitosis, rotten onions, garlic breath, decay, sulphur – and therefore, for being prohibited on the Singapore Rapid Mass Transit.
Still, like durian once, and it's impossible to dislike it again. At Pali Thai, freeze dried shards of flaky fruit sit atop a cloud of coconut cream which has been blended with fresh durian flesh. It's a dessert that's deeply Thai, and enough to make durian devotees walk through walls.
Getting there: Pali Thai, entrance via Pali Bhavan, 10 Adarsh Nagar, next to Costa Coffee, Pali Naka, Pali Hill, Bandra West; Call 26519400 / 9200. Open for lunch and dinner, from noon to 3pm, 8pm to 1am.
Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in NYC, lives in Mumbai and writes mostly about food and travel for many a publication. She’s a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, and her words have also been found in Conde Nast Traveller, Mint Lounge, Scroll.in, The Hindu, Saveur, The Guardian, and Travel + Leisure, among others. She's crazy about obscure ingredients, and she always knows where to go back for seconds. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at @roshnibajaj.
bpb reviews anonymously and pays for its own meals.
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