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Island chefs at the top of their game   by Chris Watson

  Layan and Nai Harn

December 2019

On my frequent visits to the island, one of the ever-present conversation topics is what new eateries have sprung up and next, which are worth a try? The island’s gourmets also ruminate over our burgeoning reputation as a culinary destination. But, is this reality or myth? Are chefs truly pushing the boundaries and creating offerings that set the island apart?

To address this quandary, I have arranged to meet two chefs who helm recently launched innovative restaurants. I plan to delve a little into how they conceptualise their signature dishes to maintain their leading-edge positions on the island.

I begin with a welcome morning coffee and croissant with Mark Jones, Executive Chef of the iconic, The Nai Harn. Mark joined the hotel in 2016 and has been a pioneer in evolving the hotel’s restaurants which include the beachfront, Rocksalt, Japanese Hansha, and the less publicised, but equally standout, Cosmo – which for an all-day dining restaurant offers us an insight into the painstaking research Mark undertakes in all his offerings; from the now legendary chicken sausage at breakfast, through to evening and the stellar Rangers Valley Black Market Wagyu Sirloin, marble score 6.

This penchant for great beef and chargrilling was one of the shared sparks which led to the recently launched Prime, a labour of love undertaken by both Mark and his effervescent General Manager, Frank Grassman. It is their flagship restaurant and I am keen to hear Mark’s philosophy behind his thoughtful and clever menu. “We began, wanting to create an experience restaurant, affording spectacular oceanfront views, as all our outlets do. We set our hearts on an exclusive, 14-seat eatery with an open kitchen containing a custom designed chargrill, where we would cook in front of the diner a variety of premium fish and meats.” Mark is exceptionally pleased with the end result and one of his personal favourites, his cold smoked native Hebridean salmon. “In my opinion it is unequalled on the island; it grows in cold and stormy waters which results in a robust, lean and firm flesh; this breed’s ancestral blood line stretches back a millenia. Our preparation is incredibly labour intensive and accompaniments, such as fresh root wasabi mayonnaise, truly accentuate. When I recommend it to diners, it never fails to impress!” Of course, at the heart of Prime is quality beef. But Mark surprises me by pointing out that, “In addition to premium steaks, we also love to showcase secondary cuts such as lesser seen flank. Our Stanbroke Diamantina, from a family owned farm, is grain fed for 400 days, resulting in an uber tender and flavourful cut, perfectly matched with duck fat cooked potatoes and chimichurri sauce.”

Mark adds, “Another uncommon cut is my short rib, pasture raised and aged for 120 days. Firstly, I marinate it in salt, brown sugar, smoked Spanish paprika, red capsicum flakes, star anise and a secret ingredient for four days and then it is cooked in sous vide for 48 hours at 61 degrees Celsius. It is then glazed with signature BBQ sauce and baked in our wood-fired oven, resulting in a crunchy caramelised bark on the outside and meat so tender it falls off the bone.”

In the high season, for the true meat aficionados, he also adds a unique 1kg+ 45-day dry-aged côte de boeuf which has been grain fed for 270 days. Whilst assigned a relatively low marble score of 3, Mark informs me that, “even Chefs tend to rate it around 6 or even 7!”

I look forward to ordering on my next visit, however for now must head north to The Pavilions, where I have a meeting with Chef Rey Arboleda, yet another passionate kitchen wizard! Arriving, I am escorted into an intimate salon – the venue for Rey’s recently launched Picasso Dessert Table, about which I will later solicit details. Rey joined The Pavilions as Culinary Director to implement an innovative new concept for the hotel’s signature restaurant, The Plantation Club, in addition to raising culinary standards across the resort.

I have read a great deal about Rey’s approach to modern Thai cooking but he informs me that contrary to certain reviews, “I am not reinventing Thai classics, but capturing the essence of the original recipes whilst elevating with modern techniques. A dish that exemplifies what I am truly about is my Pla Goong Mapraow Krut – chargrilled and smoked mantis prawns with freshly grated coconut. Using live local mantis prawns with their delicate flesh adds finesse and lifts the dish to an ethereal level.” Rey continues, “Or my Singhol Gai Curry, inspired by King Rama II’s travels to Sri Lanka, in which I have chosen to use a slow roasted free-range chicken. I sous vide the breast, then roast it off and this perfectly preserves the flavours and succulence of this organically fed Klong Phai Farm chicken.”

Rey, like Mark, loves to seek out secondary cuts such as pig cheek for his Kaeng Hang Ley – a Chiang Mai version with slow cooked Hua Hin Black Pork Cheek. Sourcing takes up a huge amount of Rey’s time to maintain quality and consistency, whilst pioneering local products such as scallops, frog legs and even goat.

This same attention to detail is extended to desserts, which include technical components such as nitro balloons, burnt mango, passion fruit curd and salted coconut gel. The pinnacle however is the Picasso Dessert Table rekindling memories of childhood flavours; chocolate cake, chilli, black sesame and peanut candy artfully assembled on tempered glass. Definitely worth advance booking!

Both Mark and Rey are chefs undoubtedly at the top of their game, delivering meticulously researched concepts with phenomenal attention to detail. Most of us would normally sit down for dinner and walk away without giving much thought to the time spent to deliver a super culinary experience, Perhaps on your next trip to Prime or The Plantation Club, pause for a moment and reflect on the many hours spent sourcing, combining and then perfecting these platters that we consume in rapid time and clearly relish.

We are indeed fortunate to have such dedicated talents on Phuket. Mark and Rey, thank you both. Long may these cogitative processes and delectable dishes continue!

  Photo gallery : Island chefs at the top of their game

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