Piquant food and exquisite cocktails are always a winning formula for my seasoned palate. So I´ve found myself being lured by promises of Penang curry washed down with Pisco Sours at Baan Asian Emphasis restaurant off Paseo de Recoletos on more than one occasion since it opened last year. Apparently, Baan means house which is somewhat misleading as this is definitely not your traditional spartan Thai abode but rather a very plush velvet dining experience complete with a cocktail bar upstairs and a DJ spinning discs as fast as you can say otro Mai Tai por favor.
The food however, is authentically Asian and guides your taste buds through an exotic gastro graze round Vietnam, Thailand with a pit stop in India, Korea, Japan and China. Whilst rice might be the recurring theme, the dishes themselves reflect large regional variations in the gastronomy of the Orient.
The former French rulers, succinctly summarised their colonies in the area as follows: “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, whilst the Laotians listen to it grow”. Personally, I found Laos to be the ultimate in laid back, as exemplified by their eponymously-named local currency: the Kip*.
We start with the Tiradito de Atún Rojo, which for me is the star dish. Shimmering slivers of tuna line up in rows under dollops of creamy white mounds of miso topped with emerald strands of kimchi and sprinklings of crispy sesame seeds.
My fellow guests insist on the Nem ran de pollo (Vietnamese rice paper rolls) so two over-sized fried batons arrive bursting at the seams with spiced chicken, Pyrenean blood pork sausage and skinny noodles, neatly camouflaged under a jungle of lettuce and mint. The dish is rustically presented inside-out as ordinarily the greenery would be tucked inside the wrapping. Our reedy bamboo chopsticks lacked steel reinforcements so we resort to our hands and make a very satisfying sticky mess of it all.
Baan´s executive chef, Víctor Camargo has been on my watchlist for a while now as I was a regular at his former fusion culinary residence: Sudestada. He´s even brought one of his succulent culinary renditions with him, and a personal favourite of mine: pork cheeks in vindaloo sauce.
It´s a well-known secret that the Brits have banished Roast Beef off the bestseller lists of their staple dishes in favour of Chicken Tikka Masala. However, what many people don´t know is that in 2002, British supermarket chain, Asda, provoked an outcry from the not insignificant local British Asian population when it launched its own mega spicy readymade version of this Goan dish and called it Findaloo. Needless to say the jocular reference to the secondary effects of the chillis resulted in the curry being hastily removed from the shelves.
Ironically, the origins of Vindaloo are much less spicy, as the dish was introduced to Goa by their Portuguese colonisers. The name derives from “vinha de alhos” and denotes the Portuguese practice of tenderising and preserving meat in wine vinegar and garlic. The Indians didn´t have vinegar so the resourceful Portuguese set about making some from coconut toddy. Baan´s version is an unctuous spicy sour sauce; the perfect foil to the natural fattiness of the pork cheeks. It is very much a triumphant marriage between Iberia and the Sub-Continent.
The rest of the main dishes follow in the same vein of pan Euro-Asian cooking with marked aplomb and originality. Baked octopus is added to staples such as Pad Thai and Amontillado sherry mousse and dill-doused potatoes partner up with wasabi roast beef. Maybe that gutsy version of the bovine dish will reinstate the Holy Cow to its former glory in the British popularity stakes in time for the Queen´s Platinum Jubilee on June 5th.
As for pudding, mine is almost always a Pisco Sour or three but if you´re looking for more solid refreshment Baan do a mean Lychee “Slush Puppy” with baked banana and cassis ice cream.
*To kip = to take a nap