Lantern by Nu: Thai cooking without compromise

The re-emergence of chef Nu Suandokmai with his own Adelaide restaurant, Lantern by Nu, has been welcomed not only by those who fondly remember Nu Thai, but anyone who craves the sort of authentic cooking most commonly found in Thai street markets.

Aug 16, 2017, updated Aug 16, 2017
Thai restaurant Lantern by Nu. Photo: Tony Lewis

Thai restaurant Lantern by Nu. Photo: Tony Lewis

Nu will be the first to admit he’s no David Thompson, the acclaimed Sydney chef who became one of the world’s leading exponents of Thai cuisine, first with Darley Street Thai and Sailors Thai in the 1990s, followed by Nahm in London and Bangkok, and now with a series of Long Chim street-food restaurants in Perth, Sydney and Melbourne.

It may take a while for Nu to get his street food dishes at Lantern right up to Thompson’s extraordinary standard, but he deserves to be mentioned in the same context because after a veritable roundabout of restaurants, cooking multiple styles of food in several countries, he has gone right back to his roots ­– to the sort of cooking his mother taught him at the Suandokmai family farm at Ayutthaya, the former Siamese capital 80km north of Bangkok.

Next year will mark 30 years since Nu left Thailand, where apart from the daily experience of home farm cooking, his now-retired mother also ran a small restaurant in the capital.

He says his whole family grew up knowing how to cook – he has a brother who’s a chef in Bangkok, and a younger sister who runs a restaurant with her Chinese husband.

In Adelaide, his first job was at Star of Siam, the ever-popular Gouger Street restaurant that for many diners was their first experience of Thai-style cooking. It was the beginning of a long journey that has seen Nu in the kitchens of a raft of restaurants both in Adelaide and overseas.

Six years on he helped open the first Kwik Stix in O’Connell Street, starting an association with the Ventura restaurant family that would re-emerge years later. There was a stint at the Old Lion, and a longer association with Café Buongiorno, both at Norwood and West Lakes, where he began a close friendship with the Italian owners.

Chef Nu Suandokmai. Photo: Tony Lewis

From the start Nu had created quite an impression with his muscular physique, the result of a competitive kick-boxing career that started in Bangkok when he was 13 and went on to make him state champion in 1989. His earnings were saved and helped fund Nu Thai, which he opened with his wife Jane in 2000. (For the record, that physique remains – he’s given up competition but still trains.)

Although it lasted only four years, Nu Thai – a tiny 45-seat Gouger Street restaurant with an even tinier kitchen – was hot in all senses, packed most nights with customers daring themselves to take on dishes marked with three red chillies chalked on the wall menu.

For Nu and Jane it was an incredibly intense and tiring time. Then, in an extraordinary turn of events, the Italian celebrity chef and restaurateur Antonio Carluccio, who’d been wowed by Nu’s cooking in Adelaide, offered him a job in London; with his knowledge of Italian cooking, Nu was tempted.

He didn’t take it, but when an alternative position came along to open a new Thai restaurant at the Ritz Carlton in Bali, where former Adelaide Hyatt food and beverage manager David Wilson was now general manager, he accepted. That kept him busy for the next three years, including a year at the Jakarta InterContinental, owned by the same people who owned the Ritz Carlton property.

Nu’s style of cooking had to change to suit the more conservative nature of his customers, often well-to-do Japanese tourists who didn’t enjoy anything too spicy. It became “Nu’s-lite”.

By now he and Jane also had a young daughter, so a return to Australia, and Sydney, where Jane’s family now resided, was inevitable.

The roundabout rolled again. First, and probably most significantly, was a period cooking under star French-Canadian chef Serge Dansereau at The Bathers’ Pavilion, where he first met fellow chefs Peter Westfield and Paul Webster. Both left to cook with Nu in his own restaurant, Nu’s in Blues Point Road, McMahons Point, which he opened in 2006 after a brief stint cooking Thai food at Café Sydney.

Four years after it closed and in something of a coup for Nu, Westfield, whose wife is Thai, has followed him to Adelaide to be head chef at Lantern, bringing Webster with him.

Before then, however, Nu had two more cracks at getting back his street food credentials, first with Senyai in Sydney. He left there after seven months to return to Adelaide as the opening chef at Golden Boy, where his street food style of cooking instantly won great popularity, but moved on again after six months following a disagreement over business arrangements.

It set Golden Boy on a path that it continues to enjoy, with a kitchen that has regained its mojo sans Nu, but is now going to face some healthy competition.

It also set Nu on a path working with serial restaurateur Walter Ventura that included Gin Long Canteen, Cliché Exhibition and Fish Head, working as a consultant and occasional chef at many more restaurants such as Singapore House, Concubine – even Tony Tomato – and most recently cooking at Gouger Street’s Café Q. But we didn’t have to wait much longer for the real Nu to re-emerge.

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Lantern by Nu, tucked in a side street behind Matsuri Japanese restaurant, on the “wrong” side of Morphett Street, is not in what most would regard as a prime location, although that’s changing fast as the hospital, medical precinct, expanding university and new apartments add a new dynamic west of the CBD.

It was initially destined to be a Vietnamese restaurant called Lantern, a semi-industrial space based around an old cottage. The name issue was solved simply by adding “by Nu” to the nameplate, but inside the new open kitchen and internal fit-out reflect serious investment by business partner and serial café owner Neville Najar, who first met Nu when he worked at Kwik Stix and has remained a fan ever since.

First impressions confirm that Nu is living up to his promise to give his customers the real thing, free of compromise. According to Westfield: “Nu is not scared to put dishes on the menu that most (Thai) restaurants think won’t work.”

Boat noodle soup with accompaniments. Photo: Tony Lewis

You could do worse than stick to the “street bites” tapas-style menu, sitting at high tables flanked by the large open kitchen at one end and a bar at the other, with an icy Singha or Chang Lager to go with snacks such as miang khum, betel leaves with prawn, caramelised coconut, peanut and lime; sliced house-made northern Thai sausages with shards of ginger, fresh coriander and green chilli wrapped in cos lettuce; or shavings of raw kingfish with bitter melon, fresh garlic and a nam jim dipping sauce.

Larger dishes come under the headings of small, mid and big. Many of them – such as the pad Thai, barbecued chicken marinated in sweet chilli sauce and jungle curry – are generous enough to share among two or three. Careful ordering can result in a most economical meal.

The green papaya salad, som tum Thai, is pure street food – lots of chilli, fresh lime, palm sugar, snake beans and chunks of heirloom tomato; a dish with real zing. So is the pad Thai, a generous plate of fresh rice noodles packed with chicken, tofu, sprouts, tamarind and blended dried shrimp with dried chilli, crushed peanuts, fresh lime and banana flower on the side. No longer wrapped in an egg net as in the old Nu’s, but just as delicious and extraordinary value for money.

If you’ve travelled by train in Thailand, you’ll be familiar with moo ping, the marinated and barbecued pork skewers you’ll find at every train station, served here with a cane basket of sticky rice and another version of nam jim sauce with dried chilli.

Marinated and barbecued pork skewers. Photo: Tony Lewis

There’s a bit of restaurant theatre with jungle curry served in a clay pot kept warm over glowing charcoal, again a generous dish with a red curry base, lots of heat from strands of green peppercorn, with pickled wild ginger, cracked rice and currently with local whiting – in keeping with Nu’s aim to keep his ingredients as local as possible.

Boat noodle soup is more likely to be found on the specials board, but watch for it. This is probably Thailand’s most famous noodle soup, almost an institution and, again, as street food as it comes. It’s based on beef stock rendered down over two days, seasoned with star anise and cinnamon, containing pork balls, lots of beefy bits, thickened a little with pig’s blood, topped with crunchy pork crackling and served with a rather garish plastic holder of condiments – fish sauce, sugar, dried chilli, pickled chilli – to adjust the flavour to your taste.

So far so terrific, and there’s much more to be explored on this menu. Nu, as with places such as Golden Boy and Sukhumvit Soi 38, must be encouraged by their customers to go on providing us with Thai cooking without compromise. That way we won’t have to ask David Thompson to come to town.

Sliced raw kingfish with green chilli. Photo: Tony Lewis

Pad Thai. Photo: Tony Lewis

Green papaya salad. Photo: Tony Lewis

BBQ butterflied chicken. Photo: Tony Lewis

Lantern by Nu
10 Selby Street, Adelaide
|(08) 7078 3559
Open for brunch Saturday and Sunday, lunch and dinner Wednesday to Sunday.
Street bites two for $24, small dishes from $14, mid from $16, large from $24.

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