Standing in a half-furnished dining room, David Thompson picks up a thick catalogue and points to a set of plates he plans to order. They’re made of white ceramic, smooth and even for the most part, except around the edges, which has a rough, unpolished aesthetic. “That’s Aaharn,” he says. Thompson is referring to his newest restaurant, which sits in the historic Armoury building at Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts. It’s the first project in Hong Kong for the chef, who runs the casual Thai food concept Long Chim in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Singapore. It’s also Thompson’s first opening since announcing his departure from Nahm, the brand he launched in London and then in Bangkok, the latter of which was awarded the top spot on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list in 2014.
Having studied English literature in school, Thompson rarely describes anything with a single word. To him, a dish isn’t just flavourful, it’s ‘immediate’ and ‘fresh’ and ‘zesty’ and ‘herbaceous’. His effusiveness perhaps explains his interest in Thai cuisine, which often ripples with so many layers, it can be difficult to pin down with any one adjective.
Born and raised in Sydney, the Australian chef arrived in Bangkok ‘by accident’, as he likes to say, in 1988 and ended up staying and calling it home. He’s fluent in the language, as he demonstrates effortlessly in the kitchen while speaking with his staff and, perhaps more impressively, as he translates the words of an old red curry recipe that dates back to the 1890s. Scanned and saved on his silver Macbook, the recipe is a page from one of the many cookbooks Thompson’s amassed over the course of three decades spent studying Thai cuisine. “These books give me an understanding I would otherwise not have because, well,” he says with a knowing smile, “my mother ain’t Thai.”
Thompson’s restaurant, Aaharn, overlooks the Parade Ground at Tai Kwun
His scholarly research into traditional Thai cuisine will be on full display at Aaharn, which will serve a ‘Thai meal proper’ with soups, salads, curries and relishes with rice. And while Nahm occupied the upper – and pricier – echelons of the dining experience and Long Chim kept things casual with street eats, Aaharn sits on the balanced plain somewhere in between. To illustrate his point, Thompson throws together a simple salad of cured fish punctuated with lime and lemongrass, salt and shallots (see video below for recipe). It’s prepped and plated in less than 15 minutes, but packs pops of flavour that linger for much longer.
“It’s food that still has that pedigree and correctness [of Nahm] without being weighed down by complicated presentation or arcane ingredients,” Thompson says of Aaharn’s menu, adding that the focus here is to streamline and simplify. Despite hinting at a new restaurant in Bangkok, Thompson says he plans to be in Hong Kong often to manage Aaharn. After all, keeping things simple isn’t always easy.