Arriving at the hotel, on requesting directions to the hotel’s signature Thai restaurant, I am accompanied to a quaint vintage funicular tram station for the short journey down to the beach. This blast from the past certainly heightens my anticipation and for those couples who are wishing for a memorable start to a romantic evening, this would indeed fit the bill.
On reaching sea level, one takes a brief stroll along a lantern-lit pathway parallel to the white sandy beach shoreline to reach the Sino-Portuguese former residence that is Panwa House. The restaurant has an even more historic beginning than the hotel, having been built for a rich coconut plantation owner almost 100 years ago and then sympathetically extended to its current state.
On arrival, I am greeted by the Restaurant Manager, Khun Somjit, who began his career at Panwa House as a waiter 19 years ago. Having warmly welcomed me, he guides me on a tour of the white-painted, two-storied, tiled-floored, ocean-green-shuttered house; it is truly spectacular and immaculately maintained.
On entering within, one is transported back to a bygone era, ascending the feature staircase which dominates the lobby. The rooms upstairs are simply furnished yet oozing character. The downstairs consists of a quaint dining room for use during inclement weather and a lounge with comfortable arm chairs.
As Khun Somjit introduces me to Chef Jurai, I can literally hear the sound of the waves lapping on the sand. Chef Jurai has been at Panwa House for 15 years and as we three discuss recommended dishes for the evening, while both are competing for the award for the longest-serving employee, it is clear that they both share a love for the restaurant.
The menus consist of an extensive à la carte alongside two, value for money, fixed price (B1,400++) set menus showcasing either Bangkok cuisine or Southern specialties. I plumb for the latter with the addition of a couple of highly recommended restaurant signature dishes.
As I await my appetizers, I take a moment to reflect on the surroundings. What a location! I have chosen to sit on the covered terrace that surrounds the main house with a direct view onto a spacious terrace for dining under the stars and looking beyond, out to sea. This would be a fabulous venue for that special wedding day or equally suitable for a corporate team-building event. I muse that the delegates would be hyper-motivated after a few days of bonding on the beach. The table settings are rustic with rattan chairs that perfectly blend with the theme.
I begin with the Southern Platter, which is tastefully presented on a simple rattan and wicker tray, showcasing the colourful array of dishes to full effect. My first mouthful of sour soup with fish and young coconut shoots explodes with flavour, tender fish in perfectly balanced spicy soup with young coconut shoots with a slight crunch to add texture.
Alongside this is a traditional stir-fried crab with yellow curry powder, another must try. Rich and creamy yellow curry with a hint of chilli and an abundance of fresh local crab meat, succulent and flavourful. I also enjoyed the local special of smoked shrimps with spicy shrimp paste.
The platter is a superb way to experience a selection of popular regional dishes without feeling that you have overeaten; though portions are generous.
Following the platter, Khun Somjit brings me a dish of fresh local rock lobster; two perfectly cooked tender-fleshed crustaceans coated in a sweet and sour chilli sauce. The flesh is delicate and tasty. Another recommendation if dining with friends, is the whole sea bass, expertly filleted with a piquant sauce of galangal and chilli. So moreish.
I am persuaded by Khun Somjit that to leave Panwa House without trying dessert would be a mistake and as such, the evening is rounded off from a truly lengthy number of tempting choices with traditional dumplings in coconut cream and home-made coconut ice cream with accompaniments.
Both desserts are definitely worthwhile trying – however, the coconut ice cream is an achievement; light yet creamy and crunchy served with nuts, fruit and sticky rice. World class!
As I make my way along the beach for the return tram journey, and bid farewell to both Chef Jurai, Khun Somjit and their teams, I consider my evening; a unique venue in a stunning location and with their shared passion for this restaurant, I am confident they will be at Panwa House caring for diners for a further 20 years.
Truly a memorable evening.
Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia has now settled in Thailand and will contribute a monthly restaurant column.