Several restrictions have recently been relaxed and although many hygiene, capacity and distance rules require strict adherence, this has enabled a small number of restaurants to prepare for reopening and some have taken the plunge to open, uppermost in their minds, the support of their loyal staff and to provide residents what they, like I, have missed.
I decided to reach out to a couple of my special venues to learn of their challenges as the island begins to open up. My first call is to Frank Grassmann and Mark Jones, respectively the General Manager and Executive Chef of the Nai Harn, Phuket.
As one would expect from this leading-edge pair, they propose Zoom as the medium for our call; not particularly technology savvy, I find it is surprisingly easy and we connect mid-morning.
Both are enjoying coffees in Rock Salt and Frank ‘thoughtfully’ rotates the screen so I may share their spectacular view of the beach, currently deserted as per regulations, and the ocean beyond. I am instantly envious and wish I had headed to Phuket pre-lockdown.
Frank begins, “Whilst we have recently opened Rock Salt, re-opening our hotel will take a little longer but we wanted our islanders to enjoy restaurant quality dishes in a change of environment from their homes.
“We re-opened the Nai Harn, once before, in late December of 2015, nearly five years ago having been closed for more than one year for refurbishment. So, having navigated that, we have experience, however kickstarting full operations will take some time as the challenges are definitely more unpredictable. We are of course excited and there is a feeling of anticipation across all our staff who are looking forward to getting back to work and delighting our guests.”
Mark adds, “Our department heads were super elated when we called them to help get Rock Salt ready for diners and for me, personally, whilst I did enjoy quality time with my family, it is a wonderful feeling to be back to work.”
Frank continues, “We have introduced stringent processes to ensure the dining environment is thoroughly disinfected both before seating and immediately on departure, whilst also operating a reduced capacity respectful of social distancing and all staff are wearing masks.”
Mark shares, ‘‘Certainly it has been difficult to get ingredients we take for granted, due to the current import ban, however the quality of local fish has improved, perhaps from being underfished these last few weeks. I am operating a reduced menu, with daily specials dependent on what is available, but have kept our signature dishes. We are still serving up our beach burger with truffle mayonnaise and in house cured pancetta and our renowned tuna tartare; AAA sashimi grade tuna with a classic tartare sauce and finished with a delicate dusting of smoked paprika.
“I have also introduced a couple of new dishes; a red snapper with chorizo and piperade, baked in a wood fire, the slow roasted piperade, a secret combination of capsicums and finished with Maldon sea salt.”
The other dish, Mark wryly smiling tells me is, “A vegetarian dish of Middle Eastern-style chickpea and lentil ragu with cumin, paprika, natural yogurt, chermoula, fresh mint and coriander.”
I end my call leaving them both to enjoy the rest of their day and a quite probably stellar lunch.
I next call Chef Jimmy Ophorst at PRU, Phuket’s only Michelin-starred restaurant located at uber luxe Trisara. Jimmy takes the call whilst he is at the restaurant’s own farm at Pru Jampa, located in a beautiful pocket of northeastern Phuket, where the sea air mingles with lakes, woods and rolling hillsides.
In 2015, Trisara’s chefs and gardeners converted the open space into a culinary garden, cultivating vegetables, herbs and flowers for use in their kitchens. Chef Jimmy has no definite date for opening, but is hopeful to be able to start in June.
In view of the high standards expected from this stellar restaurant, he has started planning not only the hygiene standards and capacity restrictions but also the introduction of new dishes to enhance and elevate the dining experience at PRU.
“This is an opportunity to both create and innovate, with a slightly restricted menu at a diner friendly price. Whilst all our ingredients are from Thailand, there is currently a little difficulty in obtaining several of our products. For example, fish we may have to change on a regular basis. I am at Pru Jampa today to review what we have and pick a few new ingredients to trial.
“Whilst tableside preparations will be reduced to prioritise the safety of our diners, I am using this opportunity to revisit our menus and introduce many new elements to ensure PRU remains at the leading edge of cuisine in Thailand. Our signature snacks which tell a story will see new additions including asparagus, I am also incorporating local pumpkin and mulberries in two new dishes and composing a new dessert which will continue our trademark vegetable theme with cauliflower. Our signatures of aged duck and our truly unique Thai beef will be reworked to further showcase world class Thai produce.
“We have also just taken delivery of new hand-made plates, specially made for us.”
It is clear that Chef Jimmy is looking forward to re-opening PRU to create ever more memorable experiences for his loyal diners seeking the ultimate dining experience in Phuket. He is certainly raising the bar even higher in his endeavours to not only maintain his current Michelin star but also, too humble to actually say it, to reach his aspiration for two.
I wish him a good day and whilst our hotels and restaurants in Phuket will face hopefully a not too long journey in returning to healthy levels of business, I assure you all, as soon as feasible, I will be on my way south to try out these new dishes on offer.
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 contributes a monthly restaurant column.