Our food critic enjoys the spice at an authentic Thai restaurant with a winning wine list
I have a friend who chooses restaurants on the basis of their wine lists rather than their menus. It’s not that he’s not interested in food — far from it — but his logic goes that if he can see care and attention has gone into the wine offering, he can assume a similar level of thought has gone into both the sourcing of ingredients and the cooking.
It helps, perhaps, that he’s a wine merchant, and better equipped than many to make that assessment wherever in the world he happens to find himself.
I don’t know if my pal has ever eaten in Nightmarket, the Thai restaurant owned by Conor Sexton and his partner, Jutarat Suwankeeree (known as ‘R’), but I feel certain that if he were ever to cast his expert eye over its wine list, he’d be booking in, especially if he is fond of Riesling. The list devotes a full page to ‘The King of Grapes’, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an extensive selection anywhere in Ireland.
Riesling gets a bad rap (unfairly in my opinion) — a lingering legacy of the mega bottles of sickly German wine in mass circulation here back in the 1970s and 1980s. I have a fondness for it because it’s one of the first grapes I ever ‘got’, and I still remember how mind-blowing it was to sniff a glass and smell petrol fumes (attributable to a chemical compound called TDN which naturally occurs in some aged Rieslings) and finally understand what it was all about.
Anyway, Riesling is not a fashionable grape, although perhaps it’s so deeply unfashionable it’s perversely right on trend.
Dry or off-dry Riesling also happens to be a brilliant partner for Thai food, its minerality and acidity with subtle, almost imperceptible, notes of honey well able to stand up to the full-on herb and spice profile of Thai food. Sexton suggests the Keller Trocken Riesling 2020 from Rheinhessen (€52, and happily only 11.5pc ABV, without any trace of petrol), one of the top estates in Germany. (Wine writer Jancis Robinson describes Klaus-Peter Keller’s wines as the Montrachets of that country.)
R’s cooking focusses on the seafood dishes of Hua Hin, where she grew up, and the more rustic cuisine of Chiang Mai, where her grandparents had a food stall. The last time I ate here was back in 2017, the year it opened, and it was one of my favourite new restaurants of the year. Five years on and things are even better, with a more refined menu, an attractive new semi-outdoor dining area to the side and, on a Sunday evening, seated at the bar, a clutch of hospitality professionals tucking into food and cocktails — always a good sign.
We start with miang kham, cha plu leaves, four of them, each used as a wrap to enclose a filling of ginger, shallots, dried shrimps, roast peanut, roast coconut, lime and chilli, which you then dip into a piquant combination of fish sauce, palm sugar and dried shrimp sauce. The flavours set every one of our taste buds off nicely. Next, yum poo nim, a trio of crisp soft shell crab — menu kryptonite for me — served with a salad that’s a delicious tangle of mango, shallot, spring onion and coconut flakes dressed in fish sauce, palm sugar, tamarind, chilli and coconut milk.
Goong ob woon sen features good prawns with pork belly and glass noodles, with notes of ginger and black pepper, in a spicy nahm jim sauce. From the gentler end of the heat scale, a generous half portion of gaeng massaman made with slow-cooked lamb in coconut milk with potato and cashew nuts and topped with crisp shallots is rich and tender.
On the side, a som tum salad — spicy green papaya with dried shrimp, peanut, long bean, cherry tomato and chilli, lime — is all freshness and crunch, the kind of dish you could eat every day.
Throughout, and sometimes to excess, we experiment with prik nam pla, the four condiment glasses of chillis, fish sauce, citrus and aromatics, which are the Thai equivalent of our salt and pepper. The idea is that you personalise your food to your taste, allowing you to make it more sour, salty or spicy. Get the balance wrong and you’ll be reaching for the Riesling.
With a couple of spicy margaritas (€12 each, admittedly not very Thai but also quite delicious — the cocktails at Nightmarket are a joy), our bill comes to €149 before service.
With honourable exceptions, there’s a tendency for Thai restaurants in Ireland to play it safe — Nightmarket is one that doesn’t.
Tom yum goong followed by a vegetarian pad Thai will set you back €26.50.
A seafood-focussed three-course meal for two with sides could cost €100 before drinks or service.
Nightmarket, 120 Ranelagh, Dublin 6, nightmarket.ie