Nightmarket, 120 Ranelagh, Dublin 6. (01) 5385200
I've never been to Thailand, but last week I did the next best thing and had dinner at Nightmarket in Ranelagh, a new restaurant that's located in what was formerly Eatery 120. The interior may be nothing to write home about (although some upgrading is in the pipeline) but the food certainly is.
My experience of Thai food in Ireland to date has been less than inspiring, and I have had a sense that most of what passes for Thai cuisine here is dumbed down for an Irish palate that is wary of spicing and chilli heat. I also reckon that there's far too much creamy, coconut-heavy saucing. As we take our seats, the couple at the next table are coming to the end of their meal. "That," says the woman, "is the best food I've ever eaten. It's incredible."
Given our collective lack of knowledge, and a long menu full of unfamiliar language, we decide to put the ordering in the hands of Conor Sexton, who, with his partner, Jutarat Suwankeeree ('R' for short), owns Nightmarket. He explains that Thai food is eaten sharing style, and that the perfect meal should combine at least three of the five elements of taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and spicy) and a harmonious balance of flavours. He enquires as to our appetite for chilli heat, and says that he will make sure that some of the dishes are not too fiery.
There's a selection of cocktails with a Thai twist developed by bartender Josko Babic. A Basil Smash features Dingle Gin, Thai basil, lemon, fish sauce and lychee, and is summery and sharp, while a Whiskey Sour - bourbon, single malt, tamarind, lime, betel bitters and anise - is smooth and complex.
First to the table is a bowl of proper prawn crackers, served with satay sauce and a sweet chilli dip that's a million miles away from the sticky gloop that we are used to.
What follows is a succession of dishes that has us struggling to come up with variations on the theme of "My God, that's good". Eventually we give up. Everything is fantastic. There's laab moo tod, crisp balls of pork laab (Lao meat salad) with red curry paste, chilli, peanuts, shallots, ginger, spring onion, fish sauce, lime juice, mint and rice - fried pork salad is how Conor Sexton describes it - and hoy shell yang, scallops with a chilli, coriander and lime sauce, served alongside a chilli and mango salad with peanut.
Miang kham are cha plu leaves topped with a finely chopped mélange of chilli, ginger, shallots, dried shrimp, lime, peanut, roast coconut and palm sugar in a dried shrimp sauce - you roll the leaf around the filling and pop it whole into your mouth. Kanom jeeb are steamed Thai dumplings of minced pork and prawn with crisp garlic and a dipping sauce of soy and vinegar; yum makeua yao, a grilled aubergine salad topped with a soft-boiled egg. A soft-shell crab salad is texturally gorgeous, and ping moo, gai, nuea - skewers of chicken, beef and pork - come with a punchy nahm jim sauce for dipping.
We're losing track now, as the dishes just keep coming, but there's a lamb massaman curry that's light on potato (unlike the bulked-up versions that we're used to getting from the takeaway chains) and pad thai woon sen goong noodles that's the mildest dish of the evening. Pad kaprao nuea is stir-fried minced beef topped with a fried egg ("The Thais love their eggs," says Conor), and there are a couple of vibrant mango salads of different degrees of chilli heat. We finish with a lychee cheesecake of surprising deliciousness, and khao niew mamuang - sticky rice with mango, crisp yellow bean and coconut cream.
The next day, I ask Conor to give me some background. "R is the main lady behind our kitchen," he emails. "She has a team of four Thai chefs and they have been working on sourcing as many original ingredients as possible so that they can re-create the wonderful punchy flavours of regional Thai food here in Ranelagh. We will be keeping dishes as original as possible, bringing back memories of trips to Thailand for people, and satisfying the appetite of the expanding Thai community in Dublin for authentic Thai food.
"Unless our customers request their dishes to be toned down a little (or a lot), we will be serving dishes with authentic Thai spice, though not all our dishes have chillies in them.
"R is originally from Thailand, and she has been in Ireland for over 16 years now. The food is based around the food with which R grew up, the wonderful rustic flavours of Chiang Mai, where her grandparents had a stall in the food market, combined with the spicy seafood influences of the coastal town of Hua Hin. We also have some Isan-style dishes which are popular with the expanding Thai population in Dublin - dishes which have plenty of spice from fiery chillies, fermented fish sauces, sour elements from Thai vegetables and herbs, and sauces full of flavour."
The bill for five, including three cocktails and two bottles of a Geil Pinot Blanc that complements the food nicely, comes to €248 before service. This is labour- intensive, delicious food, full of heat and flavour that I have no doubt is utterly authentic. I plan to return very soon.
8/10 value for money
ON A BUDGET
There will be an early-bird offer over the summer months, and the brunch menu features modestly priced dishes such as kai jiew goong sup, a three-egg omelette with minced prawn, greens and spring onion for €9.
ON A BLOW-OUT
Scallops, hor mok talay (a red seafood curry) and lychee cheesecake for two would cost €90 before drinks.
THE HIGH POINT
Vibrant flavours, a zingy freshness to the food, and free sinus-clearing thanks to all that chilli heat.
THE LOW POINT
The seating on tall chairs.