Dinner At the Issan
Thai Food - Done Tapas Style!
The Grand Hyatt's Issan Restaurant
I've been to lots of restaurants in Qatar. Many of them have been excellent. Yet at the same time, and especially at the top of the range, they have all been a bit the same, usually serving a buffet of lebanese dishes and barbequed meats, often delicious, but often also not so different from the last place you might have visited. Sometimes, one feels, the restaurants are almost nervous about taking a risk by doing something different.
One place which has dared to be different is the Issan, named after the North Eastern part of Thailand and specialised in Issan cooking. At the restaurant they have taken Thai food and added a new twist to it - Tapas style. For people like us who love Thai food, this is perfect, and enables the guest to try a real range of Thai delicacies instead of agonising over which one will become the one dish of your meal. Increasing the variety further still, the dishes are set in the middle of the table, allowing guests to share dishes.
Kitchens and Cooking
The restaurant itself is situated around three immaculate open kitchens. Each kitchen is dedicated to a different style of cooking. The first we saw was the frying section, where food was being thrown round woks at great speed, throwing up large plumes of flame.
Next was the grill, where lobsters lay waiting in ice, and finally the clay pot section, where curries were cooking in the old traditional Thai style: very slowly, to allow the full flavour to be brought out of the ingredients used. All of the cooks - and most of the waiters - were Thai.
As we entered the restaurant we were greeted with the traditional Thai Wai and some lemon grass tea - the tea was filled up throughout the meal.
We also tried the restaurant's signature drink, the Issan Martini, a delicious mixture of vodka and lycee juice. I was also intrigued by the thai whisky with lemon grass and thai basil, although I was a little disappointed when, at the end of the meal, I tasted it - it did not have the strong harsh taste of Thai whisky that I was expecting.
Although there was an extensive wine list (the more expensive option), we chose to wash most of the meal down with Chang (elephant) beer, which, for me at least, goes better with Thai food.
For a starter we were brought a dish of Nua Dat Didw: sun dried beef which had been deep fried. I expected this to to have a very strong flavor, but instead it was light, a tiny bit sweet - and very delicious. This wetted our appetite while we poured over the menu.
Although, in true tapas style, we had a variety of dishes, we had some clear favourites. One was plaa taley, or baby squid, which was incredibly tender. I also adored the kaeng phad ped yang, a roast duck curry which avoids the heavy flavour you get with some duck dishes, and Issan's signature dish, pla yang bai tang, grouper cooked in banana leaves with herbs and scallions, and served with four different sauces which included chilli and fish sauce, a chili and soy bean paste dip, roasted chili paste and leak and ginger (the non-spicy option!)
All the dishes can be cooked to the guests' taste, whether it be hot, medium or mild, although we were advised that to fully appreciate the flavours of the food we should go for either medium or hot. Fortunately, this was medium spicy as Westerners know it, and not Thais - anyone who has been to Thailand will understand!
We had been advised to have three dishes each, but in fact the portions are deceptively filling, and tragically we were unable to finish our meal! I personally blame it on the rice refills, as throughout the meal a watchful waiter circulated with rice cooked in jasmine wrapped in a large banana leaf, topping up any empty plates.
We did succumb to an offer of a light sweet and fruit, and at our hosts' suggestion we had tap tim krab: thinly sliced water chestnuts soaked in a sugary syrup until turned red - soft outside, crunchy inside - and then served with crushed ice and coconut milk. Perfect after a large meal.
This was accompanied by fruit, including my favourite: mangostein, a small red fruit with sweet white inner core that melts away in your mouth. You can get this elsewhere in Qatar, but they are nearly always rotten inside - these were a perfect white and had, our hosts told us, been brought directly from Thailand, along with most of the other ingredients used.
The service was great, the staff were delightful and the food was fantastic. There was only one problem with the restaurant. Spicy food makes your nose run, but there was nothing so common as tissue paper on the immaculate tables...
Individual dishes cost between 30 to 60 riyals - not bad for a restaurant at a five star hotel, although remember that you will need two or three dishes each. Expect to pay a lot more if you have wine. Service charges were included in the displayed price.
All You Can Eat:
On Fridays only the restaurant makes a concession to Qatar's buffet culture with an all you can eat lunch - although unlike a buffet you order from your tables. The meal costs QAR 250 with non-alcoholic drinks or QAR390 with alcohol (whisky not included).
Location: The Grand Hyatt, West Bay Lagoon, PO Box 24010, Doha Qatar