Notes from Portland, Take Two
September 25, 2014
A secret space, hidden behind a door disguised as a bookcase. Could anything be more appealing? Longbaan literally means, "back of the house," and that's exactly where this restaurant is, hidden behind PaaDee, a restaurant specializing in Thai street food. It's a small, spare space – a few tables , a counter, two chefs working intently, barely looking up.
Owner Akkapong Earl Nimson and Rassamee Ruaysuntia seem to be in a kind of wordless trance, working together, silently tasting the balance of flavors, plating each intricate dish. They handed the first plate of their tasting menu across the table – miang som (above) – and it took me right back to Thailand. This is Thai food as I have not experienced it in any other restaurant in America.
We tend to think of the food of Thailand as hot, and chiles certainly have their place in the Thai kitchen. But this reminded me that my first impression of Thailand was herbs, dozens of them, dancing through the dishes, cutting through the flavors. And here it was again, one intense little bite: shrimp, chiles, orange, lime, roasted coconut, but hovering above it all was the forceful flavor of the betel leaf it was wrapped in, along with little jolts of cilantro, of ginger, of shallot.
The next bite is like the yin to the yang of the miang som, tender rice noodles wrapped around a a sweet filling of coconut, shrimp, radish, peanuts chiles. Irresistible, and once again, the dominant note is herbal.
A couple of oysters, laid on rock salt, with a chile jam, shallots, a few herbal little leaves.
After the complexity of the first few bites, the clarity of beef and oxtail broth, the flavors clean and fresh. Ringing through it all is the green taste of the herbs.
Tuna in a complex configuration of figs, chanterelles, zucchini and garlic tossed with a sauce tasting strongly of grilled cherry tomatoes. But it is the mint that pulls this all together, marrying the flavors.
Ora king salmon, with such varied flavors it is impossible to keep track. Pomegranate, finger lime, salmon roe, torch-crisped peanut candy. Again, the herbs – shallots, dill, Chinese celery, lemongrass, basil, dill- rush through the dish sounding their high triumphant notes.
After these complex dishes, there's a short respite, an easygoing bite of sweet, garlicky fried chicken.
And finally a curry: mussels, scallop, hearts of palm, dates. And more herbs: basil, betel leaves and on the side, the clarion freshness of cucumber relish.
There were desserts too – a soybean panna cotta in ginger broth, followed by a little "cupcake" of concentrated coconut. Spooning up the last of that, the woman at the table behind me sighed. "I lived in Thailand for two years," she said, "and I haven't had anything like this since I left there."
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Worth a trip to Portland, it seems. I’ll never forget my first meal in Thailand: so many unfamiliar flavors and yet beyond delicious. Sure wish I could learn to do this at home. But there is lots here to inspire.
–Lynn at Southern Fried French
Dear Ruth, I followed you in Gourmet for years. When Gourmet passed away, I so missed you and your food brillance. Now in San Antonio and a food lover, I feel almost a lone bird. We hope to tast great food again soon!
I will be in Portland, Oregon in May with my foodie husband, who is from Oregon, and my daughter and her husband, who too have traveled the word and tasted a great deal, including Thai food! In determining restaurants, your critique of Langbaan touched my food soul. I want to eat there.
Thanks for being you! Perhaps our paths will one day cross.
Kindest of regards,