KUALA LUMPUR, March 12 — Thai restaurants are a dime a dozen these days, be it in shopping malls or in small neighbourhoods next to your family clinic or supermarket. There are very few remarkable ones, and those tend to be packed to the gills with regulars.
So it is a lovely surprise to stumble upon a relatively new Thai eatery in my own taman. Opened late last year, Riverboat is run by Malaysian Louis Tay and his Thai wife Prinyanut.
The sparsely furnished family restaurant serves Thai fare meant to be enjoyed as comfort food rather than fine dining. Its name refers to the river boats along Bangkok’s canals that serve small bowls of noodles in dark, spiced broth. Riverboat pays homage to the dish’s history with a wooden boat “moored” near the front of the shop.
However, the highlight of the Riverboat menu has to be their unbelievably moist and aromatic Pla Pao or Grilled Salt-Crusted Tilapia with Lemongrass. Make sure you order this first as the fish takes about 30-40 minutes to cook over a charcoal fire.
While waiting for the fish, snack on some Khaep Mu or crispy pork rind while you wait. A northern speciality from Chiang Mai, this snack is addictive. Eat it on its own or as an accompaniment to Som Tum Thai, the ever-popular green papaya salad. Riverboat’s version is crunchy, tangy, and fiery hot. Be sure to tell them to tone down the spiciness if you’re not used to the heat.
Another tongue-scorcher is their Tom Yum Goong, redolent with fresh lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, and the ubiquitous fish sauce. The deep-red soup comes with either pork and chicken, seafood, or a mix of both.
For something less spicy but still packing some heat, try their Lab Moo or spicy minced pork salad, which is served with some refreshing long beans and cucumber slices on the side. Steamed rice is advised to mop up all the tasty juices.
Then, there are the boat noodles. Riverboat offers two versions — either “soft meat” (i.e. braised meat) or “fresh meat” (sliced seasoned meat) — and you can opt for either pork or beef. Given the traditionally small portions, why not try them all? Repeat till you have a tower of empty “boat dishes” or simply ask for one large bowl to save yourself the effort.
Other signature dishes include Riverboat’s Clams in Thai Sauce. 'Live' clams are fished out of the aquarium and cooked to order with the house specialty Thai sauce, which is only mildly spicy. Those dropping by for a quick lunch before rushing off may opt for their Pad Krapow Moo, a typical roadside “fast food” of steamed rice served with minced pork, Thai basil and fried egg.
But the pièce de résistance is, of course, the slow-cooked Pla Pao. Owner Tay handles this personally. He begins by heating up the charcoal in the outdoor grill.
While waiting for the charcoal to be hot and ready, he prepares the fish by stuffing stalks of lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves into its cavity. Next he covers the skin with a generous layer of rock salt; the thick mixture is made pliable thanks to the addition of some flour and water.
Once the bed of charcoal is evenly heated, Tay places the whole salt-crusted tilapia on it. It’s important that it’s not too hot to prevent the fish from burning. The fish is grilled for about 15-20 minutes on each side, depending on its size.
When done, Tay removes the fish from the grill and deftly peels away the top layer of salt with a knife. By flipping the skin to one side, a succulent fillet of perfectly-cooked flesh is revealed, subtly aromatic without overpowering the fish’s natural flavours.
Tay shows us how Thais enjoy this dish: First, take a leaf of raw lettuce or cabbage. Using chopsticks, put some fish onto the leaf. Add a dollop or more of their dipping sauces — ranging from tangy to explosively spicy — and top with a few strands of vermicelli. Wrap it up and eat it with your hand.
This is slow food at its best: lovingly cooked seafood that has its flavours enhanced rather than masked, accompanied by sauces that are by turns spicy, savoury, and sour. Truly, the fish is definitely worth the wait, but the rest of the dishes are wonderfully executed too.
There’s this simple joy of having authentic Thai food without fuss or fanfare; only an honest to goodness desire by the Riverboat crew to feed their customers well. Leave with full bellies, spice-scorched tongues, and smiles on your faces.
23 Plaza Danau Desa 2, Jalan 3/109F, Taman Danau Desa, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 11am-10:30pm; closed on alternate Wednesdays