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Thursday, April 13, 2000

TOKYO FOOD FILE

KEAWJAI

Bangkok's never too far away


You can't get authentic Thai food in Tokyo south of Kabukicho -- at least that's what the conventional wisdom would have us believe. Indeed, as with any such sweeping generalization, there's a kernel of truth to it -- as long as what you're after is hawker food that's rough but ever ready, gentle on the wallet but suitably abrasive on the palate.

However, having recently returned from Bangkok and already suffering severe withdrawal symptoms, we were craving much more than that. Squatting at street stalls and eating pad thai laced with equal parts MSG and vehicular particulates certainly has an immediacy and charm all of its own, but one we are happy to leave for our occasional forays down to Sukhumvit or Silom.

Nor, with taste buds still singing from the intricate harmonies of delicate young lemongrass, kaffir lime and galangal fresh from the market and holy basil picked that very same morning, were we prepared to accept compromised falang fare -- the kind of ersatz Thai food, arranged to meet foreign expectations, found too often alongside the pancakes and no-names on the menus of Khao San Road and the beaches of the south.

What we were looking for was a place where the food displays subtlety of flavor and sophistication of style. The time was ripe for a visit to Keawjai. It may lack a waterside view of the Chao Phraya, but in most other respects (apart from its unpronounceable name, which is actually rendered something like "Ge-oo-chai") Keawjai is about as good as Thai cuisine gets here in Japan.

All the initial signs are promising. Following the stairs down to basement level you are greeted by two demurely smiling statues of apsaras; a poster advertising Beer Chang, currently the best of the mainstream Thai brews but still not widely available here; and some truly appetizing aromas wafting from the entrance.

Keawjai occupies a compact basement room, bright and welcoming, with teak fittings, orchids in bloom and plenty of ethnic knicknacks to provide the apposite visual cues. The layout has been designed to create a sense of privacy and space rather than just to maximize the number of customers. Reserve ahead and you may be seated at one of the four circular tables, each set within its own high-backed alcove.

The staff are all Thai. So are the gentle pop songs which play constantly in the background. Because the Thai Embassy is just round the corner, Keawjai makes sure that not only does the food taste as close as possible to the way it would back home, it is also served with a degree of grace and style that you'd never find anywhere around Shin-Okubo.

The word on Keawjai is that they do "Royal Thai" cuisine, but actually it's more upper-middle class than ultra-refined aristocratic fare. That means many of the dishes are adorned with carved fruit and vegetables fashioned into delicate flowerettes. And while spice levels are not toned down for local consumption, the blue-collar insistence on searing heat is tempered by the judicious use of other spices.

There is nothing half-hearted about their nam prik, a spicy dipping sauce created from fermented shrimp paste and plenty of chili kick. We tried the nam prik plaa tou tod, featuring mixed vegetables (blanched cabbage, cucumber, bamboo shoot, Chinese cabbage) together with a whole fried mackerel, and small squares of egg pancake. As an appetizer, it was far more successful than the crispy noodles in deep-fried "cups" of dough: These only work when they are freshly made. Ours were cold and had lost their crispness.

There are two whole pages of soups to choose from in the copious menu (written in three languages and complete with color illustrations), of which the tom yum selection is by far the most popular. However, the kitchen does equally good things with the soy-based Chinese-style kra poh neu -- which they translate as "stifield [sic] fish maw and crabmeat soup," leaving us little the wiser about the main ingredient but no less impressed by the flavor.

Our kheng phed ped yang (roasted duck curry) was very well spiced, without being overly hot, although the duck meat itself was disappointingly chewy and scanty. It was also so intensely rich with coconut milk that one serving was too much for just two people.

This is a consistent feature of the menu at Keawjai. Portions are generally large and correspondingly priced, averaging 1,500 yen for most of the courses. As a result, it is a much better idea to go in a party of four than as a couple.

However, any doubts we had about the cooking were happily erased on receipt of our khao kluk kapi -- a generous mound of rice fried with shrimp paste, topped with slices of omelet and surrounded by morsels of sweetened pork, dried shrimp, finely sliced purple shallots, cucumber and pineapple heart (in place of the more usual raw mango).

It's the trademark rice dish of Thailand -- though few places bother to put it on their menus. When we asked, however, the cooks were more than happy to whip it up as a special order. It is touches like this, more than any other detail, that separate Keawjai from the generic pit-stop curry joints of Shinjuku and environs.

Keawjai also serves Thai-suki (sukiyaki) and a very authentic array of dishes from Isaan (northeast Thailand), though most people seem happy to order one of their set meals (4,500 yen to 7,500 yen), which include starters, tom yum, a curry, various fish and/or meat dishes, plus dessert.

With the blossom still adorning the sakura trees, there could be no better time of year to launch a new pub specializing in the beers of Belgium, the only nation to have truly mastered the art of the fruit beer -- including, of course, the sharply refreshing cherry kriek.

Frigo, which opens today in Shinjuku, is the long-awaited sibling of the admirable Belgo, which for the past two years has been luring so many punters to its Shibuya basement venue it has to hang out the SRO signs almost every day of the week.

Expect to find an equally eclectic range of quality ales, lagers, pilsen, stouts, lambics and heady Trappist brews at the new venue. There will also be a food menu with distinctly Flemish overtones, including mussels steamed in wine and their patent recipe for frites and mayonnaise.

Don't be mislead by the address (2-11-20 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku). It's actually on the south side of the Koshu Kaido, a block to the west of Shinjuku Station's south exit. For more accurate directions, you can call them at (03) 5371-0666. They're open 5:50 p.m.-2 a.m. (Sundays and holidays 3-11 p.m., but closed on the second Sunday of the month).

Note also that until the end of April, Frigo will be discounting its draft beers: Hoegaarden will go for 500 yen a glass; Guinness for 600 yen; and Carlsberg for 550 yen. That should mean the rest of us will now be able to get a seat at Belgo . . .



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