It’s all about sincerity at SOI – Nairobi’s newest Thai restaurant, which balances contemporary stylings and urban intrigue perfectly in its ambiance, but also in its fuss-free and no pretense food.
The menu takes after the Dusit International Group Chef Morten Nielsen, a man whose sincerity and passion for food comes through in his creations, and even in his Thai tattoo.
Nielsen’s food is forthcoming and usually stripped-down, loyal to traditional Thai flavours but not limited to, respects and honours the beauty of ingredients, and excels the most when the flavours in a dish are perfectly balanced, and therefore, harmonized.
There was the bowl of Tofu Pa Lo that arrived with a distinctive yet welcomed aroma of Five Spice. Paired with pickled pumpkin puree, fried kale and topped with traditional Thai herbs – the combination of flavours permeated the tofu enough to even convince my companion, an amateur tofu-eater to spoon some more on to her bed of steamed rice. Nielsen cleverly left some cumin seeds whole in the pumpkin puree, which added a surprising texture and a burst of flavour. The subtle heat of Five Spice was balanced with the tartness and natural sweetness of the pickled pumpkin puree.
Then there was the 12-hour Slow-cooked Pulled Lamb, which was molded in a terrine and then carmelized on a hot pan, revealing a crispy and flavourful crust. The sauce was made from the braising liquid and the dish was finished with glazed spring onions and topped with refreshing Thai herbs. If there was another level of succulence above “fall-off-the-bone” – this would literally embody that.
I caught up with the acclaimed Danish chef who now calls Bangkok home and is at the forefront of breaking barriers in traditional Thai cooking.
#SusanEats: You stayed in Thailand for 5 years to learn about authentic cusine…eateries to street stalls…do you think you’ve mastered it?
Chef Morten Nielsen: *Chuckle* Not at all. I don’t think you can ever master Thai cuisine. I once heard there were 2,500 national dishes in Thailand. Every region does a different version of a dish. Such a huge variety…if I were to master it, it would take…forever.
#SusanEats: Thai cuisine has gone mainstream and virtually all cosmopolitan cities around the world have embraced this concept, even Nairobi. Including SOI, we’re at 3 establishments in Nairobi…how do you think Kenya is receiving the concept?
Chef Morten Nielsen:I’m very lucky that it has been very well received. Kenya to me is an exotic culture and such a colourful place to be. Locals and expats really seem to enjoy Thai food – what I consider as a dramatic cuisine. The drama is filled with fire, spice, and aromatic flavours. Nairobi is also very colourful in comparison, and it’s very interesting to see both culture and cuisine come together.
#SusanEats: On a personal level, you started off in Copenhagen, ever imagined yourself innovating Thai cuisine in East Africa more than 10 years after jump-starting your career?
Chef Morten Nielsen:*Stunned look and smile* Never… never thought I would be in Africa. I was thinking the other day, maybe I should start a new restaurant here, and I mean I would consider it if someone had a great concept. I’m keen to see more of Kenya.
#SusanEats: Your style has been received as Thai-inspired cuisine with a modern twist…what would you say is your “twist?” Presentation? Textures?
Chef Morten Nielsen: There is so much tradition and rules in Thai food, but modern contemporary Thai focuses more on being inspired by its flavours. An element of Thai food also is about using local ingredients supporting your local community through sourcing their produce.
As for presentation, I really like green vegetables and I like the shape of raw vegetables. I love the way they work like how in a spring onion the colours turn from white to green gradually. I like to display things in their natural beauty.
#SusanEats: Do you think a restaurant in Nairobi will ever win a Michelin Star – what kind of tips would you give to aspiring restaurants in Nairobi?
Chef Morten Nielsen: Of course you should think about your business and who is your target market, but don’t chase any stars, votes or any list. Just stay true to what you want to do. Don’t chase the fame.
I was very lucky to work be the executive chef of a Michelin-starred restaurant and another one, which was on Asia’s 50 Best list. My goal is to have a full restaurant, not to be famous. If you have a full dining room, things will happen regardless. Try to be humble and happy that your guests want to come to you and work hard.
#SusanEats: When you’re having a bad day, what do you crave? What is Thai comfort food to you? Your favourite dish?
Chef Morten Nielsen: You always miss what you don’t have every day. So I miss some good Rye Bread with Cold Cuts and some delicious Danish cheese – a taste of home.
I also love Tom Yum, clear soups and really enjoy flavourful soups. Something hot and steamy in a bowl is definitely comforting.
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