Last Supper

Hotpot at the Ice Palace Restaurant in Harbin, China

Inspired by this post on Couchfish, I began trawling through my photos for some memorable meals of my own. I chanced upon this photo taken at the beginning of a meal in Harbin and realized that this unassuming pile of meat, noodles and vegetables was one of the most memorable meals I’d ever had — but not for the reasons you might think.

What this photo fails to convey is the depth of rage and dismay I’d felt at the time I took it, when greeted with a restaurant meant to mimic the experience of sitting in sub-zero temperatures outside … after having just come in from outside. I remember the interminable hour or two spent walking around the Ice Festival in Harbin, which, yes, is beautiful and yes, very unusual for Bangkok-based me, but also, after 15 minutes, damn cold. You see, temperatures in Harbin at night hover around -30 to -40 degrees, the kind of cold that makes it hard to walk down the street at night in search for a nightcap (which explains why the only places offering nightcaps are Russian discos with exorbitant cover charges, but I digress). It’s the kind of cold that freezes the tears on your eyelashes. The kind of cold that makes you dream of the moment when you are able to peel away your layers, sit down over a beer and luxuriate in the new warmth of your dining room.

So why the $&*(% would anyone want to emerge from the outdoors to sit an in interior modeled after the outdoors? Apparently, many people want to do this. The Ice Palace Restaurant in the Shangri-La is very popular, boasting -18 degree Celsius interiors that make a fine film of ice appear on your meat and vegetables every few minutes — just like in the outdoors, I’m sure, when diners used to congregate on sidewalks to scrounge up some warmth for themselves via boiling vats of water. A meal at this restaurant is a recreation of this life-affirming bonding experience, but alas it was not an experience I could do justice to. I lasted 15 minutes, coming to the realization that, when it came to far northern China, I was a mere poseur with the local cuisine.

I took better advantage of some other meals, probably because heating was involved. In Sharon, Pennsylvania, I took a pilgrimage to the restaurant considered the mecca for hot wing lovers not able to make it to Buffalo, New York. I remember feeling proud having made it through this entire platter of hot wings, even after they made me sign a silly waiver:

Atomic wings at Quaker Steak & Lube

In transit and in a hurry, I remember eagerly seizing the first opportunity I had to eat my first real-honest-to-God Chicago dog …

… at O’Hare Airport.

And then there was that beautiful meal all the way on the other side of the world, in Cuenca, Ecuador, at Tiesto’s, home of the sizzling hot plate platter. It was the perfect goodbye right before we were due to go home:

The pass at Tiesto’s

I also remember dozens and dozens of meals at this sushi bar, where chef Ryu always made sure to feed us the choicest fish he’d found that day. It was the first place I’d ever enjoyed shirako grilled on a slab of pink salt, or had a shot of hot sake spiked with the guts of a sea urchin, considered to be energizing in the cold weather. Chef Ryu had gone to high school with Terry, our family friend, and meals there made me feel like the luckiest person in the world.

Chef Ryu at his sushi bar in Tokyo

But we can’t forget Bangkok, where I think the first meal I would seek out when I’m able is the kai kata (egg in a pan) at Kopi Hya Tai Kee:

As for my most memorable meal as of this moment, well, I guess it would have to be one of the last ones I’ve had in a restaurant since this latest COVID wave took hold. At Rub Lom (Breezy Point) in Prachuab Khiri Khan (7/2 Pin Anusorn Rd., +6632-601-677), we enjoyed a veritable feast, ordering a platter of crabs, bitter melon with egg, stir-fried curried crabmeat, catfish stir-fried in wild ginger, chilies and green peppercorns, and a nourishing gang liang studded with fresh shrimp and vegetables:

Gang liang
Stir-fried catfish

It was eerily quiet except for us and one other table, but the beach was right across the street from us, and the good food after a long car ride left us almost giddy. When I look back on this meal, it is the giddiness that I remember, and not the wild haring around trying to get everyone from point A to point B. I am hoping that, when I look back on this period a year from now, it will be only the great food that I remember and nothing else.

The sign at Prachuab Khiri Khan

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