Bangkok Post, December 26, 2001
One of the many beautiful features about the Oriental Hotel is the way that it is seasonal. What with the now annual Viennese debutant ball and such, over the years it has managed to create its own social calendar, a separate little world of wonderful things to be looked forward to and relished throughout the year.
Some enchanted evening: Ciao beckons
to an other worldly fine dining experience.
By their nature, most such events are as fleeting as a waltz or Catherine wheel. But there are those that enjoy a rather less ephemeral existence, of which perhaps the most important, at least for lovers of romance and fine Italian dining, is the Ciao season.
In principle, the fancy white garden chairs and marble top tables come out around mid-October, once the worst storm clouds show signs of receding, and are rushed under cover again as soon as the intense summer heat bleeds into the dreaded rainy season's return around end May - in all, a season of some seven months or so, making it almost as long as a northern hemisphere sporting season.
There can therefore be no excuse for missing it. No one is out of town that long, not even those with the clout to book whole hotel floors for their foreign excursions.
Unless, of course, one is on the run, in which case Ciao must sadly remain a dream forever unattainable. But I digress.
More to the point, precisely what is the big deal about yet another Italian restaurant pitching into the aptly dubbed Venice of the East? Well, I'm not going to insult several other very fine establishments around town by placing on executive chef Norbert's never stationary brow my laurel for the best cuisine, an accolade I would rather share among a very select few.
But don't for one moment imagine that the dishes are in any way inferior. That would be patently ridiculous. Indeed, more than one of the finest Italian chefs in Bangkok have confessed to me their tremendous admiration for the Oriental's reluctant celebrity master chef, himself a native of Northern Italy, not to mention poaching a few ideas from him - and even roasting and toasting them!
However, while there is a tremendous diversity of Italian cuisine to be enjoyed in Bangkok, even in the rarefied highest echelons, plainly no one can quite compete with Ciao's poetic setting.
At the downstream corner of the hotel's riverside terrace at opening time at 5 pm, everything is already beautifully set up, as if awaiting yet another glamorous wedding party.
The river breeze is refreshing in a warmly therapeutic sort of way and even a little fragrant.
The bustle on the water is as lyrical as ever but equally dreamy is the vision of the Oriental's Author's Lounge wing across the emerald palm dotted lawn to leeward, with its turquoise louvered windows on cream washed walls, as resplendent and instantly desirable as a Beverly Hills mansion.
If there is a more delightful spot for happy ever aftering than this little slice of Camelot, it can only exist in heaven.
Indeed, what good taste a certain young man who was recently seen proposing marriage to his belle showed by choosing Ciao. Who could say no?
But best of all, whereas in the real world it is rather common to find restaurants in the best locations exploiting their privileged positions to serve second rate food, such is not the case at Ciao where the cuisine is utterly consistent with the excellence of the ambiance.
On a busy Saturday evening, I picked out Insalata Di Mare (seafood salad - Bt320) for my starter and received in an instant lesson from Norbert's purist school of cookery.
Here large pieces of mainly prawn and scallop sat with not a husk or leg in sight amid a lemon suffused green salad.
Sounds simple, but the point was that it was absolutely delicious. The seafood had been slow-cooked the right way so that it was tender and flavourful and the balance with the citrussy dressing was superb.
I followed this with a bowl of minestrone soup with pesto Genovese. Passing through to see how I was, chef Norbert explained that this was a completely vegetarian minestrone, with no meat bone stock.
However the flavour was nonetheless rich and the texture creamy. To hear him describe what went into it you'd think a fool could make it but the actual product bore all the hallmarks of Oriental excellence that so few can aspire to.
The secrets apparently include slow simmering the soup instead of boiling it to death, getting the combination of cheese and vegetables just so and, of course, the superb pesto.
For pasta, I chose two small dishes rather than one big one. One was spinach and fresh pecorino cheese ravioli with tomato and black olives, the other lamb ravioli with lamb sausage, both in the Bt300+ range.
Each dish was delectably rich in its own way, both from the point of depth of flavour and complexity of elements. Naturally, this being the Oriental, the sausage was home-smoked and lean while the dark peppery, herby sauce had the strength of oxtail soup. The spinach dish somehow managed to bring out the delicacy of the vegetable beneath the dark panoply of the juicy diced olives. Both dishes were as delightfully aromatic as they were delicious.
Veal piccata with lemon-parsley sauce comprised my main course. I hesitated over veal because I always like to consider nutritional value when dining and generally believe veal to be light in that department.
However, Norbert put my mind at rest by explaining that his veal supply is of the grain fed variety, a little less tender but a lot more flavourful and invigorating. So I went ahead with Veal piccata with lemon-parsley sauce (Bt340) and found the medallions of meat in their rich gravy, and served with a nest of egg noodles, to be a revelation.
I couldn't resist the opportunity to sample a couple of desserts to round things off. These were strawberries with balsamico vinegar and cinnamon ice cream and a raspberry sorbet. Strawberries with vinegar might sound strange to some, but the finest balsamico, as this was, has qualities not dissimilar to Champagne. As for the sorbet, it was of a near liquid consistency and the raspberry flavour ran delectably deep. Both were priced around Bt250.
Prices must be quoted to make the point that Ciao is not cheap, but far from outlandish either. After all, there's no air conditioning to pay for!
But the restaurant has no need to offer bargains to be an irresistible draw. Its ambiance, menu and all too fleeting appearance on the calendar can surely see to that.
The rain may always fall beyond September. April onwards may usually be too hot; But in fact there's simply not a more delightful spot for enjoying inspired Italian cuisine than the Oriental Bangkok Hotel's riverside Ciao restaurant during the cool, dry season.