As the six-course degustation at PRU unfolds, I imagine the team in the kitchen toiling away with precision tools, powerful magnifying glasses and enviable patience, like master watchmakers, perhaps, or jewellers.
One of several exquisite little amuse bouches to arrive at the table resembles a cluster of gems on a tiny magenta cushion. It's served on a layer of coffee beans that enhances the colour as a velvet jeweller's tray might enhance a ruby. It turns out to be a cunning, tongue-tingling arrangement of fish, pickled beetroot, seaweed and Thai caviar. Another amuse bouche looks like a miniature tree branch – a sort of bonsai of a bonsai – complete with tiny gnarls and teeny leaves. It's actually constructed with leek, ham, mushroom and tangerine.
PRU is one of two restaurants on the grounds of Phuket's luxurious Trisara resort and at the end of last year became the first restaurant on the popular Thai island to be awarded a Michelin star. It seats just 16 and serves European-style cuisine made with superlative Thai produce, much of it from Phuket. Jimmy Ophorst, PRU's chef de cuisine, is the man responsible for the Michelin accolade, and he's described by Trisara's general manager, Anthony Lark, as "an artist with the heart of a farmer".
PRU stands for Plant, Raise, Understand and most of the produce on which Ophorst's culinary creativity relies is either grown organically at Trisara's working farm, foraged locally or sourced sustainably from local farmers, fishermen and purveyors.
Farm produce at Trisara. Photo: DDEN
"We offer guests more than creative farm-to-table cuisine, we also support the local community by helping them create better products which, in the end, results in us getting better ingredients and better dishes in our restaurant," Ophorst, who is 29 and hails from the Netherlands, told Michelin after his award.
The day before my meal at PRU, I tour Pru Jampa, Trisara's 96-hectare farm. It's a tranquil, easy-on-the-eye environment with lakes, a plant nursery frequented by some notably flamboyant dragonflies, and a substantial population of chickens and ducks. An organic section of about six hectares supplies PRU and Ophorst spends a fair bit of time here, planting and experimenting, tending and harvesting.
PRU restaurant at Trisara. Photo: Trisara
"These plants are Jimmy's babies," Trisara's Thiphathai Ngamsiriporn says as we stroll past neat rows of herbs, beans, chillies and glossy eggplants. "But these are his most important babies," she adds, affectionately patting the tops of a row of carrots.
These devoutly tended orange beauties are the basis of PRU's signature dish "carrots cooked in the soil they came from". Yes, those are the exact words that appear on the menu and no, they don't taste like dirt; nothing like it. The carrots are roasted in a pit for six to eight hours and the skins are used to make a sauce that completes a nuanced, moreish dish that is also zero-waste. The menu at PRU changes depending on what is at its best in the way of produce at the time, but the carrots have become a fixture.
Every element of a PRU degustation – six or eight courses, with a vegetarian option – has its own story and provenance, and is painstakingly prepared. A perfect sliver of duck that comes with shiitake mushroom, for example, begins its journey to the plate marinating in brine for 24 hours and then in honey-water for 24 more. A mere palate cleanser is an amazing concoction of sorbet and granita, tomatoes, coriander crumble, confit of lemon skin and basil oil. I could devour it by the kilo.
Outdoor seating at Trisara's Seafood restaurant. Photo: Trisara
While PRU is the obvious drawcard for Trisara, it's not the only enticing food experience on offer. The resort's Seafood restaurant sits opposite PRU and serves southern Thai "family heirloom" recipes. I could happily eat here for many days in a row, savouring the varied and distinctive flavours, and the beautiful fresh produce. This is also where breakfast is served and where the kitchen staff conduct Thai cooking lessons for guests.
I wish the workaday cooking in my kitchen at home unfolded like these classes: a tray of beautiful fresh produce ready and waiting on the bench, constant supervision from a patient expert, used pots and utensils whisked away and tended to out of sight, and a guaranteed zinger of a meal at the end of it all. The small group I'm with prepares and then feasts upon several recipes, including a spicy prawn soup and fish cakes that are sweet and tender. We learn that to make a good Thai fish cake, you need to really pummel the diced fish and spices before the frying stage. Polite massaging just won't cut it. "You need to wake up the ingredients" says one of our tutors, hurling fish mix against the sides of a bowl and grinding it with his knuckles.
When I'm not busy eating or pretending to cook, I remain as idle as humanly possible within the perimeter of my luxe ocean pool villa. Trisara's Anthony Lark says 90 per cent of its guests don't leave the resort during their stay, and I can see why.
The interior of an Ocean Pool Villa. Photo: Trisara
Each of the beautifully proportioned villas was mocked up with scaffolding prior to construction to ensure its siting promotes privacy, an effect that is completed by the surrounding trees and gardens. Privacy, says Lark, is central to contemporary luxury and "we want guests to be able to roll out of bed buck naked in the morning and slip straight into their pool". I do exactly that at dawn each morning of my stay. The air is warm, the water temperature is perfect and the serene outlook from the pool's infinity edge is downright therapeutic.
I prop myself on my elbows at the deep end, gaze out to the Andaman Sea – intermittently bobbing back to the shallow end to sip some coffee – and plot my breakfast strategy. House-made truffle butter on toast or plain butter with the local honey that glides fresh from its honeycomb into a gleaming silver tray? Mango or pomelo from the fruit section? A la carte or buffet? Asian or European? The most likely outcome: a bit of everything, and then a bit more.
Thai Airways flies direct to Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne, with domestic connections to Phuket. See thaiairways.com
Trisara's Ocean View Pool Villas start from $US897 (about $1280) a night, including breakfast and private airport transfers.
A six-course degustation at PRU costs THB4500 (about $210) plus taxes; with wine-pairing it's THB7000 and with a premium wine pairing, THB9000. An eight-course option and a six-course vegetarian option are also available. Bookings essential. See prurestaurant.com
FIVE 'BIB GOURMAND' EATERIES IN PHUKET
Michelin introduced its Bib Gourmand commendations for "good quality, good value restaurants" in 1997. These Phuket winners are casual, often subtly signed establishments, and popular with locals.
ROTI TAEW NAM
This humble-looking establishment is 70 years old and going strong. The flaky roti pancakes with fried egg or perhaps banana and condensed milk, are moreish in the extreme. 6 Thep Krasatti Road
Owner Khun Prang serves southern Thai dishes based on family recipes that date back generations. Michelin recommends the mu kua kluea (deep-fried pork shoulder with salt). 48 Thep Krasatti Road
"No trip to Phuket is complete without trying the local delicacies" served here, according to Michelin. The Gaeng Pu Bai Cha Plu (fresh crab meat in coconut milk) is a highlight. 48 New Dibuk Road
Pork with broth and rice noodles is the go-to dish at this popular street food spot that has been trading up a storm for more than 20 years. Go early to avoid disappointment. 163 Krabi Road
Head to this stalwart for super stir-fries (kra prow) such as minced pork or chicken with basil. The crispy fish with gravy has garnered a special Michelin mention. 37/3 Montri Road
Lissa Christopher was a guest of Trisara.