Thailand: Dining at Banyan Tree Phuket's Saffron Restaurant

If you like bold flavours and your food pungent and rich then you will, like me, find happiness at a Thai table. Even better if that table is in Thailand. The dishes served in Thai restaurants in Australia can sometimes be toned down, smothered in coconut milk and laden with sugar.

Thai cuisine, though, is all about juggling sweet with salty, spicy and sour. It lets fresh ingredients sing, particularly with liberal use of aromatic herbs, added as a necessity, not an afterthought. Thai food in Thailand is more exciting and more exuberant.

I have expectations, therefore, as I await my food in Saffron Restaurant. When the first Banyan Tree opened in Phuket in 1995, this was just a simple curry house. It didn't stay that way long, however. The food became more varied and sophisticated, setting out to present elegant, contemporary versions of Thai cuisine to its guests.

High-profile and Michelin-starred guest chefs were (and still are) invited to give special dinners. Saffron has since been replicated at numerous Banyan Trees across seven countries, and is the hotel group's signature restaurant.

My opening trio of appetisers is an impressive start. A delicate roll stuffed with seabass and a chicken satay are swiftly dispatched, followed by deep-fried prawn with rice noodles that sit atop it like a baroque wig. You might usually dip this in chilli sauce, but the side here is a mango chutney that marries sweet and zesty flavours, and brings out the full force of the succulent fruit that was probably cut from a tree that morning. It signals that the meal will be prettily plated, innovative and focused on the freshest ingredients, without straying too far from its traditional Thai ethos.

You'd best come with friends or family so you can share dishes, since there are plenty to plunder. Next comes my soup course, a galangal-coconut broth with spicy chicken wanton and hot basil, followed by a yum pla salad of seared Tasmanian salmon with coriander, mint and pork crackling in a citrus dressing with a hit of chilli. Both are delicate dishes that avoid the heaviness and over-seasoning sometimes encountered in more inept, less considered Thai cooking.

The waiter wheels out a trolley with a selection of white, brown, red and saffron-simmered yellow rice. It's a nice interlude that provides a sense of occasion and interest. I choose a rugged northern Thai rice and get a variety of small mains in the multi-course menu, such as braised beef short ribs with pickled vegetables, and slow-cooked lamb leg with creamy curry sauce, coconut milk and peanut.

Familiar options come with pleasant surprises, such as chestnuts in the massaman beef (and in its vegetarian version, made with pumpkin), and salted egg and crispy fish that sets off a sweet green curry with chicken. The pad thai contains ripe mango and is accompanied by a banana-blossom salad that provides a welcome fresh burst with this fried classic dish.

The ambience at Saffron is relaxed. Fold-back windows make the restaurant almost open-air, allowing breezes to drift in from the Andaman Sea. When it rains, you can watch water plop onto the lily pads of the resort's small lake, and hear happy frogs croak.

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It's slightly disappointing that the dessert choices feature creme brulee and panna cotta, although flavoured with mung bean and pandan. They're the only overtly foreign dishes on a menu that showcases the brilliant range of Thai food and its gentle Chinese, Indian and Khmer influences.

The European intrusions seem odd, but all isn't lost. I opt for mango sticky rice, which is simple but sensational and accompanied by an untraditional dollop of coconut ice-cream. Happiness, again.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/thailand

tourismthailand.org

FLY

Thai Airways International flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to Bangkok, with connections to Phuket. See thaiairways.com

STAY

The all-villa Banyan Tree Phuket Resort has a lagoon pool in lush gardens, excellent spa and several restaurants, as well as an abundance of sporting facilities. Villas from $550 per night. Phone 1800 050 019, see banyantree.com

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of Banyan Tree Phuket Resort and Peregrine Adventures.

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