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Rostra rating: 4
Team Mago had a great meal at Langbaan, but now I have to write a review. I hate reviewing hot restaurants (as opposed to eating at them) even more than I hate securing a seat at hot restaurants. If I have a great meal at an iconic establishment then I have to somehow make my accolades more incisive and insightful than national and local professional media. Reviewing Le Pigeon, Toro Bravo, or Langbaan is so frustrating that one almost yearns for a bad experience, a shot at immortality like Pete Wells’ takedown of Thomas Keller. But then I would not wish a bad meal at any restaurant or any of those involved in such a tragedy, to include your humble scribe, or — far more importantly — your humble scribe’s spousal unit. So now I am back to the problem of gilding a culinary lily already encrusted with gold and jewels.
Start with the basics: Langbaan (which means back of the house in Thai) offers a pre-fixe, eleven-course tasting menu of high-end Thai regional dishes that rotates on a monthly basis in a twenty-seat “pop-up” space that is heavy on wood, low on light, and intimate (as in not quite cheek by jowl but close).
A lot of fuss is made about the fact that Langbaan is “hidden” behind a bookshelf at the back of PaaDee, a Thai restaurant specializing in street food. I found it all a bit much, particularly the “secret” meat grinder masquerading as a door nob. In the end, the hidden door was left open for most of the evening because parts of some of the dishes served at Langbaan are cooked in PaaDee’s kitchen.
I also found the act of securing a reservation to be a significant hassle. Langbaan is certainly a victim of its own well-deserved success, but they have also fallen afoul of ass hats who cancel at the last minute or not at all. The combination of great reviews and poltroons amongst the punters means that it can take months to get a reservation. The drill then becomes one of checking the restaurant’s website multiple times throughout the day in order to luck into a cancellation. Once you finally snag a table, you have to hand over a credit card number and if you do not cancel at least seventy-two hours in advance you lose eighty Simoleons. It’s best not to be too picky about a date, and to keep telling yourself that MagoGuide says all this crap that has NOTHING to do with food is really, really worth it. Oh and you damn well better show up on time (all of your party that is), because (yes, you guessed it) they have encountered enough entitled jackanapes who think that they can arrive five courses in and graciously receive a gastronomic mulligan. No way dude, they do not rewind the tape at Langbaan (and good on em’ too).
The best thing about Langbaan’s dining space is that it contains a four seat chefs counter, and true to Portland form, most diners shun it. When we leapt at the chance to watch six chefs cook and plate a two hour plus meal less than a yard away, our hostess beamed at us in undisguised relief. Team Mago is here to affirm that the gaggle of foodies and serious date couples at the tables missed out on half of the Langbaan experience. Another plus for the chefs counter is that its chairs are super comfortable with deeply cushioned seats and foot rails at the correct height. The tables have short wood chairs sans cushions that are bound to take their toll on one’s fundament over the course of several hours.
The choreography on the line punctuated by rapid flourishes of culinary tweezers and underpinned by induction tops and an oven that looked like a Star Trek replicator occasionally belching steam, was some of the best I have witnessed in Rip City. They used a precisely cut mini-sponge to wipe plate rims, so cool. The lack of any flame was sort of weird and one of the chefs said he would have preferred a gas-fired piano, but it did not seem to impair the food.
Another very interesting aspect of the line that the punters at table missed was a truly flat hierarchy. I have witnessed professional kitchens all over the US, Canada, and Europe and I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that. The no options menu certainly enabled such gastro-egalitarianism, but the chef team had also worked closely at Langbaan for at least two years and many more for some of the senior members, and their interactions demonstrated respect as well as repetition. TeamMago are such counter geeks that we even enjoyed watching that same world class crew clean their space to hospital operating room standards while we snarfed dessert.
The dishes were roughly organized along the following lines: three snacks (small bites), a soup, two salads, a main course of three dishes plus rice, and two desserts. In general Langbaan serves a variant of Thai food that I have never had. Compared to what I usually eat at, say Pok Pok or Farmhouse Kitchen, this cuisine was highly refined in terms of flavor, composition, and plating. The ingredients shown through more distinctly, enlarging the palate usually associated with Thai flavors in terms of both novelty and nuance. But the spice profiles, especially the heat, were definitely restrained and in a few cases under seasoned. I thoroughly enjoyed Langbaan’s delicious haute Thai approach, but I left thinking that it was almost a separate cuisine with the same or similar ingredients as what I think of as Thai food.
Our meal was composed of food inspired by Bongkok City. Tasting notes follow.
Miang som: grapefruit, shrimp, herbs, peanut, coconut, betel leaf. A very refreshing first bite with multiple bitter and sour layers.
Kanom krok: scallop, galangal coconut cream, lemongrass, kaffir lime, crispy rice cup. Crunchy rich sweet coconut meets unctuous scallop tartar for a refined tastebud waltz–restrained and elegant nosh, dude.
Nahm prik gapi puu puek todd: king crab, apple, nahm prik, salted duck egg, taro chip. I loved how the refined funk from the salted duck egg yolk mingled with the sweet salty crab, but I thought the dish needed more heat to add complexity.
Dtom som plaa: black cod, delicata squash, chanterelles, shallot, ginger, fresno peppers. Do they have chanterelles in Bangkok? Well I don’t really care because this was hands down my fave for the evening. Cod and pork bone broth are a marriage made in Thai heaven. This soup popped with ginger and heat (finally!) which danced on a flavor base of silky cod and crunchy squash–a complex umami spiked elixir.
Srang wa plaa: Ora king salmon, satsuma, ikura, herbs. This dish could also have been named salmon four ways (in fact that is how the line referred to it). Ora king salmon from New Zealand is sustainably farmed, humanely harvested, and sports wagyu-level marbling. Langbaan served it roasted and raw as well as frying the skin to a crispy delight, but the salmon roe that had been steeped in mirin and sake for twelve hours was the show stealer. I don’t know if I would consider this Thai cuisine, but I sure liked it.
Yum nung muu khao todd: pork skin, crispy red curry rice, dehydrated shrimp, peanuts. MagoGuide could no more diss a pig skin salad than it could pass up stigiole, but the dish was not balanced. The gelatinous pig skin oozed serious depth of flavor and I really fell for its gelatinous texture, but this prep needed more heat, salt, and acid. Pig this robust needs bold offsetting flavors that were not quite there.
Gang kua: veal sweetbread curry, betel leaf, pineapple, tomatoes, kabocha chips. This dish led the savory onslaught at mid-meal. The red curry had plenty of heat and sweet pineapple notes blended superbly with fermented fish sauce. The sweetbreads added a layer of mineral richness to the dish, but they had textural issues. Par frying them in a large deep pot of oil left them slightly rubbery. Like the pork skins above, this may have been an authentic culinary approach, but I prefer fried sweetbreads with crispy perimeters and creamy interiors–and this dish could have used a little crunch.
Long phed thoon palo: Thai-Chinese style duck confit, pickled garlic, jalapeño. What’s not to like about confit anything? This version was a bit saltier but less fatty than western versions. The only problem with this dish is that it was unidimensional, which was a bit out of place in a restaurant famous for diverse and multi-layered flavor profiles. The issue was solved by incorporating the duck into lettuce wraps that came with the smoked trout relish (one of the many helpful suggestions from the line during our two hour plus debauch).
Nahm prik taam sadel: smoked trout relish, dried shrimp, kaffir lime, lemongrass, greens. This dish was unmistakably Thai to my seriously under educated palate. TeamMago is, however, no stranger to smoked trout–a Montucky staple if there ever was one. Langbaan’s trout are lightly brined then smoked, after which the skin is removed, puréed, and used as a marinade for the trout flesh. There was also a nice spike of heat that worked its way into the process at some point. An excellent Asian approach to smoked trout that we cannot wait to try with our pond full of Westslope Cutthroats.
Khao hom mali: Jasmine rice, no further explanation required. But somehow an off-the-menu dish of Brussels sprouts sautéed in coconut milk made an appearance during the savory onslaught. Now you can get Brussels sprouts done just about any way possible here in Bridge City, but this was a culinary revelation for TeamMago–something else to try replicating at home–rich, grassy, with just the right amount of tooth.
Kanom chan: steamed pandan jasmine layered cake, avocado lime mousse, apple, fried vermicelli. A haute Asian take on stuffeded gummy candy. Chewy with countervailing crunch from the fried vermicelli, the dish was permeated with ultra rich coconut flavor.
Khao niaw sangkhaya ice cream: pumpkin chestnut porridge, coconut custard ice cream, coconut chips, lime zest. The porridge was a bit chunky and needed more sugar, while the lime zest was completely lost. That coconut ice cream was amazing — enough to make me swear off coconut gelato for at least a week. The desire for a complex composed dish wrong-footed this otherwise excellent dessert. The ice cream should definitely front this band and anything else should be relegated to backup status.
A word about potables. Folks at Langbaan have worked very hard to pair great wines with their refined cuisine, and they have succeeded. On our menu riesling was confined to the salad course, while other wines from Oregon, France, and Croatia dominated the pairings. The wine list is also a curated oenological jewel box. The only problem is that Team Mago likes beer or sake with most Asian food (we used to drink the local fire water along with beer, but those days are now sadly a mixture of fond memories and hangover nightmares).
This turns out not to be a problem, because PaaDee’s taps are available to Langbaan diners. We drank a very nice Sasquatch IPA. Going with beer at Langbaan is double VFM: 1) the exquisite pairings and that superb wine list account for a non-trivial percentage of Langbaan’s profit and will thus significantly increase the ducat drain associated with a meal, and 2) the staff does not like having to rush out from behind the book case every time a punter needs more suds (and who can blame them), so the pints come full to the very tippy top (but beware that first sip).
Mago Tip: Langbaan is an archetypal Instagram restaurant. The food presentation just begs you to take pictures. TeamMago is always interested in finding the best lit areas of a restaurant, since Patti’s photography is what actually sells our apps. It turns out that our seats, just to the left of the pass at the chefs counter, were perfectly lit and staged for food porn. Just another reason to eschew dimly lit foodie Siberia in the “back of the house”.