I suspect that Chiang Mai is a city that reveals itself only very reluctantly to the outsider. On the surface it’s all flash bang tourist frontages offering elephant tours or jewellery or wifi and pizza, arbitrarily mixed with motorcycle repair shops and building projects. Since the old town is spread out over a mile square, it’s a messy and daunting prospect for the pedestrian. Although I have found a few delights on my own, the Lemurs have also done very well on recommendations from friends and fellow bloggers. For our last dinner, we went to Huen Phen restaurant, recommended by Naomi as one place that solves the Thai menu paradox. What’s the menu paradox? If a menu is in Thai we can’t read it and hence can’t really order the delicious food within. But if the menu is in English, we can read it but the food will also be translated, dumbed down to western palates. Catch 22. Huen Phen, however, has an English menu but still serves authentic Northern Thai dishes.

The restaurant is on a quiet block which doesn’t look like it is going anywhere good. If you were of a more nervous disposition, you might  think twice about walking there. When we eventually arrived, the dark street suddenly opened out into a beautifully lush green entryway with carved teak door panels and sculptures dotted around. A typical Chiang Mai experience of discovery as the quotidian and grimy unexpectedly transforms into something beautiful and welcoming. Inside the space was homey, mildly chaotic, with traditional Thai carvings, embroidered wall hangings and wooden objets everywhere you looked. It was gorgeous but down-at-heel enough not to feel ostentatiously fancy. We were immediately entranced.

The menu was extensive and it was hard to choose, especially because the English translations could best be described as not detailed. Again, probably a good sign, along with the mostly local clientele, middle class families on a night out. I started out with tea, which was served in the most adorable little teapot set. It’s almost Japanese in its daintiness. I grant you, I want a lot more tea than that with dinner but never mind. It was pretty.

Now we come to the food and again, it is a story of surface and depth. The Northern curry with pork ribs and banana flower looks unappealing visually, certainly a challenge to the food photographer, but underneath that brown brothy surface it was alive with flavours. Northern curry served at home often seems like the restaurant just left the coconut milk out of a regular curry. Here it is an entirely different dish that you would never imagine ruining with coconut milk. Peppery with a bit of green chili heat, it also had a richly umami broth. Was this made with tua nao? I don’t know but something made this broth wonderfully deep and yet light, like a really good ramen broth, though totally different in taste. The curry was full of long-cooked greens and pork falling off the bone, but these are really part of the soup rather than the main event. It’s a soup more than a sauce and the broth is the star of the show.

We wanted some greens and so ordered a dish of stir fried greens with stuffed pork. We thought this might be Issan sausage but it transpired to be a light, white sausage in slices. It was mild in flavour but imparted a lovely garlicky backdrop to the al dente greens.

Huen Phen was a lovely surprise, offering much more refined and elegant food than we had anticipated, and demonstrating the richness of Northern Thai cooking. It’s less flashy than the Southern curries but no less delicious. Once we got below the surface, we started to really enjoy Chiang Mai. But, as I write, I am back in Bangkok, waiting to catch a plane to Saigon. Time is flying…and there’s so much more to blog!

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