A torrential rush of capitalism has washed through Wudaoying Hutong – yes, the one with chintzy vampire bar The V – turning it into a yuppie-centric Nanluoguxiang Jr. Once a regular hutong that happened to be graced with a smattering of hip, alternative shops and cafés, the alley has had some serious bodywork done: floor lights installed in the lane, renovations of the old buildings, and an arty, one-storey sign proclaiming its new dolled-up pedestrian resurgence.
Quietly jumping on the deluxe-outlet train is Thai restaurant Lan Ting. Set in a snug modern box, it has the calm ambience of a Zen garden. A warm, relaxed aesthetic of whitewashed walls, cloud-like linen curtain dividers and light-tone wooden tables gives the sensation of eating in a Siamese MUJI store. With just a few wooden statues on the walls, the dining area is a comfortably low-key arrangement. The menu is equally minimal: a small selection of Thai staples with plenty of Chinese and Malaysian influences creeping in. In fact, many familiar standards like pad Thai are absent – a sign, we reckon, that the dishes have been tailored to fit local tastes. The menu even omits any use of Thai language; if some tourists from Bangkok pop in, they might be left scratching their heads.
This might work in Lan Ting’s favour. Thai food in this city is something of a niche product, with diners usually demanding an extreme ‘authenticity’ that’s one step below kickboxing on an elephant under a canopy of palm trees. It’s also a cuisine that demands customers shell out for the experience. Lan Ting stands out not just in its alternative takes on Thai formulas, but in price. It’s easy to see a return visit for a bowl of chicken and galangal (a root similar to ginger) soup (30RMB), with the sour, smoky herbs softly blending into the coconut milk broth. And though the thin fingers of fried shrimp rolls (35RMB) – each one with two or three miniature shrimp rolled together – only really shine when generously smeared with a tangy, spicy glaze, the feisty green curry chicken (45RMB) is more impressive. A generous portion of tender chicken and vegetables in a thick, tantalising gravy, it thankfully takes its time with the palate.
The thing about new takes on old recipes is that the originals usually don’t need to be tampered with; generations of chefs have honed them down to the perfect combination. And it’s one thing for a chef to refit foreign cuisine for a new audience, but quite another for him to make poor substitutions that throw the balance off. If you don’t know what you’re ordering, it’s easy to fall for the red curry beef (50RMB) – we went in expecting a fiery curry punch, but instead received a wet brisket-stew slap. The same thing goes for the almost offensively bad winter melon soup (35RMB), which – for reasons we don’t understand – uses so much oyster sauce that it tastes like a bucket of salt.
Lan Ting behoves a second chance: once you’ve successfully navigated the booby traps and found the hidden treasure, the low prices will keep you coming back for a bite. Where Thai food more often than not means shelling out for mediocre filler, Lan Ting’s got a few tricks up its sleeve.