Samui Wining & Dining
As Nice as Rice

Samui’s latest dining adventure, The Farmer Restaurant & Bar.

 

12Every now and again a new idea comes along that’s just so good and so simple that it makes everyone wonder why nobody’s ever done it before. Of course, there are ideas and there are ideas but here we’re talking about good solid basics and not some kind of gimmick or flashy promotion. I recall the showman PT Barnum shrewdly observing that a gimmick is needed to pull the crowds, but you needed a quality act to keep them. And the best quality of all (he went on to add) is “… quality with roots.”

Which, interestingly enough, is just what you’ve got – in all senses of the word – at The Farmer Restaurant & Bar just on the fringe of Ban Tai, on the left as you head around the sharp bend out of Mae Nam heading towards Nathon. It’s ideally located and impossible to miss, being signposted right on the ring-road, but with the long paved track, dramatically lit at night with an avenue of flaming torches, leading away into the peace of the nearby fields.

So it’s a restaurant in a field. What’s the big attraction? Well, there are many. I’ll come to the lavish design and the thoughtfully-expansive layout in just a moment. I’ll talk about the world-quality cuisine, too. But the biggest attraction of all has to be the man at the heart of the enterprise, Samui-born award-winning international Executive Chef and Managing Director, Khun Somroj Mepiern. Because it’s his sheer force of personality and infectious passion that’s made this all happen. And his vision extends further than a mere restaurant, no matter how deservedly successful it may be.

Khun Somroj was born on the western side of the island where his family still live today, near the Namuang Waterfall. “People come to Samui and see coconuts everywhere,” he explained to me. “That’s what Samui is – the ‘coconut island’. But what they don’t consider is that the islanders can’t live off coconuts alone. There’s fish, of course, and lots of fruit but it’s rice that is at the heart of out nation. Generations ago rice was grown here on Samui but now it’s faded out. When our traders took their coconuts to the mainland it was rice they took to sustain them for the weeks they were away. Every family had their own rice fields back then but today it’s cheaper to buy it ready-processed than it is to grow. An entire layer of our culture has vanished, along with all its traditions, and you just don’t see rice being grown on Samui anymore … except for here,” he added.

‘Here’ refers to the thriving rice field that covers 10,000 square metres – just about 2 ½ acres. And it’s not just for decoration, either. There is a team working full-time on this and Khun Somroj, together with his wife, Khun Saward, plans to make rice part of Samui’s community life again. Khun Saward teaches at her local school, Wat Praderm, close to the family home, where their two young daughters also spend their days. And already small groups of students from the school are being given responsibility for their own plots and taught the basic husbandry so they can take the harvested crop back to their families later.

Sitting in the silence of a field of rice at night is one of the finest feelings in the world,” Khun Somroj continued. “It has a deep-rooted peace that’s like nothing else. It’s rooted in nature and also a part of it. It’s alive. It quivers and trembles with a life of its own. It’s what the entire Kingdom of Thailand used to be built on. And it also provides the best ambiance in the world to enjoy a harmonious and tranquil fine-dining experience,” he added with a grin.

As soon as you’re escorted through the very elegant entrance hall you’ll realise that, rice field or not, this is something out of the ordinary. You’ll emerge into a lavish courtyard framed by an open kitchen along one side and a modern 2-storey block on the other. A shimmering ornamental pond completes this open terrace with another terrace below. This is slightly higher than, and runs along, the edge of the field which is subtly illuminated with spotlights that pick out the spectres of life-sized scarecrows dotted throughout the rice. There’s an even lower strip of tables that are right on the fringe of the rice but if you’re after something truly unique then you can even request your own private table out in the middle of the whispering field!

This restaurant is big! But it’s been carefully and thoughtfully laid-out in different areas and with sections on slightly different levels so that the overall feeling is one of intimacy wherever you happen to be.

The two-storey block, for example, contains three self-contained and air-conditioned ‘VIP’ rooms that seat between six and 12 people each. And then there’s also a snugly-furnished open colonnade area along the other edge of the rice field that’s ideal for small groups. Khun Somroj tells me that altogether, should a big party descend for the evening, the restaurant will comfortably seat between 180 and 200 guests – although that’s one boundary that hasn’t been soundly tested, as yet!

Many people are taken aback by the superb quality and standard of the décor: they are unconsciously expecting something more rustic, in line with the overall theme. But the dramatic contrast of five-star luxury alongside the simple ethnic icon of the rice field is a bold gesture that succeeds admirably. The furniture is varied, according to what area it’s in, with deep sofas in the small open lounge and heavy glass-topped tables on the terraces. Although everything is united by the same theme, the rich wooden decking unifies the décor and yet each of the areas has a tangible ambiance that’s all its own.

But Khun Somroj is more than qualified to round off your culinary (and cultural) experience in a style to match. He began his career with the Dusit Group in Phuket before being called back to Samui as Executive Chef of the prestigious Santiburi (Dusit) Resort. And for the next 16 years was employed by the Taling Ngam Resort (then owned by the world-famous international Le Meridien Group). Perhaps the highlight of his career occurred when he was awarded first prize in a national Tourist Authority of Thailand project entitled ‘Thai Food for the World’. He was presented with his certificate in Bangkok by Crown Princess, HRH Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, in 2005.

His menu is innovative and creative and shows some personal twists on well-known traditional dishes. As is to be expected, it’s a dual offering of International and Thai cuisine. And as is to be demanded, the imported cuts of lamb come from New Zealand and the beef from Australia. But most of the seafood comes from Samui and Khun Somroj selects it freshly out of the local fishing boats every morning.

There’s an impressive selection of appetisers which even includes curried duck, an item that’s often missing from many Thai kitchens. There’s a huge Italian section, too, with offerings that include pizza, pasta, spaghetti and penne dishes. And then there’s a mouth-watering choice of main dishes, but the top-of-the-pops has to be the sumptuous ‘Farmer and Fisherman Char Beef Tenderloin and Grilled Spring Lobster on Thyme Jus Crustacean Bisque’.

The Thai selections are extensive with all the usual favourites, such as curries and soups and salads, being given just a twist of creativity by using quality ingredients or interesting veggies instead of the standards. And I certainly found rice on the menu, including brown varieties and some exotic wild strains as well!

Most of the desserts are centred on revitalised Thai offerings but there are also crêpes, fruit and a selection of 11 different ice-creams to spoon your way through.

And naturally there’s an equally enticing drinks menu that features local and imported beers, spirits and liquors and a satisfying selection of Classic and New World wines; many of which are also available by the glass. Khun Somroj is a visionary in his own right but he’s also a realistic man. These days, people are not exactly throwing their money around and so the wine is reasonably priced, as is everything else on the menu here.

But he’s also a very practical man. Which is why, when you phone to make a reservation, this will include complimentary transport from your resort and back again afterwards. An extremely sensible service and I can’t understand why other restaurants don’t offer this as an automatic courtesy.

It’s in Ban Tai. It has a unique concept and a perfect location. The décor and the cuisine are world-class. The service is impeccable. The ambience is unparalleled anywhere on the island. It’s both a culinary and a cultural experience, and it’s further enhanced by being set firmly at grass-roots level, or should that be rice-roots level!

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