Samui Wining & Dining
Savvy Sabienglae

Staying close to your roots may just spell success in the restaurant business.

Staying close to your roots may just spell success in the restaurant business.They're everywhere, sometimes next to each other. Occasionally in long rows, one after the other. New ones open all the time. Others close or change hands. It’s a pattern that’s been going on for years and years on Samui. When was the first? Nobody can remember. We’re talking about restaurants, literally innumerable on the island. But someone must once have been the first to sell a bowl of rice with a curried topping to a holidaymaker – and that was the start of it all.

There are enough success stories on Samui to turn even the most jaded defeatist into a go-get-‘em entrepreneur. Sabienglae is one such story that really does stand out; it’s a name known to most people who live on Samui. But few people realize that the owner, Khun Amnart Chotchoung, has just opened a third Sabienglae. Obviously his restaurants are doing very well, but the reasons behind their success are more to do with the old Samui and its traditional ways than today’s incarnation as a fast-paced modern destination.

“I grew up amongst boats,” Khun Amnart says, “I was born and raised on Samui’s west coast, at Baan Taling Ngam. Things were different in those days and the island was a simpler place, just coconuts and fishing really.” But he watched the boats coming in with their fresh catch, and perhaps it was his familiarity with them that made him think years later of opening up a restaurant. He knew where to get his provisions from - knew they were fresh. And though he wasn’t sure how to make them really tasty, he knew someone who did – his wife, Khun Ying.

“So ten years ago, we decided to go into the restaurant business,” he says. “We started off small, and when I say small, I mean really small.” Indeed, his restaurant had just seven tables. It was enough for the time being, and it did well for itself. 14-1Khun Amnart isn’t one to be boastful and insists that it was no great achievement. “Back then, there really wasn’t so much competition. There weren’t as many restaurants as you see today.” True enough, but still, there were many entrepreneurs who were opening up restaurants, and no week went by without someone, somewhere on the island unloading chairs and tables from a truck and placing them on a sand, wood or concrete floor and opening up to the public.

He soon found that the seven tables were popular and he was short of seating. He began to think of expansion. Only to find that soon, once more, he had more diners than seats. The process repeated itself quite a few times, and though he doesn’t say it of himself he became extremely successful. He now has 800 seats in three restaurants – a staggering achievement if you think that just a decade ago he wasn’t at all sure if his original small restaurant would do much more than survive the ever-increasing competition.

Khun Amnart is a quiet, friendly figure who you can catch most days in one of his restaurants, and he seems slightly bemused if anything by the fact he’s grown so successful. Asked what his secrets are he doesn’t come out with some snappy business formula and instead, almost at a tangent, speaks again about the old Samui and how things were. But his point is that the old traditions of cooking and keeping food simple still work for today’s visitors. Over the years he’s added to those and now offers a whole gamut of different dishes, but there’s the feel in his restaurants of a heritage preserved.Staying close to your roots may just spell success in the restaurant business. He’s very much a person who enjoys nature and the original feel of the island – his restaurants all honour his Samui roots and aim to serve great dishes in likeable surroundings. You won’t find pretension and artifice in any of the three restaurants, or in the dishes themselves. The restaurants are enormously popular, and not just with holidaymakers, but local Thai’s and expats too; people who relish genuine Thai food. They come for all manner of reasons, for shared meals with family, for a casual snack, or a big party even. Whether you come alone, or with your partner, or with a group, you're sure to find something you like – the menu has some 250 dishes on it, and everything’s great value for money, with excellent prices no matter what you decide to eat.

The third Sabienglae opened at The Wharf, in Bophut. The new mall started operating at the end of last year and is doing well for itself. Sabienglae is located right in its most popular area – next to the sea. You can’t miss it as you walk along the beach road at Fisherman’s Village. And if you're driving along the ring-road, you just need to turn into The Wharf, which is about a half kilometre from the Bophut traffic lights as you head towards Maenam. There’s plenty of parking, by the way, and it’s open from 11:00 am until 11:00 pm, every day.

The restaurant has a stylish façade of bricks – unusual here on Samui – and has been well-designed throughout. It’s very roomy and seats and tables are well-spaced; there’s no sense of clutter or jumble. The two floors are both pleasing to the eye and the feeling is definitely relaxed and chilled. You can sit indoors or out, but whatever you choose you'll appreciate the open feel that the entire restaurant has. Upstairs you'll find a beautiful terrace and two larger function rooms where parties can be held. It’s definitely one of those places where you can take refuge from the heat. You'll also enjoy the views of the sea and the neighbouring island, Koh Pha-Ngan. Downstairs you can people-watch from the patio just outside the restaurant, or sit in the large dining room, which is open to sea-breezes.

The food is mostly Thai, and as mentioned there’s plenty of it – a whole armada of Thai favourites. There are starters, soups, salads, noodles and rice dishes of every kind. If seafood’s your thing, you can dine on lobster, crab, mussels, snapper, grouper and so on. You never need to worry that the fish has been around too long: the restaurant has water tanks that hold fresh fish, and Khun Amnart also buys fresh-caught fish from his suppliers. It’s prepared in various ways and everything’s clearly explained in the menu, so you know exactly what you're getting – always useful if you're not familiar with Thai food. The menu also has photographs of the individual dishes. It goes without saying there are also plenty of meat and vegetarian dishes.

There’s also plenty of Western food, from a simple hamburger to filet mignon. You'll be welcome whether you’ve come for a snack or a full-scale meal. Nothing on the menu is expensive, and it may come as a surprise that you're dining so well for so little. You'll probably want to come back here again, or perhaps visit the other two Sabienglae restaurants. The first is near Lamai (just past Hinta-Hinyai on the ring-road heading toward Nathon) while the second is in Chaweng (just south of Tesco-Lotus). Both have similar menus and the same excellent prices.


Dimitri Waring


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