Samui Wining & Dining
Topping the Thais

The new face of a traditional and very local beachside restaurant – Sabienglae hits the town!

The new face of a traditional and very local beachside restaurant – Sabienglae hits the town!Not so long ago there were only two sorts of restaurant on the island, fighting each other for dominance. They jostled to be out on the front, up in the limelight and the most noticeable. These were the ones that sat side by side along Chaweng Beach Road, each trying to look more attractive than their neighbour. Flashing lights, dancing girls, caves, grottos and pirate ships all competed together. Because this type of restaurant was chasing down the tourist dollar.

The other sort had an entirely different presence. They never advertised because they didn’t need to. And they were scattered, unseen, all around the island. A fairyland of twinkling lights and intimate woodland-screened salas, hidden out of sight behind a thicket of trees. A narrow, unsigned track, winding down towards the beach. Multi-coloured strip lights hanging on a tall, blank concrete wall. I remember once, when the manager of a local hotel gave me a map of Samui – hand-drawn and written in the Thai language. There were ten or 12 dots marked around the island. This was what he gave to all his new Thai employees, and he spent time translating it for me. It was where to find all the best Thai restaurants around Samui. And the biggest of the spots marked on it was the name ‘Sabienglae’.

Most of the other names on that map have long since disappeared. But Sabienglae was legendary then, and still is today. Its roots remain, along with the original restaurant, down that little narrow track towards the beach, near Hin Ta Hin Yai in Lamai. And at the heart of it all was one man and his 17 The new face of a traditional and very local beachside restaurant – Sabienglae hits the town! Khun Amnart toured the local fishermen to select the best and freshest of each day’s catch, and his wife set up in the kitchen and cooked them. The location was rustic; eight plastic tables and chairs shoved into the sand at the edge of the water. The spices, sauces, dips and pastes were superb. Thai locals flocked there to dine. The menu expanded and more tables were added, more staff, too. The only time you ever saw a ‘farang’ there was when his girlfriend took him out to the best seafood restaurant on Samui. But you did see Thai families from the mainland that had come to Samui, just so they could eat at this restaurant.

Times change and things move on. And one of the current trends is now for gourmet restaurants to offer simple Thai menus, but using only the best of ingredients. Instead of stringy ‘house chicken’ from the local market, it’s corn-fed organic birds. Massaman curry avoids the usual sticky sugar sauce and features Japanese Wagyu beef or New Zealand lamb. And, yes, obviously, anything that has some flavour is better than no flavour at all, and a tender cut of meat is preferable to chewing shoe leather for 20 minutes. But the new Sabienglae restaurant, now right on the best tourist strip of them all, has come at this from quite a different direction.

It’s located at The Wharf, in Fisherman’s Village, in a prime spot. Fronting the sea, and with a pleasantly intimate upper floor, high above the madding crowd. It is really modern and chic, warm and friendly and looks, in fact, very much like an inner city wine bar anywhere in the world. But it’s been pulling visitors and tourists like never before. It’s still based on exactly the same recipes and menu as they have down among the plastic chairs on the sand in Lamai. But now there are prime ingredients being used here; imported mussels and meats, and live lobster and king prawns waiting to be taken out of their tanks. And the same super fresh seafood each day. Only now, the staff can speak English and their glossy menu is in Chinese too.

The menu is excellent - huge and descriptive and with photos to identify each dish. And it’s still enthusiastically seafood-based. It’s what people want, expect and demand on an island paradise. But along with the usual Thai sections of stir fries, soups, spicy salads, noodle dishes and curries (and it’s a super selection of all of these), there are also the international offerings. The new face of a traditional and very local beachside restaurant – Sabienglae hits the town!You’ll find Euro soups and salads, pasta dishes, German schnitzels and a whole range of steaks from shark or tuna to filet mignon. There’s a big choice of sandwiches and snacks, including a whole array of burgers and even fish and chips. In addition, there are daily specials on chalkboards outside, which are not on the menu.

The wine list is comprehensive yet unpretentious, featuring a substantial range of selected red and whites, and with 17 of them currently listed at less than 1,000 baht.

Cleverly, effortlessly and with success, what Khun Amnart has managed to do here is to take a successful and traditional local Thai restaurant and convert it to the best of both worlds; prime world-ingredients, good wines and spirits, a superbly relaxed cosmopolitan location and décor, and with very good service indeed. And a note about this: those staff who can speak English are working at the front of house, dealing with the public and they are attentive, polite and very friendly. The ones who are still in training do all the running to and from the kitchens, learning the job and the language as they go. A highly effective set-up, but one that’s not always seen.

You will see the restaurant. Because you’ll go to Fisherman’s Village – everybody does, at least once during their stay here. And it’s more than likely you’ll eat there. Perhaps you’ll enjoy your meal and just assume this is normal. But if you are at all familiar with Samui and if you understand anything about Thailand, then you’ll know immediately that this is special. There are hundreds of small Thai restaurants here that are good. There are a few of them that are excellent. But there is only one that has been topping the Thai restaurants on Samui for the last 20 years. And that’s Sabienglae.


Rob De Wet


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