In my life, where food plays a significant part, this inevitably applies to where and critically what I enjoy eating. When often in today’s world I am asked by waiting staff whether I have any allergies, I jokingly reply, “Only to bad food!” I place great emphasis in my life on eating good food, but I’m not a food snob; this can be a simple fish and chips, perhaps a steak tartare or even a khao tom pla.
On my frequent trips to Phuket, one of my favourite dining destinations is Rock Salt at The Nai Harn. For me, it has pretty much everything (especially on a perfect summer’s day): a fabulous location, wonderfully engaging staff, a wide range of pink libations and, of paramount importance of course, great food.
The extensive menu covers Mediterranean dishes and fresh seafood simply prepared, all supplemented with a blackboard of changing specials. Rock Salt is led by Mark Jones, executive chef of The Nai Harn, who is responsible for all culinary offerings across the resort: Cosmo, Hansha and the flagship Prime. Mark flits from outlet to outlet lending a hand across breakfast, lunch and dinner. He also helms Prime in a hands-on cooking role; however, he has chefs de cuisine for all outlets. (A chef de cuisine is really just a fancy name for a restaurant chef.)
Following my announced dislike for change, it is with acute trepidation that I make my way to Rock Salt for lunch, having received a call from the suave General Manager Frank Grassmann who nonchalantly informed me that the chef had recently changed at Rock Salt, and both Mark and he would like me to meet and greet Carsten Ritter, the new arrival, and sample a few new dishes.
Don’t you find that when you are a regular customer of a particular establishment, you tend to hold the view that changes should be extremely limited and only then if you have given them your prior seal of approval? Frank and Mark, understandably, did not run this decision past me; however, here I am arriving for lunch. At least it’s a beautiful day!
I am somewhat reassured when, upon arrival, friendly familiar staff greet me and I spy the specials board where my favourites, including mussels mariniére with aioli and French fries, are still visible. Perhaps I am overreacting.
Mark greets me and we dine together. He has arranged a repertoire for us today of both new and old dishes to taste. I am encouraged as the Rock Salt signature of breads and dips arrives: fluffy focaccia, breadsticks, babaganoush, fava bean dip and delicious aged Modena balsamic and oil.
Whilst awaiting the arrival of the new recipes, I am introduced to Carsten who thoughtfully brings over a plate of panko-crusted calamari, stir-fried with oyster sauce, chilli, garlic and a lemon dressed salad – a wonderful staple on the menu which I am informed will not be changing!
Carsten is German, depressingly young and handsome and arrives at The Nai Harn with an exceptional resumé featuring renowned hotels and restaurants across the globe.
Following our exquisite squid, he presents us with a new dish of carpaccio of 150-day aged grain fed tenderloin, dressed with piment d’espelette mayonnaise and ingeniously topped with crisp, dried anchovies, accompanied by a salad of lamb’s leaves and rocket. The attention to detail in execution, which has always singled out Rock Salt, is clearly evident from this dish whilst conforming to the exceptionally high standards set by Mark. A stellar start.
We continue with a blue swimmer crab risotto in crab bisque with aged parmesan and basil oil. The magic ingredient a well-known elixir from France and indeed the highly specific timing of its addition to the mix. I am truly impressed!
We follow this with marinated skewers of day boat-caught local cobia, a fish gaining popularity on the island, difficult to source and equally challenging to cook. The end result, when expertly prepared, is truly a master stroke: double marinated in green chilli, kashmiri chilli, turmeric and lemon, cooked in a wood-fired oven and served with an exotic green mango and mint chutney and a garden salad to complement. Absolutely mouthwatering.
We have just enough room for an earlier-spotted blackboard special of tuna tartare, a refreshingly decadent personal favourite of mine. Carsten informs me that the changes to the menu will not affect these signatures. I heave a massive sigh of relief whilst Mark and Carsten both inoffensively laugh in the background. In my time, I have been referred to as slightly stubborn, and Mark knows me well!
I bid my farewells and depart, totally satisfied that this change will not affect my penchant for eating at Rock Salt. Showing off my expensive education, as Edwards Deming, the guru of total quality management, would say, “Change comes in many forms, but the most sought after can be referred to as continuous improvement.” I am delighted to acknowledge that Carsten’s arrival may indeed be viewed as this, another step in Rock Salt’s continued improvement. I am confident that together, Mark and Carsten will elevate Rock Salt to even more lofty levels!
Chris is a former Michelin Guide Inspector who, following an international career in hospitality spanning 30 years in both the Middle East and Asia, has now settled in Thailand and contributes a monthly restaurant column.