When asked what my favorite kind of cuisine is, Thai always tops the list. I love the delicate medley of exotic spices and the fiery heat of Thai chilies. Even at home, we eat predominantly Thai inspired dishes.
So imagine my excitement when I got invited to yet another Thai gem last week! Inaugurated earlier this year, Cafe Isan is tucked away in a quiet corner of JLT (Lakefront Icon 1 Building, Cluster M) right next to Chawlas 2. We have quite a few restaurants in the UAE that specialize in Thai cuisine, but what sets this newbie apart is that their recipes originate from the Isan region of Thailand.
Isan is the North Eastern province of Thailand, and any true connoisseur of Thai cuisine will tell you that their dishes differ quite radically from conventional Thai. I find Isan cuisine to be more authentically Thai; unabashedly spicy and brimming with the aromatic scent of traditional herbs, their dishes also tend to be less creamy, allowing for more flavor exploration without being blanketed in a douse of coconut cream.
About the Isan Region
Isan is the North Eastern province of Thailand. This lush green rural heartland takes up a whooping 70% of the total expanse of the country, and has a unique set of cultural norms influenced by neighboring Laos. This is turn has a strong influence on the local cuisine.
Apart from their signature dishes, the region has also set its mark on the map for creating Thai funk music, ‘Morlum’. Here is a little musical intro to get you into the groove!
About Cafe Isan
Located in a quiet corner of JLT Cluster M, Cafe Isan is a cosy getaway from the maddening chaos of city life. The interiors are done up very kitsch and colourful with interesting little Thai artifacts, and you can also enjoy a view of the vivid blue waves of the JLT lakes.
Cafe Isan is the brainchild of Chef New. New landed in Dubai six years ago, unable to speak a single work of English. She signed up for an English course at the University of Woolongong, and to pass her time, she took to cooking. Her phenomenal dishes were a huge hit within her friends circle, and before long the word was spreading fast and New found herself setting up a small catering business from home itself.
She then met the lovely Lisa Knight, a Marketing and Business Development enthusiast with a true love for Thai cuisine. Together they decided it was time to set up shop, and Cafe Isan came to being.
Is Cafe Isan a cafe or a full-fledged restaurant?
In Thailand, dining out is a casual affair, a place to catch up with friends and family over loud banters and squeals of laughter. Traditional eateries in Thailand have more of a communal feel, more in tune with what city dwellers associate with cafes.
Yes they have teas and coffee here, but not your regular blends! At Cafe Isan, expect to be fed a full-course exotic spread from starters to dessert.
In tune with the casual vibes, the ‘cafe’ has a mini library with books you can cosy up with in their comfy loungers, a stack of board games to get busy with between orders, and even a full-fledged karaoke system (a much-loved time-pass in Isan).
Our Elaborate Feast at Cafe Isan
It was a hot afternoon as we strode into the welcoming interiors of Cafe Isan. To cool down we had tall glasses of Thai Iced Tea and a very light, aromatic Iced Lemongrass Tea.
Thai Iced Tea
Iced Lemongrass Tea
I absolutely loved the Thai Iced Tea! It’s not every day that you find it on the menus of Thai restaurants in Dubai, and this one took me back to my summer break in Thailand; sinfully sweet and creamy and brimming with the robust goodness of brewed tea.
My little girl had a large Fresh Coconut Water all to herself. The shell was loaded with water, and refreshingly chilled too!
Unsure on what to order for our appetizers round, we requested Chef New to get us a mixed platter of her personal favorites and this is what we had:
The patties on the top are Cafe Isan’s Lab Gai Tod Cakes, and were my favorite from this platter. These ‘cakes’ are essentially deep fried minced chicken patties enhanced with an aromatic bouquet of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, mint and coriander. It is mildly textured with chopped onions, and you get a hint chilli powder with every bite. Moreishly soft and flavorfully complex, the Lab Gai Tod Cakes also happen to be gluten free!
The platter also included Thai-style spring rolls which are called Poh Piaa Pak on the menu. They are similar to conventional spring rolls, but enhanced with the freshness of Thai herbs.
Move over ordinary chicken wings, at Cafe Isan you will absolutely love this crispy Thai version called Pik Gai Tod. The skin is decadently crisp, while the meat inside manages to be soft and succulent, and the subtle hint of a beautifully aromatic Thai herb mix lingers on the palate.
The little dumplings on the bottom right of the platter are called Gai Jor, Thai street-style chicken rolls made with eggs and wheat.
At the center of the platter is a pile of Naam Nua Isan. These crisp, deep-fried slivers of beef have been marinated in a special Thai sauce, and is topped with a pile of crisp, golden brown garlic.
While nibbling through our appetizers, my little one got busy with the Jenga set. Hubby joined in, and he sure can get competitive… even with a 5 year old!
One of my favorite dishes at Cafe Isan was their very authentic, beautifully presented Som Tum Isan/Pla Ra. The base of this salad is similar to the conventional Tai Som Tum, featuring finely shredded green papaya, grated carrots, long green beans, red chilies and tomato. Yet the dressing is far more intense, and made with ‘pla ra’ , a fermented fish sauce. If you want the real deal, they will even add salted black crab into the mix! I asked for mine extra hot, Thai style and Chef New tells me this was made using a total of 6 fiery red Thai chilies! Yes, I could taste the heat with every forkful, yet it managed not to overshadow the beautiful mix of seafood flavors. Absolutely loved this salad, and am definitely going back for more!
Seeing me devour the Som Tum Isan with such gusto, Chef New was sweet enough to introduce me to yet another deliciously flavorful Thai salad. This one is Cafe Isan’s Yam Talay, a mixed seafood salad with Thai herbs in a spicy sweet and sour dressing. It was loaded with fine glass noodles, and given it has such a generous amount of seafood added into the mix, this salad can easily be a meal in itself.
Given the heat of the salads, I had to reorder for another drink. This time I tried Cafe Isan’s Roselle Tea. This is an iced tea made with Hibiscus flower buds, popular in rural Thailand for reducing blood pressure. It has a deliciously tangy hit that makes it a perfect accompaniment with a heavy meal.
I love Thai curries, and at Cafe Isan, we were spoilt for choice with so many options. Chef New was kind enough to once again give us a taste of her top three favorites.
This is a decadent tricolor of Thai curries! We have Red, Green and Yellow Curry 🙂
The Red Curry is the Massaman Gai, a traditional coconut milk-based chicken curry with the nutty goodness of peanuts.
The Green Curry is the Keow Wan Goong, a very flavorful coconut milk based curry featuring jumbo prawns and enhanced with sweet basil leaves and Thai eggplant. At Cafe Isan, the Green Curry is quite different from the standard Thai version. The gravy base is lighter, and the flavorful hit of sweet basil is more pronounced.
The Yellow Curry is the Panang Gai. The Cafe Isan menu states this is the restaurant’s creamiest curry. A slow-cooked coconut milk based curry with a hint of red chili paste, this curry is divinely flavorful! I ended up spooning out the curry all by itself!
I loved all three curries, and it really would be hard to narrow down to a favorite. Although all three are coconut milk based, each manages to have its own characteristic mix of flavors.
From the noodles section, Cafe Isan has a stand-out dish that is exclusive to the restaurant. This is “The Colonel’s Beef Noodle”, a franchised dish that was conceptualized and created by a Thai Colonel.
Chef New had to go through intensive training to learn how to put together this noodle dish. It takes on entire day to put it together, and the deceivingly light soup is brimming with a complex hit of flavours. I could taste coriander, ginseng and Thai cinnamon. It also has Star Anise thrown in for a deep, robust undertone. A pile of burnt garlic is loaded on the top.
Overall, I am absolutely thrilled to have discovered Cafe Isan! I cannot fault anything I ate here, and left with a very satiated stomach full of divinely delicious dishes. I only wish I lived closer to JLT to make a trip more often!
And here is what TimeOut Dubai has to say about Cafe Isan 🙂
How Do I Find Cafe Isan?
Cafe Isan is located in Lakefront Icon 1 Building, Cluster M. Give them a call on 04 4535269 for more details, and do visit their website.