A beachside restaurant on Koh Samui is a haven of style and sustenance, says Susan Kurosawa
IT feels like the restaurant at the end of the universe, an oasis of blue and green. We have been driving around the island of Koh Samui, that most beguiling speck in the Gulf of Thailand, on the classic sightseeing circuit. Temperatures are at the lively end of the 30s and visions of icy Singha beers are dancing in our heads.
We drive down a bumpy palmbordered track, off the main road between Taling Ngam and Thong Yang on the western (and less developed) side of the island. Development is a relative term on this tropical holiday isle, however; even this part of Koh Samui, well away from the wallto-wall resorts of Lamai and Chaweng to the east, is latticed with bamboo scaffolding and construction sites.
Right on Na Sai beach, past guardian elephant statues and a small temple, our destination appears: the Five Islands Restaurant, so named for the quintet of limestone islands in the bay. (We see only four, but one, the waiter later whispers, is hidden behind another.) Open-sided and with a high thatched roof, the restaurant is contemporary in design, low-lying, surrounded on three sides by well-clipped lawn and, on the fourth, a stretch of clean beach.
A tiled floor, ceiling fans, plain wooden tables and chairs and an open kitchen with staff in white caps: there’s nothing fussy or formal here.
At the pip of noon, we are the first customers of the day; other diners drift in well after 1pm, slow starters this Sunday after a typical Koh Samui Saturday night (this is definitely a party island).
We order fresh pineapple juices (140 baht, $5), which promptly appear in tall, frosted glasses, cuffed with foam and decorated with orchids.
It’s a style of dainty decoration that continues throughout the meal: all our dishes are garnished with carved carrot lotuses and artfully positioned leaves. A starter of Thai fish cakes (190 baht) arrives on a white oblong platter in a banana-leaf basket on a bed of shredded carrot and cabbage. These are not the flat, often rubbery discs we routinely see in Thai restaurants in Australia; each cake is crisply irregular, mouth-sized in the style of crinkly cocktail food and utterly fresh, soft and delicious.
Dipping sauces of hot and sweet chilli accompany the starters, the second of which is a plate of vegetarian spring rolls (180 baht), cut at an angle and sitting pert and plump, stuffed with crunchy, finely cut vegies.
Our lunchtime appetites on this glowing day are not able to do the menu justice. We share a main of green mussels steamed in white wine, garlic and Thai herbs (260 baht), mopping up the coriander-rich sauce with ladles of steamed rice.
But then, as the afternoon is flowing so agreeably and the sea breeze is beautifully cooling, we order a second main: a large dish of papaya salad (290 baht), fired with the hottest of tiny red chillies. This astringent, citrus-smelling dish is instant Thailand on a plate: the fragrance, the zesty freshness, the crunch and burn. It’s like eating sunshine.
Other diners seem to be ordering more comprehensively: there are long tables in the pitched-roof pavilion and also on the sand. Waiters are weaving with platters of whole sea bass, well crisped and shiny with sweet-and-sour sauce, and coconut shells, scooped out and filled with mixed seafood baked in yellow spices. With fishing boats pulled up on the beach, it makes sense to order seafood here.
There goes a tray
cocktails: margaritas, maitais, dazzling concoctions swirled with ruby-orange grenadine. There is high import duty on wine in Thailand but, happily, many restaurants favoured by expats and tourists in holiday centres such as Phuket and Koh Samui do house wine by the glass. There would be little value, in other circumstances, to pay 250 baht for a glass of South African bulk wine, but at least it is available (stick to the Singha beer, I reckon, or freshly pulped juices).
Sitting outside the Five Islands Restaurant is a prettied-up Bangkok tuk-tuk, in which diners can be whipped down the garden paths and off a few blocks to a sister cafe (homemade ice cream in scrumptious flavours such as lemongrass) and small gift gallery.
The entrepreneurial owner also runs tours around the bay in longtailed boats, including a lunch on the beach. Apparently he is Australian but we don’t see him, unless he is one of innumerable barefoot chaps in ponytails and pull-on cotton pants who are hosting those long and increasingly loud tables. They seem settled in for the afternoon, the cocktail hour and, possibly, the tangerine sunset. The Five Islands isn’t a place for the hurried or harried. We’ll drink to that. All Tables visits are unannounced and meals paid for.
Thai break: Five Islands Restaurant on the west of Koh Samui, with a tuk-tuk on standby