Going Native – Joining the locals at Tum Lai.

Tum Lai

Many different possibilities await diners at Tum Lai, and all are guaranteed to be mouth-watering; choose between Issan, Thai and western from a menu that’s generously long, and which has been put together by experts in the catering industry. The restaurant has an excellent location on the ring-road, at the bottom of the hill between Big C and Makro in Chaweng. There’s a massive car park too, with space that extends right round the back of Tum Lai. Everything about the restaurant is convenient, and it’s been popular since it first opened just over nine months ago. It’s run by a family who are well-known on Samui; they run the three branches of Copacabana, a popular chain of restaurants on the island. Tum Lai is their latest venture, and it’s doing remarkably well for itself, attracting islanders and holidaymakers alike.

Tum LaiThe restaurant’s quite striking and you can see this from the road. A giant steelwork carafe signals its presence, and the entrance leads to a series of mostly open-sided structures that cluster around a large pond. The architecture is creative, with a style that’s contemporary and relies on wood to give a rustic and laid-back feel to the venue. It wouldn’t be at all out of place in Bangkok, and seems to be just the kind of restaurant that you’d find in the downtown area of any large Thai city.

Take your seat either in the main dining area or out on the decking; there’s plenty of choice. If it’s really hot, you can take refuge in the air-con dining room, just to the side of the restaurant. Tum Lai is big enough to welcome large groups of people. In fact, many parties and gatherings are held here, from corporate gatherings to wedding receptions, though you’ll need to book ahead for these.

Tum LaiOpening times are 11:00 am until 11:00 pm daily. That’s a longish day, but it’s easy for the restaurant to cope as they have ten chefs ensuring that food arrives quickly at the tables. Lunch times tend to be quieter, while in the evening, Tum Lai can get very busy, depending on the season. It is definitely one of those places where people come to eat and drink in a fun atmosphere. Freshness is guaranteed, and all of the food seems to have appeared straight from the market: vegetables are vibrant and crisp, and everything’s cooked to perfection. There’s another plus point too, and you’re sure to notice it; everything is spotlessly clean throughout. Once you’re seated, the menu will be brought to you. It starts with drinks of all kind. There are fruit juices, smoothies, all kinds of soft drinks as well as over a dozen cocktails, red and white house wine, whisky and beers (both bottled and draft). Many people just come for these as it’s such a relaxed spot.

Tum LaiOnto the food. One of the focuses at Tum Lai is the som tam. The menu lists an incredible two dozen variations on the basic theme. It’s up to you how spicy you’d like your choice – just tell the staff if you’d like the spice factor dialled down a bit and they’ll be happy to do so. Options include Vietnamese sausage, pomelo (a type of grapefruit) and mango, crab and anchovy.

Next on the menu is a similarly long list of spicy salads that range through salmon, pork neck and shrimps. Try any of these if you’d like to experience the way Thais eat up and down the country; there’s so much variety in Thai salads that you can never tire of them, and naturally they’re as healthy as they’re tasty.

Tum Lai prides itself on Issan-style foods, and you’ll find a whole section of the menu devoted to North-Eastern fare. First and foremost are the larb dishes – each of these is basically spicy minced meat or fish. Here amongst all the more usual types of larb dishes, you’ll also find squid, minced duck and, if you’re feeling adventurous, even ant egg larb. All are delicious and well-presented.

Tum LaiMany guests opt for dishes from the deep-fried section. Plenty of vegetables accompany these choices and you’ll find pork spare ribs, salted pork with kaffir lime leaves and calamari with chilli, to name just a few of the possibilities. Naturally, Tum Lai serves various curries with rice, too, and again you can opt for the degree of spiciness that you’d like.

There are quite a few dishes that are very mild and which have little or no use of chillies. Try the pad Thai with shrimps or any one of a series of fried rice dishes, which you can enjoy with pork, chicken or salmon steak. Alternatively, try some of the stir-fry dishes (there’s a separate section devoted to these) such as chicken with cashew nuts or bean sprouts with tofu. The grilled section, meanwhile, features many dishes that are bound to please, such as chicken, roasted streaky pork, and the highly-recommended grilled ruby fish with salt and vegetables.

Tum LaiIf you really don’t want to try the Thai food, then there’s a small range of western options that are equally tempting. Tum Lai serves, for example, chicken nuggets and tempura deep-fried crispy shrimps, or you can just order a side dish of French fries as a snack.

Tum Lai also offers a selection of tempting Thai desserts and you might find it difficult to choose between them. Drink fresh coconut while you feast on black jelly in syrup, a Thai favourite, or try shaved ice with coloured syrup – each is guaranteed to have a cooling effect and is a great way to round off lunch or dinner here.

Tum LaiIt’s definitely worth coming to Tum Lai if you’d like to savour what eating authentic Thai food is all about. And with great prices and a lavish menu, you’re sure to be able to find plenty of dishes that’ll take your fancy. And since portions are large, make sure you come hungry.

Dimitri Waring