Samui’s got secrets. It’s always had them. Today they’re harder to keep. But 25 years ago, life was simpler – no smart phones or social media to spread the word; few people even had a cell phone. But there was one particular manager of a 5-star resort who’d thought about this. He’d drawn out by hand a detailed map of the island and added things to it. Often he’d get new staff coming from the mainland who didn’t know Samui. And then he’d sit with them, with this little map, and go over it with them in detail.
It showed the best seafood restaurants on the island, and all of them were Thai. Some were hidden away off an unmarked path that led to the beach. Others were in the middle of the jungle. Groups of tiny open-sided huts with strings of lights that looked like fairyland. Nobody there could speak English, and sometimes there wasn’t even a menu; visitors just asked for what they wanted, and usually got it. Sadly this delightful aspect of Samui life has all but vanished now. But there is one name on that map which still survives. And it’s Sabeinglae.
Today, of course, it’s changed with the times. It’s had to. Down in Lamai, very close to the famous ‘Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks’, the original restaurant is still there on the sand, just like it was when it opened back in 1990 – although it’s now become sturdier and stronger, with a big steel-framed roofed-over area, 20 or so tanks for you to pick out the live seafood, and with the shaky bamboo tables and chairs replaced with more functional furniture. But today the staff speak English, there’s a detailed menu in English, the service is surprisingly rapid, and you can even phone ahead and reserve a table; something which was inconceivable, back in the day.
One of the reasons that Sabeinglae made such a name for itself was that it not only had more items on the menu – a bigger range of fresh seafood – than most other places, but there was additionally a much greater variety of dishes, too. Curried fish for example, and typical southern fare such as satays with peanut sauce, massaman curries, or salads featuring the bitter sataw beans. It was a menu that was strongly and distinctively built around all manner of southern dishes, and the appeal to the Thai people living and working here was undeniable.
Today, a trip down to the Lamai Sabeinglae is a must for those of you with an adventurous nature: coming on the ring-road from the direction of Chaweng, you’ll see the Grandmother and Grandfather Rocks signposted on your left, and just after it is a high-sided road bridge with the access to Sabeinglae running down alongside it. But now there’s a much more accessible way to experience their fabulous food, if not the original on-the-sand rustic ambience. Because there is now another branch of this super restaurant in Fisherman’s Village.
I think it’s true to say that just about everyone who comes to Samui takes a trip to Fisherman’s Village, and often more than just once. A particular enticement to see it is to go on a Friday evening, as that’s when they have their walking street. But here’s a tip. If you go in a taxi avoid the usual dropping off point right outside and insist on being taken into the big car park of The Wharf, on the ring-road a little further on. (The same applies if you go there on a motorbike.) Not only is it an effortless place to park, but walking through the lovely little shopping mall is enjoyable in its own right. Also, if you bear to the left as you go, you’ll come out into a big open area where you’ll find Sabeinglae, overlooking the sea.
The two-storey layout is breezy and modern, with the downstairs area being open-sided, and the dining tables spilling outside along the side and terrace at the front. The extensive upper floor is bigger than it looks (overall the restaurant can seat 300) and similarly extends outwards onto a huge elevated deck. The décor is simple yet crisp, with lots of exposed brickwork and warm lighting. And as soon as you step inside you’ll be greeted, shown to a table, and presented with a menu. The service is good, and all the staff here speak capable English.
The menu itself is an object lesson to other restaurants: bright, clear photos of nearly all the dishes (there are far too many to have pictures of all of them!) and everything laid out logically in separate sections. Of course the seafood dominates: the owner Khun Amnart and his wife have family connections, and everything that is sold here is fresh off the boat each day, with absolutely nothing being kept to sell-on again tomorrow. (But in addition to the local catch you’ll also find imported New Zealand mussels and the big Phuket lobsters; things you can’t get locally.)
And by the way, the range of fish here is extensive; there are nine of them including shark and catfish. Southern Thai cuisine is characterised by the number and variety of curried dishes on the menu, and also the extensive use of creamy coconut milk, so do try the Curried Mackerel in Creamy Mild Red Curry; it’s the best of both worlds and totally delicious. Of course there are all the expected salads and soups, stir fries and noodle dishes. But look out for those unusual items, too. Such as the Crispy Catfish Salad, fried jellyfish, the King Crab Indian Curry or the superb Lobster Massaman Curry. Or just head straight for the Deep Fried King Prawns in Tamarind Sauce, which is crisply sublime and a real plate-filler.
The prices here are all very reasonable. And that also goes for the range of New World wines that’s available, with no fewer than nine of them coming in under 1,000 baht. Sabeinglae is also open throughout the day, and there are plenty of lite-bites and snacks to go along with this. There’s even another Sabeinglae that’s been opened in Chaweng – but, then, none of this is any secret!
Rob De Wet
For reservations or further information, telephone 0 7743 0095 (Fisherman’s Village), 0 7733 2651 (Lamai).