I am deeply troubled. A few weeks ago, I shamefully failed to identify tamarind in a sauce, and mistook mint for coriander in a dressing. At a mere 28 years old, I fear that my once keen tasting faculties are sliding into decline… my palate is going senile; my nose is showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. This is a disaster. An unparalleled nightmare, of whose gravity only a fellow foodie can understand. It’s the culinary equivalent of Roger Federer losing his right arm in a motorbike accident. Only I doubt the insurance would pay out as much.
At New Year, I inhaled something I shouldn’t have and entirely lost my sense of smell for three whole days afterwards. I woke up in a cold sweat every night in the fear, not that my house might burn down and I wouldn’t smell the smoke, but that I might have destroyed an entire career in food writing for the sake of one night on the devil’s dandruff. It was terrifying. If there’s one redeeming feature of the Hampton nose – crooked, beaky and allergic to almost everything though it is – it’s that it can smell. It sends me reeling from the kitchen when mushrooms are frying; it gives me constant nausea in the chip-fat back streets of St Ives; it causes me no end of issues in airport duty free shops as the sickly stench of mingled perfumes lodges its way firmly into my nasal hairs… but it also comforts me with the grassy spring scent of warm rain; it drives me wild with the animal aroma of men’s pheromones; and, most importantly, it helps me tell my cardamom from my caraway. Taste without smell is like sex without a hard-on – pretty much impossible.
The second attack on my food-appreciative senses came just a couple of weeks ago, with perfect pre-holiday timing. I acquired a mouth infection (bad enough in itself) which I tried to clear through gargling some foul-tasting antiseptic mouthwash. The premise it seemed to be working on was that if it numbed everything with which it came into contact, it would numb the pain too. I’d take the pain any day. It burnt off my taste buds, coated my palate with a medicinal layer that permeated everything I ate, and numbed the sweet-salt-bitter-sharp sensors in my mouth that rendered any attempt to judge a dish useless. Needless to say, I gave up with the mouthwash within a couple of days. It hurt to eat, but the pain was better than nothing.
Mouth infection and substance-induced smell deficit now a not-too-distant-and-still-pertinent memory, I was eager to test my once fearsome food faculties. Take Thai had been described to me as ‘the only Thai restaurant in Amsterdam worth visiting’ by a colleague of my Belgium-based brother who regularly comes here on business. Its chic white walls and minimalist orchid elegance had often caught my eye as I wandered down the Utrechtsestraat browsing the shops. After two weeks away and the prospect of the next six weekends passing me by in a flurry of BMI flights and bridesmaid’s dresses, I needed to catch up not only with two of my best friends, but with my beloved city. Take Thai seemed to promise just the kind of urban yet conversation-friendly environment I needed.
Our waitress was as elegant as the orchids I’d envisaged inside (with hindsight, I’m not actually sure there were any orchids; but the room had an air of orchid about it, if that makes any sense at all) though her language skills left us wondering whether our order would make it to the kitchen intact. Clearly it did, because half a bottle of Austrian wine later, the mixed starters arrived at our table. Predictably, they included kaffir lime leaf-fragranced fish cakes, posh prawn toasts and something on a skewer that was probably a mixture of prawn and pork. Less predictably, they also comprised a small tuna pastry affair and a sort of Thai version of beef jerky, that was sweet and sesame and… and here my senses failed me, which is what prompted this whole outpouring of anxiety over my ageing taste buds in the first place. Sense insecurities notwithstanding, all five of our taster portions were indeed the best examples of their kind I’d eaten outside Thailand, and certainly in Amsterdam.
By far the most accomplished main dish, for me, was the lamb massaman that was spicy and rich with gorgeously grainy meat. The chicken with ginger and mushrooms, and the beef with chilli and basil were also excellent versions of themselves, though the massaman far outshined them for sheer moreishness. The roasted chicken with garlic and peppercorns tasted firmly of chicken, which is exactly what you want from it.
Take Thai is relatively expensive compared to some Thai restaurants in the city, but not compared to many European restaurants, which makes the €40 a head we spent some of the best-invested euros I’ve parted with in the capital in a while. Speaking of investment, maybe it’s time I booked myself in for some Taste Training, or got myself a membership of the Gastro Gym. Or maybe I just need to do a bit more eating…