Care to dine as a secret agent at The Service 1921 in Chiang Mai?

Kenny Mah
The interior of The Service 1921 is like a scene from the film 'Kingsman: The Secret Service'. — Pictures by CK Lim

CHIANG MAI, Sept 21 — Director Cary Joji Fukunaga has been filming the 25th Bond film — titled No Time to Die, perhaps as an allusion to the unforgiving social media schedules of millennials — in locations as diverse as Italy, Jamaica and Norway.

What would 007 be dining on? Cacio e pepe in Rome or curry goat in Port Antonio? Perhaps fårikål in Oslo or pinnekjøtt in Bergen, if he really likes his mutton. Come to think of it, what do spies and secret agents eat?

The answer to that might just be found in the old Thai city of Chiang Mai, where you'll find an espionage-themed restaurant next to the undulating River Ping.

The Service 1921, thus named as the building was originally built in 1921 by the British government, was the site of the first British consulate in Chiang Mai.

You wouldn’t have guessed, given its simple façade that is very elegant but also very Thai. Step inside, however, and its English charm begins to reveal itself.

Dark tropical teak is employed everywhere, from the heavy tables to the large book shelves.

Framed black and white photographs from yesteryear share space with dimly lit display cases filled with dinner jackets, bowler hats and umbrellas with polished chestnut handles.

The ambience of gentlemanly style and mystery reminds us of a tailor shop on Savile Row, not unlike a scene out of Kingsman: The Secret Service. Harry Hart would surely approve.

Menus arrive in discreet brown envelopes (left); cooking action inside the kitchen (right).

Once seated at our table, we are presented with our menus. Except it isn’t obvious at first that these were menus, given that they arrive in discreet brown envelopes stamped with an admonishing FOR YOUR EYES ONLY.

Dare we open them and accept our mission?

That is literally what our server announces to us — “Your mission, should you choose to accept it...” — and cheesy as it is, it’s also quite a thrill.

While the bar on the ground floor has a mixologist whisking up all manner of cocktails to go with Peruvian influenced ceviches, the flavours here in the upper salons are an eccentric game of contemporary Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisines.

After ordering, we are invited to explore the colonial style house. From afternoon tea lounges nestled around the veranda to a surprisingly modern kitchen, where we can watch the chefs in action through the glass, The Service 1921 is the very epitome of two disparate eras meeting.

The Service 1921 was originally the site of the first British consulate in Chiang Mai.

Change can be a very good thing. The rumoured former interrogation room is now a private whiskey parlour where guests can enjoy Cuban cigars while the finest single malts are poured for them.

Better a stiff drink than a stiff whip; though there are those who would question the need to even choose...

Begin by making your own miang kham parcel; select your ingredients of choice — from crispy toasted coconut to fresh lime wedges — and wrap them inside a wild betel leaf.

Make your own 'miang kham' parcel (left); 'linchee sod sai kung' or Cantonese style minced shrimp stuffed in lychees (right).

Or feel the heat with yum ped yang, a local specialty of spicy duck breast tossed with green apple, ginger, mint and goat cheese.

The grilled beef salad in a chilli and lime dressing or yam nua yang is equally fiery. Cool off a little with some linchee sod sai kung or Cantonese style minced shrimp stuffed in lychees; its sweet and sour sauce is tempered with tomatoes.

No Thai meal, even where very English games of croquet used to be played outside on the lawn, is complete without soups and curries.

Northern Thai soups are the way to go here, whether tom sab nua, a braised beef knuckle soup, or tom kha gai, an aromatic chicken soup made creamy with coconut milk and served in a fireproof paper vessel.

Creamy 'tom kha gai' soup served in a fireproof paper vessel (left) and 'gaeng nue yang bai chaplu' or beef yellow curry (right).

Choose your colour: be it a yellow curry such as gaeng nue yang bai chaplu or braised beef shank with betel leaf, or a green curry such as gaeng kiew waan ped yang which marries roasted duck with succulent grapes.

We are spoiled when it comes to mains; best to ask our maître d’ (perhaps a Thai version of Alfred Pennyson, with a hidden Batcave to maintain) what his recommendations are.

Perhaps we would like some Sichuan pork tripe stir-fried with ham, scallion, garlic sauce and quail eggs.

Closer to home, kua haeng gai or Chiang Mai style sliced chicken wok-fried in dried red curry paste, Thai basil and fish sauce could do the trick.

'Lanna gai nung' or Lanna style steamed marinated chicken with curry paste.

Seasonal specials are always worth a try. During our visit, the restaurant had Lanna gai nung or Lanna style steamed marinated chicken with curry paste.

For lighter appetites, Vietnamese rice paper rolls stuffed with poached shrimps, pickled cabbage, mint and cucumber are utterly refreshing.

Generally a Thai ice cream sandwich or ai-tim kanom bpang is served in a fluffy hot dog bun. Here it’s replaced with a sesame seed encrusted round bun, giving it the air of a gourmet burger — complete with a pickle skewer.

Filled with traditional toppings such as tubtim grob (water chestnut “rubies”) and served with a fresh sliced banana on the side, your inner child aches to come out and play.

'Kluay buad chee' made from the yellow 'kluay kai' banana (left) and Thai ice cream sandwich or 'ai-tim kanom bpang' (right).

Another dessert, kluay buad chee, is made from the yellow kluay kai banana (rather than the typical white kluay namwa banana).

Paired with a scoop of coconut ice cream, and the seductive spy in you can blow hot and cold most deliciously.

One wonders if actor Daniel Craig will be racing the yet-to-be-released Aston Martin Valhalla alongside the circular canals of Chiang Mai though.

We might never know until the movie comes out, but if he does, he’d be dining well and perhaps in good company too.

Inside the secret room, only accessible through a door concealed behind a bookshelf, we can imagine James Bond having a clandestine supper here with taciturn George Smiley, free-spirited Mata Hari, the amnesiac Jason Bourne, the impossible Ethan Hunt and terrifyingly potent Natasha Romanova. (They don’t seem the sort to cook at home so no fears of these spies stealing the chef’s secret recipes...)

No time to dine? Agent 007 might well disagree.

The Service 1921 Restaurant & Bar
123-123/1, Charoen Prathet Rd, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Open daily 12pm–12:30am
Tel: +66 53 253 333

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