BANGKOK, Feb 12 — More than just a haven for street food, Bangkok is also a hub for world-class fine dining thanks to its sizeable expatriate population, not to mention a well-heeled upper middle class with sophisticated tastebuds.
Whether it’s sublime French cuisine by way of the Netherlands or authentic Tuscan fare that will make any Italian mamma burst with pride, there is a world of flavours in the Thai capital. Best of all, you only need a quick weekend getaway to savour it.
Arrive in Bangkok on a Saturday morning and head straight to Savelberg next to the Dutch Embassy for lunch. Its location is an inspired choice as chef-owner Henk Savelberg hails from the Netherlands — he’s the man behind four different Michelin-starred restaurants in his homeland — and many of his compatriots drop by for a meal after their visit to the embassy.
Wide glass windows let plenty of light in from outside, not to mention people watching opportunities along busy Wireless Road. Inside there’s plenty to see too, thanks to an open-plan kitchen staffed by both Thai and Dutch staff. The décor is elegant; the white tablecloths enlivened by liberal usage of the Dutch national colour.
Savelberg’s experience leans on the French side but don’t be surprised if some of his refined creations also incorporate local ingredients such as Thai basil, albeit in an understated fashion. Everything is presented and styled most immaculately, beginning with the amuse bouche: a cube ofgrilled watermelon resting on a spoonful of olive oil powder, topped with a sliver of pata negra ham. The profusion of flavours and textures — sweet and salty, juicy and melt-on-your tongue — makes this a wonderful introduction.
There’s a playful spirit at Savelberg: The crispy pork belly, pork mousse, white cabbage and pickle granita is a cornucopia of layered textures, subtly given a local twist with a hint of blue pea flower (dok anchan in Thai). The sea bass in lemon broth, morel and white asparagus is served with a flower-and-leaf covered breadstick to evokes the flora around a pond (where presumably one catches fish).
Not everything has to be overly complicated though. The warm oysters are served simply with sage-infused cream (and some mussel shells for decoration). Savelberg’s signature dish of brioche pastry encasing foie gras, white cabbage stuffed with truffle and truffle sauce looks and tastes like something that a hardworking maman in a French kitchen would bake with loving care.
Desserts at Savelberg are classically French, and therefore rather rich, but it’s the palate cleanser that comes before that captures our hearts (and, indeed, our palate). Chilled goblets of strained yoghurt infused with vanilla beans and orange zest are further freshened with a sorbet of passion fruit, mango and orange. All doused with a caramel sauce infused with various herbs and spices, proving that even the most minor of courses (or in-between courses, as it were) is given the fullest of attention by the good people at Savelberg.
For dinner, Saturday evenings at Lenzi Tuscan Kitchen are a cosy, family-oriented affair. Headed by chef-owner Francesco Lenzi (formerly the executive chef at Opus then Medici, both in Bangkok), the restaurant aims to bring authentic Tuscan cuisine from his birthplace of Pisa. Ingredients are sourced from Italy and only traditional cooking techniques are employed.
Lenzi, who learned cooking in his grandmother’s kitchen at the age of 12, is a bit of a celebrity, having competed in the Thai edition of the television cooking show Iron Chef prior to opening his own place. The décor, courtesy of an Italian designer, recalls the earthy siennas and ochres of Tuscany. Dark wooden columns and ox-blood upholstered armchair create an elegant yet comfortable environment for diners.
Begin with Tagliere del Lenzi, a board of cold cuts sourced from Antica Norcineria, a small farm and salumeria (shop selling charcuterie) founded by Lenzi’s grand-uncle in the Garfagnana region of Tuscany. Where else could you sample bona fide prosciutto toscano (Tuscan dry-cured ham) and biroldo (pig’s head blood sausage)? The paper-thin slivers of lardo (cured fatback) will simply melt in your mouth and the mortadella con tartufo (sausage speckled with truffle and fat) is to die for.
Warm your belly with Lenzi’s zuppa cremosa di mais e polipetti, which pairs silky-smooth sweet corn soup with slow-cooked baby octopus braised in tomato sauce. Then it’s time to get truly decadent with some pan-seared giant Hokkaido scallops layered with pan-fried foie gras and tartufo nero di San Miniato (black truffles) in port sauce. Sinful only if you count calories; otherwise it’s utterly heavenly.
You can’t visit an Italian restaurant and not try their risotto and pasta. The rich and creamy risotto del pescatore is levelled up with half a Canadian lobster, sea urchin and burrata cheese. Even better is the housemade potato gnocchi with gorgonzola at Lenzi, generously strewn with culaccio (the “King of Hams”). Hard to believe this is Bangkok and not some tiny Tuscan village; that’s how “on” these dishes are.
For il forno or desserts, the pera cotta nel forna — poached pear from the wood-fired oven, served with chocolate gelato and sabayon sauce — is flawless. But for something Italian children adore, ask for the bombolone — basically Italian doughnuts stuffed with custard and topped with salsa all’ananas, a sauce of pineapple, strawberry and blueberry. One bite and you know why all the bambinos cry out for a second and third helping.
The next day, you have just enough time for a leisurely Sunday lunch before being whisked away to the airport for your flight home. Fitting then, your last meal before leaving Bangkok should be Thai fare, albeit very fine fare influenced by traditional royal cuisine.
Award-winning Nahm (currently number eight on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list) is the creation of Australian-born chef David Thompson. His earlier restaurant, Nahm London obtained the first ever Michelin star for Thai cuisine. Thompson had religiously studied ancient Thai recipes, some from the royal kitchen, in order to preserve the delicate balance of spicy, sweet, salty and sour flavours synonymous with Thai cuisine.
Enter Nahm, and you’ll enter a regal world juxtaposing latticed wooden screens with classically-styled Thai brick columns. This sense of subdued grandeur continues with the appetisers such as ma hor, an amuse bouche of chicken and pork simmered with palm sugar, served on fresh pineapple wedges. Rich and sweet yet lightly lifted up by judicious use of chilli — this is the taste of Nahm.
Canapés such as the curried blue swimmer crab with peanuts and pickled garlic arrive on puffed rice cakes, presenting you with pleasure in bite-sized portions. Another winner is the egg nets encasing prawns, wild almonds and kaffir lime. Nahm’s signature clear soup of roast duck with Thai basil and young coconut is full-flavoured; it looks simple yet requires experience and skill to execute well.
Far more intense is the pad prik king pla duk fu, where crispy catfish is made heady with red curry paste and wild ginger. Some greens (and more meat) in the form of yam ta krai, a salad where the shrimp, squid and pork are given an aromatic kick thanks to lemongrass and toasted coconut.
Cool off with some icy tropical fruit in scented syrup, followed by some sweet Thai wafers with poached persimmon and golden duck egg noodles. Every course is a perfect balance of flavours and textures, and a reminder, as you get into your taxi, to plan your next trip to Bangkok, for more world-class eats.
Ground Floor, Oriental Residence Bangkok
110 Wireless Road
Lumpini Pathumwan, Bangkok
Open Mon-Sat lunch 12pm-2:30pm & dinner 6pm-10pm; Sun closed
Tel: +66 2 252 8001
Lenzi Tuscan Kitchen
69/1-2 Soi Ruamruedee 2
Wireless Road, Lumpini Pathumwan, Bangkok
Open daily lunch 11:45am-2pm & dinner 6pm-10:45pm
Tel: +66 2 001 0116
27 South Sathorn Road
Tungmahamek, Sathorn, Bangkok
Open Mon-Fri lunch 12pm-2pm & dinner 7pm-11pm; Sat-Sun dinner only 7pm-11pm
Tel: +66 2 625 3333