BANGKOK, Sept 27 — There is a battle waging in the Thai capital; at least, a culinary conundrum, if not a full-out war of flavours. Diners are swamped with an embarrassment of choices: from classic, traditional Thai cuisine to imported Western gastronomy (largely French and Italian; Antipodean to a lesser degree).
Is succumbing to “fusion” fare the only solution? We hunt for the answer in the soi (streets) of Bangkok.
Ancient yet modern
Led by chefs and founders Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan “Lan” Jones, Bo.Lan’s name plays on the Thai word for “ancient” — hence the nod to classical Thai cuisine — as well as an amalgamation of the two chefs’ nicknames.
Before you even see a menu, you are enveloped by a rustic Thai ambience with the clever use of woven baskets and woodwork as décor, set in the heart of a tropical garden sanctuary. Ingredients are sourced directly from local farmers and this community conscious philosophy extends to a “farm shop” selling seasonings, pastes and oils that are organic and locally produced.
Start with an amuse-bouche of fresh rambutan garnished with fried pork and deep-fried shallots, a gentle mingling of the chefs’ haute cuisine training and the ancient Thai recipes used. A salad of ocean prawns with pickled Thai cucumber is refreshing and unusual.
The spice levels increase once you partake of Bo.Lan’s “pok tak” style soup of squid and holy basil. Their red chicken curry benefits from the inclusion of snake fruit; the fig-like fruit with reddish-brown scaly skin tastes sweet and acidic, with an unusual apple-like texture. Don’t miss the Southern paddy oat leaves simmered in fresh coconut cream; it’s absolutely addictive.
Thai cuisine... the Danish way
You don’t have to travel to Denmark to have a taste of Michelin-starred Thai cuisine. Sra Bua at Bangkok’s Kempinski Hotel is the sister outlet of Copenhagen’s celebrated Kiin Kiin (only the second Thai restaurant in the world to receive a coveted star).
Sra Bua takes a modern gastronomy approach to Thai ingredients, thanks in part to chef Morten Bøjstrup Nielson. The inventive Dane pairs the requisite balance of Thai flavours — sweet, spicy, savoury and sour — with a sense of drama to showcase the ingredients at their best.
A trio of starters whet our appetite: crispy kaffir lime scented lotus root, roasted cashew nut and soy meringue, and homemade squid and shrimp chips with oyster aioli. Some Chinese influence is introduced in the five spice braised pork belly with pork crackling and pumpkin mousse, decadent yet not too rich.
Dining is turned into performance art as your server will prepare a tamarind and lime based dressing on the spot by your table. The gentle pounding of spices and fresh herbs using a pestle and mortar releases heady, mouth-watering aromas. This is then poured liberally over cubes of medium rare Wagyu beef, roasted tomato and cucumber curls to create a spicy and tangy salad.
Desserts are beautifully presented on hand-carved wooden platters. Their signature treat is banana cake served with caramelised milk and salted ice-cream. The generous shavings of fresh coconut and toasted almonds add crunch and nuttiness to the sweet-yet-savoury dessert. Their pandan ice-cream with pistachio jelly cubes is subtler but hardly less delightful.
The double-storey house is easily spotted thanks to its striking white walls and abundant potted plants. Entering Eat Me, a contemporary restaurant cum bar hidden in the back alleys of Silom, is to enter a world of cool: from colourful cocktails at its lounge downstairs to a dizzying array of bold international flavours, courtesy of New York chef Tim Butler, upstairs in the dining area.
Walk past the walls filled with rotating works by Thai artists and head to the balcony, possibly the best tables given its oasis-like view of green bamboo. Begin with some mixed clams with nam (a spicy Thai fermented pork sausage) in a coriander lime broth. It’s reminiscent of our sheung tong lala (clams in superior stock) albeit with a more citrusy and fiery note.
Try their black chicken salad with red papaya, toasted coconut, chilli and lime salad with betel leaf; South-east Asian flavours are well represented here. Line caught aji crudo (Italian-style raw fish in a South American hot pepper sauce) is punched up with blood orange, pomegranate and sea urchin.
Don’t leave without trying the desserts or you may well regret it. If you don’t mind strong flavours, the goat cheese ice-cream with red wine poached pear and honeycomb is a gem. The spiced orange m’hanncha (also known as snake pastry), served with chestnut and rosemary ice-cream, is a sublime taste of Morocco, by way of Silom.
The chef’s table
Trained in London, chef Tee Kachonklin decided to return to Thailand after six years away and start his own restaurant. Hardly an unusual story, but Tee has not only opened his first restaurant at the tender age of twenty-five years but also introduced Bangkok’s first “chef’s table” — where diners enjoy a tasting menu that changes daily depending on what’s fresh at the market.
The result is La Table de Tee, a tiny hole-in-the-wall fine dining destination du jour. (The neighbourhood is hardly inviting; a recurring pattern for some of Bangkok’s best culinary discoveries, apparently.) The sparse décor, other than a few framed photographs of the Thai capital, allows the food to truly shine.
Courtesy of his background, the menu is unapologetically Franco-Thai, inspired but unpretentious. Typical of this easy confidence is the chilled tomato and sweet basil soup with dressed crabmeat, sour cream, walnuts, broad beans and basil. Refreshing yet immensely flavourful.
The sautéed black tiger prawns and “sheets” of dried shrimps, served with prawn cream sauce, garlic crisps and cream, is practically a painting on a plate (but tastes much better). No one knows what delicacies await you the evening you visit but the chef himself; the surprise is half the delight.
This trend of “following the seasons” in sourcing the freshest and best ingredients continues at Le Du by chef Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and working in Michelin-starred restaurants The Modern and Jean-Georges, the young Thai wunderkind returned to Bangkok to realise his dream of creating seasonal menus.
With an emphasis on artistic presentation and flavourful combinations, Le Du (the name is inspired by the Thai word for “season”) is perhaps the most adventurous restaurant in town, marrying Eastern and Western techniques and ingredients without quite falling into the dreaded fusion category.
Gazpacho, the classically Spanish chilled soup, is given a Thai update with a blend of spicy corn, roasted corn and popcorn. More Thai influences, such as the use of winged beans and tamarind gravy, lift an ordinary grilled tiger prawn with poached farm egg to divine status.
Meat lovers will absolutely devour the pork jowl, served with sticky rice purée, spicy tamarind and green papaya. Even the classic mango and glutinous rice is jazzed up as a sticky rice pudding with mango, yoghurt and coconut ice-cream.
Clearly, when dining in Bangkok, the question isn’t East or West, but what’s the very best of both worlds?
24 Soi Sukhumvit 53, Bangkok, Thailand
Lunch: Sat-Sun 12pm-2:30pm; dinner: Tue-Sun 11:30am-10:30pm
Tel: +66 2 260 2961
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin
Siam Kempinski Hotel, 991 Rama I Road, Bangkok, Thailand
Open daily, lunch: 12pm-3pm; dinner: 6pm-10:30pm
+66 2 162 9000
20m off Convent Road, Bangkok, Thailand
Open daily 3pm-1am
+66 2 238 0931
La Table de Tee
69/5 Soi Saladeang, Bangkok, Thailand
Open Tue-Sun 6:30pm-10:30pm; Mon closed
Tel: +66 2 636 3220
Le Du Wine Bar & Restaurant
399/3 Soi Silom 5, Bangkok, Thailand
Open Mon-Sat 6pm-11pm
Tel: +66 92 919 9969