BANGKOK, Jan 18 — Thai celebrity chef Sirichalerm Svastivadhana, better known as Chef McDang, famously said that “royal Thai cuisine — as it is advertised to unsuspecting Thais and foreigners alike — is just a marketing tool that allows them to charge more.”
Chef McDang ought to know as he was born into Thai royalty himself (Queen Rambhi Barni is his great aunt). Royal cuisine, in terms of the type of dishes at least, is no different from Thai street food, be it tom yum goong or green curry. The difference lies in the freshness and quality of the ingredients, as well as the aesthetics of the presentation.
So for those of us who didn’t grow up in the palace like Chef McDang did, where do we go to dine like a Thai royal?
A royal affair
At the Sukhothai Bangkok, you don’t have to be royalty to feel like a royal. Walking down the tree-lined avenue, your spirits are lifted by the sight of the tranquil water lilies as your feet tread on well-worn wooden steps. Every corner is a revelation: from stupas rising from the water to a serene-looking statue of Buddha.
Forget the red carpet; this is simultaneously both simpler and grander.
The experience continues at Celadon, Sukhothai’s in-house fine dining restaurant. It is named after an aristocratic stoneware famed for its jade-mimicking glaze developed by the master potters of northern China and brought to Siam in the 14th century. The same care and craft are employed with the traditional Thai dishes served here.
Begin with the khong waang Celadon. You’d be spoilt for choice with appetisers galore: prawn cakes, crispy rice cups, steamed flower-shaped dumplings and crab meat spring rolls. Crank up the umami with yam woon sen thalay, a spicy glass noodle salad with shrimp, Hokkaido scallops, squid and mushrooms.
Follow this with tom yam goong maenam (spicy river prawn soup with lemongrass, lime juice and garden chillies), poonim krathieam (crispy soft shell crab in garlic sauce) and gaeng phed ped yaang sai apple (red curry of roasted duck in coconut milk) — and you’d have a good idea how decadent a royal feast can be.
To give your meal a sweet finish, go for warm glutinous rice balls and salted egg yolk in coconut milk (bualoy kaikem maproaw orn) or cool scoops of lemongrass and coconut ice-cream. Finally lean back into your chair and order a black coffee as you loosen your belt a couple of notches.
Classic inspiration, modern interpretation
Classic Thai-inspired cuisine is interpreted in a modern fashion at Paste Bangkok, run by Jason Bailey and his wife Bongkoch “Bee” Satongun. Australian-born Bailey first worked in an old-school Thai restaurant, learning how to make the best curries and nam prik in Bangkok. Satongun’s family owns several restaurants throughout central Thailand so she has a wealth of traditional Thai cooking experience.
The décor here is minimal: facsimile pages from an ancient Siamese cookbook double as wallpaper while you are greeted by a large bowl of dried chillies at the door. It’s the food that matters here.
The husband-and-wife chef team believes in obtaining the best flavours by using only the freshest raw ingredients they can source. Even the requisite bowl of steamed white rice is uplifted by the fragrance of organic jasmine flowers.
Entrées are a lesson in exquisite flavours and attention to detail. First, try the mangosteen salad with pan-seared scallops and roasted chilli jam that doesn’t skimp on the spice yet remains surprisingly refreshing. What may initially look like plain wontons are scrumptious steamed pork belly and shiitake mushroom dumplings drizzled with chilli oil and 10-year-old black vinegar.
The different textures and colours of the organic pork poached in master stock with avocado, red grapefruit, toasted sticky rice and local Thai flowers are a delight for the eyes and the tastebuds. Their version of crispy-skin duck employs a free range fowl rubbed with northern Thai makhwaen pepper before lightly doused with fresh orange and star anise sauce. This is possibly better than its more well-known Peking cousin!
End your meal with a simple pudding of black sticky rice topped with sweet duck egg custard and young coconut. There aren’t many dessert options on the menu but when it’s this good, sometimes less is truly more.
The house of Siamese flavours
Issaya Siamese Club, housed in an old bungalow in the heart of the city, is the brainchild of Chef Pongtawat “Ian” Chalermkittichai. He rose from humble beginnings pushing a food cart as a child to become the first Thai national in the world to become the executive chef of a five-star hotel, namely the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok. Local celebrity chef status aside, Chalermkittichai has spread his wings overseas with restaurants in New York City, Barcelona and Mumbai.
At Issaya, the order of the day is an ever-changing menu that focuses on whatever is seasonal from the market supplemented by aromatic Thai herbs from the garden. The restaurant is Chalermkittichai’s experiment in bringing farm-to-table dining to Bangkok.
Start with yum nua, a dish of grilled imported tender beef balanced with fresh herbs, organic vegetables and charred cili padi vinaigrette. Get busy licking your fingers next with kradook moo aob, addictive baby back ribs glazed with house-blended chili paste that are so tender they literally fall off the bone.
The mains are a celebration and a feast: try the sweet steamed whole fresh Maine lobster with lobster curry custard, fresh coconut milk and sweet basil (hor mok goong mung korn) or the tamarind glazed duck leg with pan-seared foie gras, sautéed red okra leaves and crushed cashew nuts. Why not have both?
Leave room for dessert. The house-made petits fours (kanom Thai) arrive with a sense of drama — smoke escaping a canister to reveal a “tree” made of candy floss, as well as more sedate options such as delicate madeleines. The jasmine flower panna cotta with jasmine rice ice-cream and jasmine rice tuile (kanom dok mali) is light yet satisfying.
These delicate Siamese flavours will leave you feeling like a king or a queen, and that’s a fine, fine thing.
Celadon, Sukhothai Bangkok
13/3 South Sathorn Road, Bangkok, Thailand
120/6 Sukhumvit Soi 49, Klongton Nua, Vadhana, Bangkok, Thailand
Issaya Siamese Club
Chuea Phloeng Rd, Thung Maha Mek, Sathon, Bangkok, Thailand
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on January 17, 2014.