BANGKOK, Aug 30 -- If local Thai restaurants are anything to judge by, Thailand is all about Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup), Som Tum (green papaya salad) and Pad Thai (fried rice noodles). However, our northern neighbour has a lot more to offer than these traditional, cookie-cutter staples.
Here’s a contemporary tasting of Bangkok in a single day.
Wake up with cappuccinos and crab cake
Located in hip-and-happening Thong Lor, Roast Coffee & Eatery is a haven for those seeking proper artisanal coffee in the capital for their morning cuppa.
The café is popular with the weekend brunch crowd of young and trendy locals, as well as omnipresent expatriates. The relaxed, casual atmosphere is punctuated by natural sunlight and green plants hanging from water-filled bottles.
Owner, barista and San Francisco-trained coffee roaster Varatt Vichit-Vadakan delights in introducing higher-end craft coffee to the Bangkok crowd. Here they do everything from sourcing the beans (including locally from farms in Phrao, Chiang Mai), roasting, brewing to even distributing coffee to other cafés.
Our knowledgeable waitress offers to recommend us coffee; we accept gratefully. My cappuccino is expertly poured, the milk providing just the right amount of mouthfeel and contrast to their house espresso blend. For a single-origin coffee, she suggests an El Salvador which is surprisingly light but full-flavoured.
Head chef Johnny Liu (formerly of lauded-but-now-closed The Horse Says Moo) is a recent Iron Chef Thailand contestant. His zeal for constantly breathing fresh life into tried-and-tested standards is clearly demonstrated in our brunch choices.
Every decent bistro-café will have a big breakfast item on the menu, a let’s-include-everything-in-one-dish. Here the Roast Breakfast swaps the usual sausages and chips with a more-ish duck-confit-and-potato-hash and savoury duck meat patties. Fret not; it’s not a complete reinvention: there are crispy bacon and thin toast soldiers to dunk into the still-warm yolk of poached eggs.
Don’t miss their crab cake Benedict: a good-sized pat of crabmeat topped with a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce. Served with fresh asparagus, grilled tomato, crunchy hash and sweet caramelized onions (almost chutney-like in texture), every bite is dreamy.
Tea with scones and satay
For high tea in the city, look no further than Erawan Tea Room at the Grand Hyatt Erawan. A stately mash-up between a colonial-style tearoom and a traditional Thai boudoir, Erawan provides a cosy environment to spend the afternoon away from the humidity and heat outside.
Cool down with a glass of lemongrass iced tea and slowly sink into the tranquillity (or at least the comfortable sofa chairs) of the space.
Furnished by New York-based designer Tony Chi with a lavish, classical décor, you can actually watch the world go by through large, silk-curtained windows that overlook the pedestrian sky bridge connecting nearby malls.
Regulars come here for the East-meets-West afternoon tea set which arrives on jade-coloured, lotus-pad-shaped plates in a three-tier tea service. Begin with the savouries at the bottom. The slightly spicy Larb Gai Tod (deep-fried chicken meatball with chili and mint) is tempered by the floral notes of Chor Muang Sai Poo (steamed flower-shaped crabmeat dumpling).
Kari Puff Sai Gai, a Thai-style curry empanada, is surprisingly mild, while one stick of the tender, well-marinated Moo Ping (pork satay) is never enough. The sweet-and-sour Mar Hor (minced pork and peanuts on pineapple) is refreshing. For a single-bite treat, Mieng Kratong Thong (roasted coconut, chili, ginger, lime and betel leaves in a crispy basket) is surprisingly complex-flavoured.
Moving up, the treats get sweeter. Follow your scone, served with cream and strawberry jam from Chiang Mai, with Thong Muan, a crispy eggroll studded with aromatic black sesame seeds. Enjoy the texture contrasts: moist, gooey miniature chocolate cake; crispy yet sticky Kanom Krok (rice pudding stuffed with corn and pumpkin); and chewy Look Chub (fruit-shaped sweets filled with bean paste).
The unassuming Saowaros tartlet packs a punch with fresh passionfruit purée, its acidity balanced by the rich cream. Finish off with always-pleasing Khao Niew Mamuang (mango with glutinous rice) and Polamai Ruam, a skewer of seasonal fruit.
Erawan Tea Room also does a mean rendition of Gai Tod Kra (deep-fried chicken marinated with spices). Its slightly salt-encrusted skin is crispy and absolutely addictive tossed with fried garlic and shallots.
In the mood for sushi?
Come nightfall, it’s time for a little romance when dining in Bangkok. Get transported to another world when you enter this sushi bar named after an award-winning Wong Kar-wai film.
In the Mood for Love takes its interior design cues from 1960s Hong Kong, with a ceiling of bird cages for lighting, smoky glass walls and flowers arranged in thermos flasks.
Sushi has never been this sensual. Though Chef Runx had apprenticed in Chicago, he eschews tired California rolls for a more creative menu. Start with Sweet 16, a signature roll of avocado, eel and spicy tuna that is topped with ebiko (shrimp roe) and thinly sliced strawberries. Unusual, yes, but it works.
Another specialty maki is Guilty But Happy, a compelling concoction of shrimp tempura, ebiko, cream cheese and scallion that is drizzled liberally with nitsume (sweet eel sauce) and wasabi mayonnaise. Sinful but irresistible.
Sashimi is fresh here, with seasonal favourites flown in from Japan such as uni (sea urchin) from Hokkaido. The salmon skin salad gets an extra oomph from the creamy and aromatic goma-dare (sesame salad dressing). For non-seafood fare, try the perfectly grilled beef tongue with some freshly squeezed lemon and yuzukoshō (fermented yuzu peel and chili pepper paste).
There is plenty of sake and a formidable arsenal of cocktails courtesy of the resident mixologist. Still, toasts of “Kampai!” are muted here compared to more uproarious Japanese establishments. Diners aren’t here simply to get drunk; most are in the mood for love, after all.
This story was first published in the print edition of The Malay Mail, August 29, 2013.