BANGKOK, July 24 — I first learned about Gaggan, which snagged the top spot — not once, but twice — on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list from a friend who held her hen’s night there. That was my first inkling that Gaggan could be a fun night out, rather than a overly “proper” and stuffy experience most fine dining establishments turn out to be.
That the number one restaurant on the list — featuring the usual suspects from Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore — is based in Bangkok yet features progressive Indian cuisine catches one’s eye certainly. It says expect the unexpected.
Certainly if one looks at the résumé of the chef-owner, 30-something Gaggan Anand, one shouldn’t be too surprised. Born and raised in Kolkata, Gaggan had previously worked at the three Michelin star restaurant el Bulli in Spain, famous for its molecular gastronomy.
When he opened his eponymous restaurant in 2010, it was inevitable that familiar techniques — foaming, smoking and the use of liquid nitrogen — would turn up. Consider this the Indian street food of Anand’s childhood creatively reinvented.
The best restaurant in Asia is hidden in an unassuming alley off the busy Ploenchit Road in Bangkok. Surrounded by mature trees, the whitewashed colonial-style house is a beacon of white in an oasis of green. In the well-tended garden is a raised altar strewn with garlands of fresh flowers, a common sight outside many Thai homes.
We arrive early and observe the staff — kitchen crew and servers alike, a multi-racial team of Thais, Indians and Europeans — having their evening meal before service starts. We are welcomed inside. The classy interior is painted in a soothing palette of creams and whites, with a multitude of rainbow-hued cushions scattered about the two-storey dining area.
Gaggan offers an 18-part tasting menu dubbed The Gaggan Experience that explores the chef’s distinctive interpretations of Indian cuisine. For inspiration, Anand returns to India regularly for research and updates the restaurant menu every couple of months.
We begin with a parade of amuse-bouches, each a veritable flavour-bomb. Gaggan later tells us that “these ‘bites’ are meant to represent an entire meal in miniature — from drinks and starters to mains and desserts.” Our Thai server — a rotation of servers ensures a mix of ebullient personalities and humorous one-liners — advises us to “please eat these with your hands.”
To activate our tastebuds, we take a bite of a macerated cherry then sip on pickled plum soda flavoured with honey, black salt and spices. Refreshing. Next is an edible plastic packet of spiced nuts followed by a spoonful of yoghurt spiced with chaat masala and black salt; this is aptly named the Yoghurt Explosion.
One bite-sized delight swiftly follows another: Idly Sambhar, with an ingenious lentil soup foam piped on top of the steamed rice-lentil cake; edible silver leaf encases a spherical Aam Ka Panna, traditionally a slightly sour and sweet drink made from raw mangoes with a hint of cardamom and black salt; a spicy cookie dusted with uncooked curry powder.
An Indian server brings us our next treat: pork vindaloo. He asks us if we know what vindaloo is. I nod and he looks at me expectingly, with a wink in his eye. I explain it is a type of vinegar-based curry hailing originally from Goa.
He beams at me and I feel as though I’ve aced a pop quiz. (I neglect to tell him I’m from Malacca and familiar with a few other Portuguese-influenced dishes around the world.) The meat is unbelievably tender — probably sous vide? — and just the right balance of acidity and spice.
Gaggan isn’t simply particular about surprising pairing of flavours and ingredients; the dishes must look the part. Food here is fun but also pretty. The Black Forest Gateau marries cherry kirsch mousse with chicken liver pâté, adorned with colourful, edible flowers. The Khakra Eel Sandwich turns out to be an open sandwich made from khakra (thin Gujarati crackers made from mat bean, wheat flour and oil), garlic eel, papaya chutney and tendrils of emerald-green samphire.
The final “bite” also happens to be the best. The Mango Uni Sundae is an imaginative concoction of vanilla ice-cream inside a cone of dehydrated mango topped with umami-rich sea urchin. Sweet, savoury and a masterpiece in miniature, just the way Anand intended.
Our first proper starter is meant to be a mystery. Labelled on the menu only as “Charcoal”, we have no idea what it is, even after it’s been served. We lift a glass dome to release aromatic smoke, revealing... a black lump. A careful bite suggests mashed-up tuna inside its charcoal-flecked shell.
The servers aren’t supposed to tell us what it is but when I ask our server, she grins and whispers “sea bass” to me. (Close enough, I suppose.)
The mood has turned jovial as we share the sense of discovery with the tables around us. When the next course, wittily named Magic Mushroom, arrives, one of our neighbours wonders aloud, “I wonder if these will make us float? I certainly hope so...”
Alas, no natural psychedelics are employed. Instead, we enjoy forest mushrooms in the shape of a log stuffed with truffle mousse, complete with edible soil (made from dried mushrooms) and a “garden” of micro-greens. Redolent of black and white truffles, yet also tinged with Indian spices, this is a pairing that is as perfumed as it is pretty.
The pièce de résistance is the Red Matcha course, essentially a tea ceremony... without any actual tea. First we are served awagashi (traditional Japanese confections served with tea) of fresh fruits — melon, cherry tomato, gooseberry and grape — soaked in fragrant coriander oil.
Once we are done, our server — an intern from the Netherlands, he tells us — whisks the “red matcha” (freeze-dried tomato powder) in a hot tomato shorba (an Indian vegetarian soup or gravy) before pouring it into our bowls of coriander oil and fruit juice. Every sip a perfect blend of warm tomato consommé and peppery broth. Simply sublime.
A break before the main course (so to speak) and the celebrated chef comes out to check if we’re enjoying ourselves. Gaggan moves from table to table, chatting with guests, putting them at ease with one cheeky anecdote after another.
He tells us about his friend’s crab restaurant in Sri Lanka. “He only has three dishes but he makes three times the money I do! Maybe I should have fewer items too...” and the entire room breaks out in laughter, knowing quite well the chef is justifiably proud of his tasting menu.
Before he leaves our table, he tells us to enjoy our next dish, which is lamb. You won’t find any wagyu steak on the menu at Gaggan; ever the filial son, the chef had promised his Hindu mother he wouldn’t make money from serving beef.
We certainly don’t miss it; his tender tandoori lamb chops are well-marinated in spices before being grilled over charcoal, and served with a rangoli — an Indian celebration design — of beetroot and sweet potato sauces. No dish reminds us more of Diwali and visiting our Indian friends’ open houses.
Colourful enamel tiffin carriers arrive: I Want My Curry!!! is an assemblage of chicken kofta curry, minced lamb masala, whole wheat naan and cumin seed rice. Then dessert commences: the Peach Snowball is a shared platter of Japanese summer peach, ginger snow and Peach Melba ice chutney. Mango Duet Lollipop, Gaggan’s favourite childhood ice cream, is recreated as a popsicle of mango sorbet coated in white chocolate.
Suddenly the lights dim and go out. Not a power failure, surely? (It is an old neighbourhood, after all; the house dates back to the 19th century.) Instead a server approaches one of the tables with a candlelit dessert. A birthday surprise.
The servers begin to sing “Happy Birthday” in unison and everyone joins in. I’ve experienced such celebrations at fine dining restaurants before but the patrons are usually too reticent to participate in the good cheer. Not so at Gaggan. You realise, by the third appetiser or fourth, that a meal here is all about having fun.
Part of the appeal could be the transience of the experience. Gaggan has said he will close Gaggan in 2020, after 10 years of operations. He plans to relocate to Japan and open a 10-seater restaurant in Fukuoka, open only on weekends. That way he can be at his restaurant all the time, something he’s presently unable to do given Gaggan’s 365-days-a-year schedule.
It’s with this knowledge that we truly appreciate our final course: the fantastically-named Infusion of Sandalwood Earthy Roots. We nibble on a rice puff topped with rose mousse and fennel powder and then a tiny macaron sandwiched with carrot ice-cream. Finally we sip from a wooden beaker — it’s sandalwood-infused water mixed with honey. Sweet, aromatic, a memorable ending.
As we wait for our taxi, we decide, as expected, the food at the twice-awarded Best Restaurant in Asia is indeed fine and cleverly creative. We have tasted familiar spices — cumin and coriander, chaat masala and mint, ginger and tamarind — and experienced them in a new and wonderful fashion.
What we didn’t expect — and this is what will have happy diners returning — is what a fun experience Gaggan is. And that may be more remarkable than winning a trophy or two.
68/1 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Bangkok
Open daily 6pm-11pm