BANGKOK’S NEW BOUNTY

PUTTING A PRE­MIUM ON SUS­TAIN­ABLE LO­CAL IN­GRE­DI­ENTS, A CLUTCH OF YOUNG BANGKOK-BASED CHEFS ARE RE­DEFIN­ING THAI FOOD IN DISHES THAT ARE AS IN­VEN­TIVE AS THEY ARE DE­LI­CIOUS.

DestinAsian - - FEA­TURES - By Lara Dun­ston

A clutch of young chefs in the Thai cap­i­tal are driv­ing the city’s se­cond din­ing re­nais­sance with dishes that are as in­ven­tive as they are de­li­cious.

SOUND LIKE SACRILEGE, but the best Thai food in Bangkok is no longer found on the streets. Rather, it’s the do­main of a new gen­er­a­tion of in­trepid and eco-con­scious young chefs who draw their in­spi­ra­tion from Thai in­gre­di­ents, age-old preser­va­tion tech­niques, fam­ily recipes, and the city it­self. Bangkok has never been a more ex­cit­ing place to eat than it is right now.

On my first trip to the city 14 years ago, street-food stalls and gen­er­a­tions-old eater­ies were still the best op­tions for a good feed of Thai food. If din­ers wanted some­thing finer, washed down with a de­cent bot­tle of wine, there was lit­tle choice but to head to a five-star ho­tel, where over-de­signed restau­rants with over-dec­o­rated ta­bles dished up in­sipid cur­ries for a clien­tele less in­ter­ested in culi­nary vir­tu­os­ity than in the prom­ise of air con­di­tion­ing.

Lit­tle had changed when my pho­tog­ra­pher hus­band, Ter­ence, and I re­turned to Thai­land to re­search a guide­book two years later. But when we set­tled into the cap­i­tal in 2009, we found our­selves doc­u­ment­ing a re­lent­less five-year wave of chef-driven Thai restau­rant open­ings like noth­ing Bangkok had seen be­fore, kick-started by Thai-born Duang­porn “Bo” Songvisava and her Aus­tralian hus­band Dy­lan Jones’s Bo.lan, Aussie-born Thai food mas­ter David Thomp­son’s Nahm, and Amer­i­can food writer Jar­rett Wris­ley’s Soul Food Ma­hanakorn. Not long af­ter came Ian Kit­tichai’s Is­saya Si­amese Club, Dan­ish chef Hen­rik Yde An­der­sen’s Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, Bongkoch Sa­tongun and her Aussie hus­band Ja­son Bai­ley’s Paste and Su­pan­niga Eat­ing Room, Le Du by New York–trained Thi­tid “Ton” Tas­sanaka­john, and Err by the Bo.lan team. Those ground­break­ing eater­ies paved the way for a group of chefs who are now craft­ing some of the most in­spired—and sus­tain­able—food in the city. Here’s where to find them.

100 MA­HASETH

Some of Bangkok’s most de­li­cious Thai dishes await at year-old 100 Ma­haseth, which oc­cu­pies an un­pre­ten­tious wooden house in one of the city’s old­est neigh­bor­hoods, Charoenkrung. The fo­cus here is nose-to-tail cui­sine from Thai­land’s north­east­ern Isan re­gion, and the pre­sen­ta­tion is ut­terly beau­ti­ful. Bone mar­row—roasted and buried in char­coal, topped with toasted per­illa seeds, scal­lions, palm sugar, lime, and lemon­grass, and plated on peb­bles—is a muchIn­sta­grammed dish. And it tastes as good as it looks, the fra­grant lemon­grass and smoky aro­mas pre­par­ing my senses for the crunch, zest, and rich creamy mar­row to come.

Chefs Chalee Kader and Chaichat “Randy” No­prapa didn’t orig­i­nally in­tend to open an Isan joint. The young part­ners had dreamed in­stead of a pho shop serv­ing the Viet­namese soup they loved to slurp while study­ing to­gether in Cal­i­for­nia.

“We were go­ing to use so many cuts and parts of the cow to make the pho broth and top­pings, then use the of­fal, tails, and what­not for other dishes,” Chalee ex­plains. “We could re­ally only do pho for lunch so I thought, which other cui­sine used a lot of cow and pig? Isan. Ev­ery time we had Isan food grow­ing up it felt like a feast with so much to share.” Kader and No­prapa de­cided on a menu that would make Bangkokians re­al­ize how de­prived they’d been of au­then­tic Isan food. Serendip­i­tously, most of their kitchen team came from the re­gion and from homes that ate well. The re­sults are dishes such as fer­mented pork-rib soup, rice-field crab soup with fer­mented fish, and—one of my fa­vorites—a hearty cas­sia-leaf curry with

braised ox­tail, ya nang (a deep green leaf used in homey vegetable soups), and salted mack­erel (an­other Isan fa­vorite). Healthy and herba­ceous, it’s thicker, richer, and more com­fort­ing than any I’ve sam­pled be­fore.

“The re­search and our trav­els have been the core to our dish de­vel­op­ment and ideas,” Kader tells me. “I’m try­ing my best to dig for more knowl­edge. I still have a long way to go, but we’ll get there. The more I learn, the more I re­al­ize how the Isan way of life has changed the way I cook, use, pre­serve, and try not to waste foods.”

80/20

Just a few min­utes’ walk from 100 Ma­haseth via the shop­house-lined streets of the Talat Noi negh­bor­hood, 80/20 is the ca­sual diner of 35-year-old Thai chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget and his Ja­panese pas­try chef wife Saki Hoshino. It’s named for the amount of lo­cal pro­duce (80 per­cent) used in their con­tem­po­rary Thai tast­ing menus.

The laid­back space, which feels more like an arty café than a restau­rant serv­ing some of the city’s most el­e­gant-look­ing food, closed for ren­o­va­tion just af­ter I dined re­cently. When it re­opens in No­vem­ber, the open kitchen will be larger, there will be a lab for ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, as well as a room for the preser­va­tion, pick­ling, and fer­men­ta­tion Jantraget has been do­ing in the din­ing area.

“Preser­va­tion has al­ways been a big part of Thai cui­sine,” the chef ex­plains. “But it’s pretty much limited to sta­ples like fish sauce, shrimp paste, and fer­mented fish. I want to ex­plore what else can be done. I to­tally be­lieve new prod­ucts can move Thai cui­sine for­ward.”

Jantraget’s most ad­ven­tur­ous dishes—lo­cal oys­ter with al­gae and kaf­fir lime; smoked prawn crudo with ant eggs; free-range chicken with lo­cal mush­rooms and maeng da (wa­ter­bug) but­ter—taste way bet­ter than they sound; they’re also among the most pret­tily plated dishes I’ve laid eyes on, pre­sented across beau­ti­fully bal­anced five­and seven-course tast­ing menus that can be matched with nat­u­ral wines, craft beers, or fizzy fruit drinks fer­mented in-house.

Upon the restau­rant’s re­open­ing, the chefs hope to be us­ing en­tirely lo­cal pro­duce. “We’ve found bet­ter lo­cal sup­pli­ers for fresh seafood and beef, and our choco­late is pro­duced in Chi­ang Mai,” Hoshino says with sat­is­fac­tion. “We’re even mak­ing our own miso and vine­gar now.”

CAN­VAS

Seated at the counter over­look­ing the calm open kitchen of Texan chef Ri­ley San­ders’ com­pact Can­vas—a restau­rant in the trendy Thon­glor area that serves cui­sine in­spired by Bangkok’s chaos, en­ergy, and ex­u­ber­ance—I’m slowly di­gest­ing my nine-course tast­ing menu, but strug­gling to de­scribe the chef’s unique cook­ing ap­proach.

The pre­sen­ta­tion is con­tem­po­rary, the tech­niques are Euro­pean, yet the in­gre­di­ents and fla­vors of the dishes be­fore me are dis­tinctly Thai: river prawns, pink pep­per­corns, and green mango; toasted rice bread, salted egg, and yel­low chili; duck breast with san­tol fruit, peanut, and gar­lic; lemon basil, cus­tard ap­ple, and pomelo; pump­kin, pineap­ple, and pine sugar. For San­ders, af­ter Bangkok, Thai pro­duce is his in­spi­ra­tion.

The 29-year-old spent sev­eral years train­ing un­der award-win­ning chefs in the United States be­fore ac­cept­ing a job as a pri­vate chef on a Mi­ami-based yacht. His goal: a global culi­nary ed­u­ca­tion. San­ders used his time off to eat his way through over 30 coun­tries in

four years, us­ing Miche­lin and the World’s 50 Best Restau­rants list as his guides. Thai­land’s cap­i­tal be­came his fa­vorite city.

“We’re a Bangkok restau­rant and want to be re­flec­tive of this city: col­or­ful, fun, in­ter­est­ing,” San­ders tells me. “I don’t con­sider us Asian or Western, and I don’t think fu­sion is the right genre ei­ther. We want to de­fine what cook­ing in mod­ern Bangkok can be by tak­ing in­spi­ra­tion from the lo­cal sights, mar­kets, and in­gre­di­ents.”

Among the most vivid dishes on his tast­ing menus are con­fit­style frog with hairy eg­g­plant and holy basil–scented milk foam, and a del­i­cate square of king mack­erel pre­pared sous-vide in soya milk and topped with a rich green paste of dill and ant eggs. Frogs and mack­erel are street-food sta­ples, but they’ve never been treated with such pre­ci­sion, care, and cre­ativ­ity as they are here.

HAOMA

“Smell this!” ex­claims Deep­anker Khosla, crush­ing some dill that he’s just plucked from a planter box. “It’s wild!” I say, as­ton­ished at the con­cen­tra­tion of fla­vor. The scent is heady with an in­tense taste of aniseed. Khosla then hands me a sprig of Thai wasabi, his eyes light­ing up. “Try this!” It’s stronger than any horseradish I’ve had, im­me­di­ately clear­ing my head.

I’m re­ceiv­ing the pre-din­ner tour ev­ery diner gets at Haoma, a farm-to-ta­ble restau­rant that, more than any of the other es­tab­lish­ments I visit, stretches the def­i­ni­tion of Thai food. Set in the 28-year-old In­dian chef’s for­mer home, it’s lo­cated at the end of a quiet lane in Phrom Phong’s res­i­den­tial back­streets, just a kilo­me­ter from the grid­lock of busy Sukhumvit Road.

Dur­ing our tour of Khosla’s tiny or­ganic farm—flour­ish­ing thanks to an im­pres­sive aquapon­ics sys­tem that har­vests and re­cy­cles wa­ter from the restau­rant, di­rect­ing it to the planter boxes, ver­ti­cal hy­dro­pon­ics gar­dens, and minia­ture fish farm—we sniff and taste sam­ples of many of the nearly 40 edi­ble flow­ers, leaves, herbs, and veg­eta­bles grown here. We stop at the flap­ping fish Khosla breeds in high bar­rels, which I’ll taste soon enough. They’re scooped out at the start of ser­vice.

Har­vest­ing pro­duce as needed so that noth­ing goes to waste is in­te­gral to Khosla’s zero-waste, car­bon-neu­tral, and plas­tic-free ap­proach, which be­gan with the restau­rant ren­o­va­tion. Ev­ery­thing was re­pur­posed, from tim­ber re­cy­cled to an iron door grille from which

Left: Chefs Napol Jantraget and Saki Hoshino out­side 80/20. Above: The cock­tail board at the same restau­rant.Op­po­site: Smoked prawn crudo with ant eggs, cured foie gras, pa­paya, and edi­ble flow­ers, also at 80/20.

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