SOUTHEAST ASIA’S RISING STARS
These restaurants are quickly stepping up as the region’s next hottest dining destinations
A look at some of the region’s hottest dining destinations
Gaggan may have taken the crown again at the 2018 edition of Asia’s 50 Best awards ceremony, making it the fourth year running the Bangkok restaurant is at the top of the list. But the restaurant and chef that was at the centre of media attention was Toyo Eatery in Manila, helmed by chef-owner Jordy Navarra, who bagged the ‘Miele One To Watch Award’ for Asia.
Although barely two years old, the 50-seat establishment, tucked in a corner of Chino Roces Avenue in Makati, has quickly become one of Manila’s top favourite restaurants, serving refined Filipino dishes prepared with local ingredients and traditional cooking methods. For the longest time, Filipino food has been described as comfort fare that is best appreciated in people’s houses, cooked by a loving grandmother, but chef Navarra, who cut his teeth at top restaurants like Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, UK, and Alvin Leung’s three-starred Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, has showed that it could be that and more—that Filipino food, like French or Japanese cuisine, is capable of abstraction and complexity.
One of his signature dishes is pork barbecue, a popular street food that practically every Filipino has grown up with. At Toyo, he elevates the dish by using three cuts of pork (shoulder, belly and butt), layered together to play on flavours and textures before skewering and cooking the meat over charcoal and wood, finishing it in pork bone broth in a process that takes about 12 hours. The end result is refined and spectacular.
Now, with the award under his belt, chef Navarra is set to fly the flag for Filipino cuisine on the international stage.
“The dream has always been to make food that represents who we are and where we’re from,” says Navarra. “We wanted to make food and an experience we could be proud of, and to be the best we could be at representing who we are. There’s still so much to learn and to do and we are happy just trying to get a bit better at it every day.”
Chef Navarra was recently in town for a four-hands dinner with Labyrinth’s Han Li Guang. The collaboration garnered a lot of interest from foodies who were excited to see what two culinary geniuses could put together with ingredients, techniques and dishes that are making waves in their own country. The two-nights only menu was intriguing and inventive, showcasing two food cultures on the same plate. Highlights include the ‘Jor-Li Bee’ chicken and chiacharon comprising a fried chicken lollipop, pork crackling and curry sauces, as well as the Sing-sig (Singapore play on Sisig) consisting of all parts of the pig served with egg yolk, char siew sauce and fried rice.
Navarra and Han make up a new generation of Asian chefs who are not only showcasing their country’s cuisine on a world stage, they are also giving sexy creative spins to their heritage food and native ingredients.
THE CHANGING FACE OF SOUTHEAST ASIAN CUISINE
More chefs in Southeast Asia are doing things differently, modernising their country’s cuisine by combining local produce with a mix of European and traditional cooking techniques.
Take Locavore in Bali, run by chefs Ray Adriansyah and Eelke Plasmeijer, who pride themselves on using only sustainably sourced local ingredients throughout their menu like banana blossom, bangkal hitam (a breed of local pig, also known as the heritage black Bali swayback), oysters from Sumbawa Island, and more.
The food served at Locavore is described as “contemporary with a touch of Indonesia” and has attracted foodies from all over the world. “At Locavore, we don’t cook Indonesian food. We use only Indonesian produce. The setting is modern, but everything else is local. It is an Indonesian experience. What we do is that we try to use Indonesian produce as much as possible and let that speak for itself,” chef Plasmeijer shares.
Not one to rest on their laurels, the duo is determined to take Indonesia’s dining scene to the next level by continuously experimenting with new ways to present their food. Over the past two years, the pair have unveiled other concepts in Ubud including Localab, a food laboratory and testing kitchen where the team combines local ingredients with stateof-the-art techniques to create new dishes. Localab also serves as a training hub to raise awareness of young Indonesian cooks.
“WE FEED OUR CREATIVITY INTO THE FORM, SO THE PRESENTATION MIGHT NOT BE WHAT PEOPLE ARE USED TO, BUT THE FLAVOUR STAYS TRUE. THAI COOKING HAS A LONG HISTORY, SO YOU NEED TO RESPECT THOSE WHO WROTE THAT HISTORY BEFORE YOU. THAT SAID, WE INNOVATE ABOUT 20 PER CENT, AND WE KEEP 80 PER CENT OF THE TRADITIONAL DISH.”
Over in Cambodia, French chef Joannès Rivière is drawing international eyeballs with his brand of Cambodian dishes prepared using local ingredients prepared with French cooking techniques. At his restaurant Cuisine Wat Damnak in Siem Reap, the chef, who has lived and worked in Siem Reap for several years, serves delicious creations such as the steamed Mekong langoustine with pineapple and herbs, pork shank curry and battambang asparagus cake.
Most of the customers who patronise Cuisine Wat Damnak are locals because as chef Rivière describes, “My food is really Cambodian. I simply take local dishes apart and put them back together.”
When he launched Cuisine Wat Damnak in 2011 with his wife Carole Salmon, he was the only foreign chef in town using local produce like frogs, young green jackfruit, wild mango kernels and prahok (salted fermented fish boiled to make stock) to prepare dishes with authentic flavours, undiluted for foreign palates.
THAI CHEFS FORGING A FRESH WAY FORWARD
In Thailand, the cuisine and restaurant scene too, has evolved tremendously over the past five years, with the capital city of Bangkok establishing a reputation as a serious culinary capital, boasting worldclass Thai restaurants alongside innovative establishments. Thailand restaurants also featured prominently on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best List with nine coming from Bangkok. Among them is Paste, run by chefowner Bongkoch ‘Bee’ Satongun and her husband Jason Bailey. Their establishment serves innovative Thai cuisine prepared with local produce.
“We want to keep the taste authentic,” Satongun says. “We feed our creativity into the form, so the presentation might not be what people are used to, but the flavour stays true. Thai cooking has a long history, so you need to respect those who wrote that history before you. That said, we innovate about 20 per cent, and we keep 80 per cent of the traditional dish.”
The menus at Paste change regularly, but diners can expect intensely flavoured, colourful dishes such as char-grilled langoustine salad with northern Thai forest ingredients, and beef rib, braised for 12 hours and served with long pepper, roasted tomatoes and mushroom soy.
Increasingly, more attention is given to Asia’s burgeoning restaurant scene. These days, top Asian chefs share the media limelight with their compatriots from Europe and the United States. And where Southeast Asian cuisine like Cambodian and Filipino food were once unrepresented, they now feature on the international food stage, thanks to increased media attention and awards like Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants, which shine the spotlight on Asia’s finest establishments.
Here’s a look at some of Southeast Asia’s top restaurants.
Chef Jordy Navarra of Toyo Eatery in Manila