Home » World Eats: Bangkok

World Eats: Bangkok

by Lawrence Ferber

While the street hawker scene remains as bustling and wonderful (and cheap!) as ever, Bangkok’s increasingly cosmopolitan populace and landscape has yielded new, slick, and vanguard approaches to cuisine.

Thailand is simply one of those places you must journey to for its authentic flavors and local, fresh ingredients. With rare exceptions, the rest of the world’s Thai restaurants, especially those in the West, are tailored to and softened for local palates. Many of these establishments swap out essential ingredients that are difficult, expensive, or impossible to access otherwise. Yet in Bangkok, you can find a spicy, seafood-rich Tom Yam Goong soup dense with perfumed and sumptuous herbs like sawtooth coriander, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, and exotic strains of mint and basil, on every corner. While the street hawker scene remains as bustling and wonderful (and cheap!) as ever, Bangkok’s increasingly cosmopolitan populace and landscape has yielded new, slick, and vanguard approaches to cuisine. Meanwhile, an emerging influx of international chefs import Western-style degustation experiences (which you may crave after days’ worth of nonstop Thai). Here we offer our picks for some of the best, and newest, spots for a wide sampling of Bangkok’s many shades of Thai food, from sci-fi molecular to earthy and organic.

NAHM

Nahm

Nahm

If any restaurant on this list rings familiar, it should be chef David Thompson’s top-rated, sublime fine dining Thai restaurant. Located in the Sathorn district’s Metropolitan Hotel since 2010, Nahm is a modern, clean, uncluttered space with warm woody hues and columns that evoke ancient temples. With a maximum capacity of 95 guests per night, reservations are constantly booked up at least a couple of weeks in advance (lunch is less crazed, but it’s still sage to reserve). The price point is gallingly affordable, essentially what you’d pay for merely decent Thai in your home city, given the five-star refined cuisine and setting. An Australian, Thompson presents a diverse range of regional Thai dishes and flavors on his menu, from elegant takes on typical street food to ancient Royal recipes. It’s not uncommon to see celebrities and other world-renowned chefs, like Andy Ricker of Portland and New York’s Pok Pok mini-empire, blissing out on signature dishes (or being tutored in Thompson’s kitchen for that matter). A true must, the coconut and turmeric curry with blue spanner crab and Calamansi lime, shredded kaffir lime leaf sitting atop the coconut cream-slicked surface is stunningly delicious, and the flavor-packed street food-inspired canapes that accompany set menus, at $70 per person, are musts. Hotel Metropolitan, 27 South Sathorn Road. Tel: +66-2-625-3333. www.comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok/dining/nahm

BO.LAN

A Thai native, Chef Duangporn Songivsava, aka Bo, met Australian chef Dylan Jones while they worked at David Thompson’s Nahm in London. The pair partnered up to create Bangkok’s Bo.Lan in 2009, dedicating it to flawless, classic Thai fare in rustic yet elegant, home-like surroundings. 2014 saw the restaurant relocate to another beautifully designed, wood-heavy residential environment, lush with greenery, this time conveniently off main strip Sukhumvit. Aiming for eco and biodynamic progressiveness, vegetables are grown on-property, local farmers supply additional produce and meat, and water is house-purified (a goal of zero carbon footprint is set for 2018). Within, the cinematic interiors feature painted scenes of Thai kitchens, while almost campy Thai cover versions of Western pop classics, like Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” play. Interestingly, and progressively, Bo.Lan employs a number of transgender wait staff. At over a dozen courses that come out in groupings of several dishes at once, Bo.Lan Balance set menu, for $82, offers a comprehensive overview of the chefs’ ouvre (named Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2013, Bo also hosts a TV show, “Eat Am Are.”), while the Bo.Lan Brief, for $70, entails a leaner sampling. For vegetarians, an exclusively plant-based Bo.Lan Botanicals menu is available at the same price points. Sensitive to Western tongues, but nonetheless unwilling to bastardize their food, staff will ask if you can handle full-on spicy heat, or prefer tame yet still tingly and authentic. Highlights of a dinner in January included a cane sugar simmered fish with chili relish; pork rib green curry; and a giant prawn salad with mea klong samphire. Do take a peek around the restaurant’s small shop outside the entrance, where you can buy organic Kaffir Lime shampoo made with nothing but the distinctively scented citrus: it’s a fabulous souvenir. 24 Sukhumvit Soi 53, Khlong Tan Nuea, Watthana. Tel: +66-2-260-2961 www.bolan.co.th

NAMSAAH BOTTLING TRUST

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Ian Kittichai is one of Bangkok’s best-known celebrity chefs and innovators, whose venues include Issaya Siamese Club, cooking school Issaya Cooking Studio, and fusion pastry shop Issaya La Pattiserie at Central Embassy shopping center (where you can find sweet creations like Red Bull and Salted Egg macaron). Although completely hidden down an alleyway behind bustling Silom Road, his Namsaah Bottling Trust, opened in summer 2014, occupies one of the least discreet abodes ever: a century-old colonial mansion painted in bright pinks, reds, blues, and other colors. Inventive Pan-Asian cuisine and superb cocktails rule this two-level gastropub, and each room features its own rich color scheme and design details, which can include chandeliers, patterned wallpaper, and vintage nudie photos: think Jeff Koons meets Baz Luhrmann. Namsaah’s name pays homage to the soda bottling factory office and bank headquarters that occupied the space in earlier years, and its two floors include casual drinking spaces, a more formal dining room, and an outdoor courtyard. The menus resemble kitschy playbills for theatrical affairs, and the sharing plate starters are where Kittichai really shines: soft rice noodle spring rolls with confit duck, basil, and vermicelli filling, and “tacos” fashioned from crispy wonton shells with salmon tartare and a chili-lime tomato dressing. The drinks menu, fronted with ground rules like, “No mention of the word mixologist…no cotton candy or bubble gum vodka,” is chock full of libations largely characterized by fruity flavors, subdued alcohol, and infusions. The Kaffir Lime Watermelon Smash is juicy muddled bliss, while a Samsom salted caramel whiskey sour is superb. Guaranteed to liven up the joint, order a Mekhong Zombie: the bartender, wearing a WWII gas mask (purchased from an antiques market), will torch the drink at your table. 401 Silom Soi 7, Silom Road. Tel: +66-2-636-6622. www.namsaah.com

SRA BUA
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The Siam Kempinski’s Sra Bua restaurant provides a one-of-a-kind molecular, fine dining spin on Thai food compliments of chef Henrik Yde-Andersen of Denmark’s Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin. 2014 saw the addition of a lounge area within this grand yet intimate, space for pre-drinks and appetizers, where iPads serve as menus. While a la carte ordering is available, the set dinner menu ($83) or its leaner, “mini” version ($68) are best bets, with either wine pairings ($83) or, for the alcohol-averse, juices ($29). If you’re a beer drinker, definitely try the craft brews created by the chef. These include the Dim Sum Lager, made with lemongrass and coriander, and Ricemarket Belgian Blonde, brewed with Japanese rice, ginger and honey. Dinner commences with bite-sized takes on Thai street foods: an herbal Miang Kham salad served in a tiny cone packs all the signature flavors of the originals. Same goes for the main courses, some entailing far-out iterations, others straightforward. Chaing Mai-style chicken sausages hide beneath a smoke-filled glass dome that, when removed, pays tribute to the streets’ tuk-tuk smoke; kaffir lime and marscapone snow with a Hokkaido scallop; and a mullet dish accompanied by a brightly-flavored sauce concocted tableside via mortar and pestle. One of the juices with my pairing was particularly fun and yummy: hidden within a bowl of sand, decorated with seashells, a straw jutting out. Those who would appreciate a similar take on Indian cuisine should also check out Bangkok’s Gaggan. Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok, 991/9 Rama 1 Rd. Tel: +66-2-162-9000. www.kempinski.com

SOUL FOOD MAHANAKORN

It may seem a bit bizarre that one of Bangkok’s best Thai restaurants happens to be the work of an American expat, yet Jarrett Wrisley’s five-year-old Soul Food is exactly that. Wrisley, a Pennsylvanian food writer whose resume includes The Atlantic (where he’s chronicled his journey from scribe to restaurateur), decided to create a venue where his favorite Thai street and comfort fare would come with a twist or two, an organic slow food ethos, and an excellent cocktail program. A perpetual crowd of foodies and expat diners seem to appreciate Wrisley’s vision. Cocktails are playfully named and often spiked with Thai flavors, like the Low-So Mojito with Chiang Mai rice spirit, mint, coconut sugar, lime and soda; and Bun Fang Fai with Cuervo Especial tequila, lime, chili, almond syrup and egg white. As for the food, portions being substantial and sharing-geared, Wrisley tweaks an ingredient or two in typical dishes that upscale them subtly. A nahm tok salad with flank steak, for example, a curry-rich khao soi with beef cheek, and a Thai seafood omelet incorporating Hill Tribe organic eggs. Good for the soul, and the body too. 56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thonglor). Tel: +66-2-714-7708. www.soulfoodmahanakorn.com

OSHA

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Opened in December 2014 on Wireless Road, where quite a few fine dining spots have cropped up recently, Osha is sister to San Francisco’s Thai dynasty. Glamorous and cavernous with a nightclub-inspired, over-the-top interior design that includes animated projections, glowing purples, gold, and a second level chandelier shaped like an ornate Thai headdress, this serves as stage for Iron Chef Thailand, Nelson. Authentic Thai food gets an equally glam, futuristic treatment, many dishes are accompanied by dry ice and nitrogen smoke effects and involve inventive tableside preparation. A Tom Yam soup, for example, is infused with its herbs via a fired-up coffee siphon apparatus, and a sizable lamb shank Massaman curry is accompanied by burning cinnamon. Presentation is totally over the top, yet this is not a case of style over substance, the flavors are all there and incredibly yummy. Do note that long pants are required for gentlemen, although if you forget, they do keep loaners on hand. The signature house cocktail, rich with fresh passion fruit pulp, wears a glitzy crown and is a memorable and fabulous must. 99 Wireless Road. Tel: +66-2-256-6555. www.oshabangkok.com

BENJARONG

Located just steps from Bangkok’s pulsing epicenter of gay nightlife near Silom Road, and housed within the sprawling Dusit Thani hotel, this long-established Royal Thai restaurant underwent a thorough renovation in 2014 that included its chef and concept. Danish chef Morten Nielson, formerly of Sra Bua, has taken an approachable yet creative approach to Thai cuisine that’s especially friendly to newbie Western palates, which is to say, nothing will burn your tongue off here, while the interior is lovely classic Thai yet relaxed and modern. Particularly tasty is the sous-vide duck breast, its skin seared, crisped, and sprinkled with rock salt, accompanied by Chinese chive stalks and a crispy wonton, while an assortment of French macarons with quintessential Thai flavors like Thai iced tea, olieng (coffee), and lemongrass are alone worth a visit. 946 Rama IV Road. Tel: +66 2 200-9000. www.dusit.com/dusitthani/bangkok/dining-en.html

SAVELBERG

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Wireless Road’s Oriental Residence, a gorgeous high-end serviced apartment complex with popular brunch spot for sassy gays, Café Claire, seemed an ideal home for Michelin-starred Dutch chef Henk Savelberg. His namesake restaurant, which opened in January 2015, brings technique-driven European fine dining to Bangkok, and is part of a wave that includes fellow 2015 openings L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Jean-Michel Lorain’s J’aime. While the white-and-orange interior and airline stewardess-esque staff uniforms feel a little 1990s, the food is current and beyond reproach. My opening cocktail was made with vodka infused with strawberries from Thailand’s Royal Project organic farms, and produce is locally sourced wherever possible. The Savelberg Experience degustation menus are the way to go: 4 courses at $93, 6 at $120, and 8 at $148. Dishes like langoustines with tomato tartare, parmesan foam, and truffle shavings are super-delicious and on par with anything you’ll find in European’s capitals—with tiny, organic Thai strawberries, of course. Oriental Residence, 110 Wireless Rd. Tel: 02-252-8001. www.savelbergth.com

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