Many years ago (and I think I wrote about it at the time) the Thais gave me an award and declared that I was a Friend Of Thailand. I think they meant that I knew the country reasonably well, had travelled all over, and (this is probably the operative bit) had both written about it extensively and anchored many TV shows on travel and cuisine in Thailand.
Last week, the Thai government invited all Friends of Thailand over the years to Bangkok for a huge street party. The idea was to reassure the world that despite recent political developments, Thailand was entirely safe for tourists. Indians will need no convincing; last year over a million of us went to Thailand and it is the most popular overseas destination for Indians, way ahead of Singapore, which was once a big favourite.
But Europeans tended to stay away from Bangkok and the Thais are particularly grateful to Indians who kept coming no matter what they read in the papers. In fact, it is now difficult to find seats to Bangkok from India, partly because Thai Airways has unnecessarily cancelled its second daily Delhi-Bangkok flight.
The party was fun with a parade down Ratchadamri Road and a fair on the stretch that connects Central World to Siam Paragon. There was also a formal function which turned suddenly informal when members of the audience (or what appeared to be members of the audience) jumped up and did a flash mob routine singing acapella before they were joined by drummers and danced all the way up to the dais.
I enjoyed the party. But I have to be honest. The idea of a street fair is hard to pull off in Bangkok because many streets host permanent fairs anyway, with stalls selling local products, very good food and (dare one say it?) some bootleg products. But everyone had a great time (I thought I saw around 40 Indian travel agents and tour operators joining in the festivities) and from the Thai perspective, the event was a success, demonstrating to the world that everything is back to normal in Bangkok.
What strikes me as most extraordinary about Bangkok is that no matter how much the Western tourists may stay away, things take only a couple of months to return to normal and then, it is almost as though the problems never happened. The other strange thing is that though tourist arrivals may go up and down, the boom in restaurants and hotels continues unabated. Each time I come to Bangkok at least two fancy new hotels have opened. And the signs of prosperity are unmistakable: the new hot mall in town is Central Embassy, which has every designer brand you can think of, from Hermès and Chanel to Ralph Lauren and John Varvatos.
Alongside this boom is another one. We all know that Thai is one of the world’s greatest cuisines and that no matter how little you pay it is impossible to eat badly in Bangkok. But till around 10 years ago, the restaurant scene was static: hotel outlets and some small places that you had to be an insider to discover.
But now, Bangkok is Asia’s new gourmet capital. According to the San Pellegrino list, Asia’s best restaurant is in Bangkok: David Thompson’s Nahm. Number three on the list is our very own Gaggan. And there are many others, including the influential Bo.Lan.
Everyone has their own theories but I date the beginning of the dining boom to the opening of Sirocco at the top of the State Tower in 2004. At the time, Sirocco was a standalone and it changed the rules of the game because it was impossibly glamorous and offered a new dimension to al fresco dining. Deepak Ohri, who opened Sirocco for Thai owners, then went on to spin Sirocco’s success off into a hotel (called Lebua at State Tower) and two other restaurants, Breeze and Mezzaluna. At the moment, Breeze is the gastronomic star in his stable, with wonderful Chinese food overseen by Singapore’s super-chef Sam Leong.
The next significant development was the opening of Bo.Lan. It was started by a Thai chef called Duongporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava, who went to work for David Thompson at his Michelin-starred Nahm in London. While there, she met an Australian chef called Dylan Jones. The two of them married, came to Bangkok and opened Bo.Lan, dedicated to proving that there was more to Thai food than pad Thai. They dug out ancient recipes and served the kind of complex cuisine that no Thai restaurant bothered with.
Bo.Lan was already a success when Thompson, who had won acclaim for his Thai food in Sydney and London, finally took the plunge and opened Nahm in Bangkok. He was nervous about how Thais would react to an Australian cooking their cuisine and it turned out that he was right to be apprehensive. The opening of Nahm was accompanied by so much xenophobic criticism in Thailand that the New York Times even did an article on the controversy.
While the Nahm controversy raged, another of his former chefs arrived in Bangkok to open a modern Thai restaurant called Sra Bua. This was a branch of a Michelin-starred Thai restaurant called Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen and served a vaguely molecular take on Thai flavours. Thais were not overly delighted by the fact that three white men should be running the Thai restaurants most celebrated by Western guides: Bo.Lan, Nahm and Sra Bua.
I am not sure how they feel about the fact that though Asia’s third-best restaurant (according to the San Pellegrino list) is also in Bangkok it is run by an Indian. I don’t need to say much more about Gaggan Anand, who has featured in this column often before but along with Nahm, his is the most difficult restaurant to book in Bangkok.
The dining boom has led foreign chains to open Thai operations. The New York deli, Dean & Deluca, has branches all over Bangkok. There is a glittering Zuma – a branch of the London-based chain – at the St Regis hotel and it is rumoured that the big French chefs – Joël Robuchon et al – are all on their way.
This time around I decided to check out the Bangkok upmarket dining scene. I didn’t meet David Thompson but the food at Nahm was spectacular: a home-style prawn curry served with cucumber and pickled vegetables; roast pork with an intense dipping sauce; chicken Chiang Mai style; soft-shell crab; and stir-fried beef. The great maxim of Thai food is that each dish must combine sweet, salty and sour flavours. And nobody does that better than David.
Dinner at Bo.Lan was different. Though David is dependent on the trendy décor of the Metropolitan Hotel where Nahm is located (i.e. not enough light to see the food properly), Bo and Dylan have tried to recreate a wooden Thai house at the Thong Lo end of Sukhumvit Road. They only serve two set menus so that guests get a sense of how Thai food should be eaten, in what combinations and in what order.
The meal started with canapés and included a glass of herb-infused whiskey served with local sour fruits. Later, we had a northern-style rice salad (very nice but I thought the presentation was too poncey) and the main courses included a salad of grilled beef with mangosteen, a curry of clams and betel leaf, cured pork simmered in coconut cream and served with fishcakes and a wonderful home-style chicken soup. The many desserts included a durian pie from which the nauseous smell of durian had magically been removed.
I asked Bo how people reacted to being told that they could not order a la carte. Either they ate what the chef had selected for the day or they went elsewhere. She said that so far people had been understanding but Bo.Lan now plans to offer an a la carte lunch menu for people who don’t want to eat so much.
I am not sure how the international chains will do. The Dean & Deluca at Central Embassy was jam-packed but there were only a few tables occupied at the large and luxurious Zuma. This is strange because the location is good and the food was up to London standards: barbecued pork belly skewers, delicious ribs, and best of all, eggplant that had been cooked almost as if it were a fish with the flesh moist and flavourful under the skin.
But of one thing I am certain: Bangkok will continue to flourish. I stayed this time at the Peninsula on the other side of the river and though it had all the familiar Hong Kong Peninsula hallmarks, including airport transfers by helicopter, service was far better than in Hong Kong. After all, nobody understands hospitality like the Thais.
From HT Brunch, August 3
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