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Bangkok connection: Our love for food brings the two countries together

Thailand’s Nara comes to Mumbai as foodie cross-fertilisation flourishes

brunch Updated: Sep 18, 2017 15:09 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
Bangkok,Gaggan Anand,Garima Arora
Scallops at Gaggan, chef Gaggan Anand’s restaurant in Bangkok

It is Bangkok time in India. By the time you read this, Gaggan Anand will have finished his whirlwind tour of four cities. The Suhring twins will be on the last day of their pop-up at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. And Garima Arora will be about to launch her pop-up at Masque, the Mumbai restaurant.

You know all three, I imagine. I have written about them before. Gaggan, is of course, Asia’s greatest chef. The Suhrings are identical German twins who first featured in Rude Food when they cooked at Lebua. I thought they were brilliant then and when they opened their own restaurant (called Suhring) in Bangkok’s Sathorn district, they quickly became Bangkok’s Top Table and stormed into the list of Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants, entering at number 13. The betting is that they will be in the Top Ten this year.

Gaa is Gaggan Anand’s latest restaurant in Bangkok

Garima Arora worked for several years at Noma in Copenhagen and remains a member of the extended Noma family. But she severed her formal connection with Noma and joined Gaggan as chef at his Bangkok restaurant. She was meant to be the chef at Gaggan’s Mumbai outpost but when that fell through, she became chef at Gaa, Gaggan’s latest restaurant opposite his flagship. Her food is nothing like Gaggan’s though. It is not particularly Indian and her focus is on ingredients.

Gaggan Anand is one of Asia’s hottest chefs and his restaurants are Mecca for foodies

All three restaurants have a Gaggan link. He knew the Suhring twins from the time they all worked at Lebua in the hotel’s glory days. When the twins set up on their own, they turned to Gaggan for help and Rajesh Kewalramani (Gaggan’s partner) and Gaggan invested in the project and now own half of Suhring. Gaggan and Rajesh also own Gaa and though Garima’s food is even less similar to Gaggan’s than the Suhring’s stunning take on modern European (especially German) cuisine, her restaurant is part of the Gaggan empire.

The food at Gaa is not particularly Indian

I am not sure that the timing of these visits from Bangkok was pre-planned. The Suhring pop-up has been in the works for months, Garima was due to come to Mumbai to cook later this month anyway and Gaggan’s mad dash through the country seems to have been launched on a sudden impulse at the last moment.

But it does tell us something about the connections between Bangkok and India. Last year, the chef from Eat Me, a very nice, if not very special, Bangkok restaurant cooked at the Mumbai Four Seasons and Gaggan, of course, took Delhi by storm (even before his place became Asia number one) over several days at the ITC Maurya five years ago.

Punjab Grill is one of Bangkok’s best traditional Indian restaurants

There is reverse pollination too. One of Bangkok’s best traditional Indian restaurants is Punjab Grill, run by Amit Burman and Rohit Aggarwal’s Lite Bite Foods. And there is history. Bangkok’s Blue Elephant used to have a sister restaurant at the Delhi Lalit and one of Thailand’s best known chefs, Ian Kittichai, used to run Koh at the Mumbai Intercontinental. And that’s excluding the pioneering role of Deepak Ohri, still the best known Indian hotelier in Thailand who opened the trendsetting rooftop restaurant Sirocco at Lebua over a dozen years ago.

Despite these links, forged over time and now solidified thanks to Gaggan’s restaurants, there’s never been a great Thai restaurant from Bangkok that has succeeded in India. We have had good Thai chefs. The best Thai food in Delhi is served at Setz, where the chef comes from Bangkok. (She used to work for the Peninsula.)

Despite these links with Bangkok, there’s never been a great Thai restaurant from Bangkok that has succeeded in India

And we have Indians who have immersed themselves in Thai culture. Ananda Solomon is India’s answer to David Thompson, the famous Australian chef. Just as Thompson became an honorary Thai after opening his influential Darley Street Thai in Australia, Solomon taught himself the language and spent months cooking in Thailand (even working at a street hawker’s stall off Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Road) before introducing a whole generation of Indians to Thai food at the Thai Pavilion at the President in Mumbai. Thompson went on to open the Michelin-starred Nahm in London, closed it, opened another Nahm in Bangkok and now runs a new restaurant in Singapore. Ananda Solomon will not say what he is working on post his departure from the Taj group but he spends a lot of time in Thailand these days and gossip has it that there will be new restaurants in Cochin and Mumbai. And of course, there is a connection between the two men: Thompson came to cook at the Thai Pavilion when Solomon was the chef and the two chefs remain non-Thais who have done so much for Thailand.

Twin chefs Thomas and Mathias Sühring ranked 13 on the list of Asia’s Top 50 Restaurants, and they may be in the top 10 this year

What I always missed, however, was the delicious food at the mall restaurants I frequent in Bangkok. While there is great street food in Bangkok and there are some very good fancy Thai restaurants in Bangkok, the city also has a flourishing mall-restaurant culture. These are sophisticated restaurants, with non-five star prices, where the food can be very good. One of them, the multi-cuisine Greyhound Cafe began as the off-shoot of a fashion label but is so successful that the fashion label has paled in comparison to such Greyhound Cafe favourites as the Elvis Burger, the Lychee Shake and the spicy Thai spaghetti. A branch is due to open in London.

My favourite mall restaurant, for the last few years, has been Nara, an elegant mini-chain that serves outstanding Thai food at the Central Embassy Mall (the outlet I visit most often), the EM Quartier, Siam Paragon, the Erawan Mall (the first Nara) and other such locations. I go there so much that I don’t even need to look at the menu before ordering such staples as the eggplant with minced pork, the prawn cakes and especially, the delicious pork balls.

Elegant mini-chain Nara was named after Narawadee (Yuki ) Srikarnchana

So, imagine my surprise when Kishor Bajaj, one of whose many interests is a restaurant division, called to say that he was bringing Nara to India. Kishor’s KA Hospitality runs Hakkasan in Mumbai and has Yauatchas in Bengaluru, Kolkata and Mumbai. (A Delhi outlet at the Ambience Mall in Vasant Kunj has shut down but Yauatcha should re-open at the Lodhi Hotel.)

So far, Kishor’s restaurants have mostly been collaborations with the Hakkasan group (founded by Alan Yau but now owned by an Arab fund) so the Nara tie-up marks a change. I suspect it is the influence of his elder daughter Karyna who has taken over the restaurant business and is streamlining it. She shut down the latest version of OTTO Infinito, a European coffee shop next to Yauatcha in Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla Complex that never worked and decided to turn it into two separate restaurants. One of them is Nara. The other one is still to open and until it does, Karyna won’t talk about it.

Nara serves outstanding Thai fare like Tom Ka Hed soup

Kishor and Karyna invited me to have dinner at Nara in Mumbai with the two ladies who ran the chain. The first was the very well-travelled Narawadee (Yuki) Srikarnchana after whom the restaurant is named. The second was the super-sophisticated, Chanel-clad, Birkin-sporting Sirisopa (Jean) Chulasewok. Yuki is in the watch retail business (you may have seen her Pendulum shops in Bangkok’s malls) and she started Nara as a sideline. And Jean was, until recently, head of Dior in Thailand. She has now quit her day job to concentrate full-time in Nara.

Karyna Bajaj took over KA Hospitality that runs Hakkasan and Yauatcha, and brought Nara to Mumbai

It was no surprise that the food was excellent. It always is when the original owners are around. I had the prawn cakes (like Thai medu wadas), the eggplant with pork, tom kha soup with prawns, a fragrant chicken curry and an excellent pomelo salad (and I don’t even like pomelo!), before asking the obvious question: who had actually done the cooking?

I waited for them to tell me that they had brought their head chef down from Bangkok. But it turned down that Yuki and Yeen had come without any chefs and left it all to the Mumbai kitchen. The BKC Nara has one Thai chef and one Indian chef who was trained at the Bangkok restaurants. Karyna challenged me to guess which dish had been cooked by which chef and I really couldn’t tell the difference – which is a good sign.

Rohit Aggarwal, one of the men running the Punjab Grill restaurant

The Bangkok Naras have food from all over Thailand and though Yuki said that most of the menu concentrated on the Bangkok region, I’ve always liked their Northern specialities. (That night, the som tam and the laarb were Northern dishes.) Karyna says they don’t have the pork balls yet (they weren’t convinced that Indians would like the flavour; are they nuts?) but I am sure they will make their way on to the next menu.

If they can maintain this standard – and I see no reason why they can’t – then this is easily the best Thai food in India. Given a choice between Nara and Yauatcha next door, I’ll take Nara. Which works out fine because Nara is cheaper than Yauatcha!

So, one more example of the Bangkok-Indian connection. And the link can only get stronger!

From HT Brunch, September 17, 2017

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First Published: Sep 16, 2017 22:18 IST