The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Whatever you do, you must go to Bangkok
You know you have been going to a city for a very long time when you remember roads and buildings as they were decades ago and not as they are now. Most Indians love Bangkok’s Siam Paragon shopping mall but I still regard it with disdain because it is built on the site of the old Siam Intercontinental Hotel with its acres of gardens; one of my favourite hotels of the 20th Century.
So it is with the trendy Soi Lang Suan, now full of fancy serviced apartment blocks and upmarket restaurants. I much preferred it when it was filled with rows of bungalows and such live music places as Round Midnight and Ad Makers. Only Gaggan Anand’s restaurant, located in one of the last bungalows on the street, keeps the spirit of the old Lang Suan alive.
I wondered how I would react to the Anantara Siam. This was built as a Peninsula Hotel (it even looks a little like the Kowloon Peninsula). Then it became a Regent, which is how I remember it. When Regent got taken over by Four Seasons, the hotel changed its name yet again.
A couple of years ago, Bill Heinecke, the Thai-American billionaire who owns the hotel, ended the arrangement with Four Seasons and handed it over to the Anantara chain, which he owns himself. I stayed there a few days after the Four Seasons had left and the hotel had become the Anantara Siam and found no change at all. Ah, said the skeptics. That is because it is still, for all practical purposes, a Four Seasons. Give it a year or two for the Four Seasons touch to fade and then see if Anantara can maintain those standards.
So I went back a couple of weeks ago and guess what? The hotel was exactly as I remembered it during its Four Seasons heyday. The service was warm and personalised. The food was good --- they are very proud of their Italian restaurant, but the steakhouse is my favourite --- and as hard as I looked, there was not one thing I could find to complain about.
The food has always been good nearly everywhere in Bangkok. It is more expensive now than it used to be but ever since the Michelin Guide arrived last year (largely thanks to the efforts of Dr Yuthasak Supasorn, the foodie Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand); Bangkok has joined the ranks of the world’s top food cities.
Which is nice, but I am still a little uncomfortable with some of the new upmarket Michelin starred places. For instance, I went to Chim By Siam Wisdom in Sukhumvit to see why it has received a Michelin star. By the end of my meal, I was mystified. It serves the sort of modern Thai food that foreigners like and it may have been significant that I did not see a single Thai diner there.
Nor was I impressed by Paste, another Michelin-starred restaurant. The food was so-so, not the sort of thing you would have minded eating at any mall restaurant (which is what Paste, in Gaysorn Plaza, is) if you had come with low expectations. But Michelin starred? One of Asia’s Fifty Best? I am sorry but I didn’t get it. The only really Michelin-starred thing about Paste was the pricing.
I gather that Michelin hired a Thai inspector to judge local restaurants and obviously she (or he) knows more about Thai food than I do so I hesitate to say more. But I won’t be going back to Chim or Paste anytime soon.
On the other hand, many of Michelin’s other star ratings are generally regarded as fair. Le Normandie at The Oriental is going through a good phase so two stars make sense. I am told the Japanese chef at Mezzaluna is precise and talented so his two stars also seem well deserved. Gaggan should have got three but no Bangkok restaurant got three stars this time so I guess we will have to wait till next year for justice to be done.
Nahm got a star though there are always rumours that David Thompson, its hugely influential founder, will move on. Two other restaurants started by Thompson’s disciples got a star each: Bo.Lan and Sra Bua.
It often seems as if Michelin is not allowed, by some ancient French code of honour, to launch a guide without giving the local Joel Robuchon restaurant a star so it was fair enough that L’Atelier got the nod. (No doubt the great man will get two stars next year --- if his restaurant is still around.)
The chef-owner of Savelberg brought his star with him from Europe and Ginza Sushi Ichi has long been a favourite with Bangkok foodies so its star was no surprise.
I was astonished to see that Suhring got only one star though the restaurant clearly deserves two. The chefs are German and I’ve been writing about them for a decade now, from the days when they worked at Mezzaluna. They are identical twins and not only can I not tell them apart, I can’t even work out which twin created which dish. They are unwilling to divide credit and say that they do everything together.
That may or may not be true but in just two years their wonderful restaurant, in a cosy bungalow in Sathorn, has been rated as the fourth best restaurant in Asia. In their native Germany, they are culinary heroes for creating a new school of German haute cuisine, though ‘fine German cuisine’ is treated as an oxymoron by sceptics who have yet to try the Suhrings’ food.
And yet despite their stupendous success, they still seem as humble and are a little startled by how well things are going for them. They are grateful too to Gaggan who came in as a partner when they ran out of money while building their restaurant.
Just as Gaggan is a partner at Suhring, he is also a partner at (and the driving force behind) Mihara Tofu House, a new Japanese-style counter-only restaurant that is about to open. I went during the pre-opening food trial phase and was blown away. Seventeen staff members look after 14 guests (when the second floor opens eventually, capacity will double) and all the food is made in front of you.
You have to order the set menu and each dish contains the eponymous tofu. You may not be keen on tofu in general (I am not wild about it) but this is silken delicate tofu, the kind that few of us have eaten before. They make it fresh each day, using 30 litres of water imported from Fukuoka (apparently the local water is the secret to the tofu’s taste).
The menu is varied and though the tofu features in every dish, it is not necessarily the main constituent. For me the standout dishes were a French onion soup made from caramelizing Japanese shallots with A5 grade Wagyu and a playful modern take on a gazpacho. Both included tofu but it was not the point of either dish.( The onion soup was created by the great Japanese chef Goh and I suspect that the gazpacho sprung from Gaggan’s imagination.)
Mihara is booked out for the next three months. But you may have more luck getting a table at 100 Mahaseth, my big discovery of this trip. The best way to describe it is as the Bombay Canteen of Bangkok. The food is cheerful and filled with joy but bursts with flavour and creativity. The menu is vast, includes many nose-to-tail dishes (which I am not that keen on) but has enough to keep even adventurous Gujaratis like myself happy.
If you do go, order the Bone Marrow, the Larb (a Northern salad of minced meat) the mutton (goat) ribs, the fried pork belly, the Northern Sausage Hot Dog and any one of the curries. They do a nice line in Thai-flavoured steaks as well and cure all their own meats.
It opened too recently for inclusion in this year’s Michelin guide. But if it does not get a star next year, it is Michelin’s credibility, not 100 Mahaseth’s popularity that will suffer.
What does that leave? Well, the obvious one. What can I say about Gaggan that I have not said before? It has now been judged the best restaurant in Asia for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. So it doesn’t matter whether I praise it or not. It is past the stage where any critic can make a difference to the regard in which it is held all over the world. (It was number seven on the global list last year and should rise up further this year.)
But three things need to be said anyway. One: Gaggan Anand’s food is better than ever. The new dishes are excellent and the old favourites have been re-invented. Two: perhaps because he now has the tofu house to serve his Japanese-influenced creations, the food at Gaggan is much more Indian than it has been for a while.
And three: book early. The couple sitting next to me had flown in from California having booked seven months in advance. They seemed to think it was entirely worth it. But whatever you do, you must go to Bangkok. Admittedly it is not as cheap as it used to be but the hotels and the restaurants are cheaper than their equivalents in India. And the restaurants, certainly, are much better.
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