Osha restaurant, Bangkok
A GOOD THING
BANGKOK'S NEW WAVE OF THAI FINE DINING CHEFS ARE CHALLENGING ACCEPTED STANDARDS OF THAI FOOD, AND EMBRACING NEW FLAVORS AND COOKING TECHNIQUES.
There’s a revolution going on in the kitchens of Bangkok’s Thai fine-dining restaurants. Or at least according to a growing number of Bangkok-based Thai chefs who are challenging the belief that Thai food cannot be improved by modern cooking techniques and outside flavor influences. At the same time, the last wave of heritage-oriented Thai fine dining restaurants are seeing their global ranking slip, with Nahm, chef David Thompson’s Bangkok reincarnation of the Michelin-starred Nahm in London, moving from the top spot in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurant 2014 to no. 7 in 2015.
But can something as simple as pad kra pao really be improved by imported ingredients and contemporary cooking techniques? Chef Thitid Tassanakajohn of Le Du, a fusion-meets-molecular Thai restaurant which opened off Narathiwat Road (Silom Road) in late 2013, thinks so.
“Every cuisine has to have a revolution,” says Thitid. “It always starts with someone doing something innovative. When I look at countries like France or even Japan--somewhere very close to us--I see how in the past 10-20 years they have allowed a lot to happen to their cuisines, leading them to be better. They’re now the most creative and exciting dining destinations in the world. Call it modern, innovative, fusion or whatever; if it helps the cuisine and if the chef does it with true understanding, then it can reach a higher level.”
Thitid’s restaurant is considered by many of his piers to be one of the top kitchens in town right now. In BK Magazine’s Top Tables 2015, which claims to be Bangkok’s only dining guide voted for entirely by restaurateurs, chefs and known, knowledgeable diners, it ranked in third place, behind only Gaggan and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon.
The dining room at Le Du is nothing compared to the sleek, perfectly polished, sky’s-the-limit decor of some of Thitid’s competitors. The young Culinary Institute of America graduate has made an impression not by a fancy setting, but by food. One of the most outstanding characteristics of the dishes at Le Du is just how authentically Thai the flavors are in such un-Thai-looking plates. Sticky rice can come in the form of a cream, with the feel of a rich mashed potato, but the flavor is unmistakably of freshly cooked sticky rice. The menu changes every few months, though, so that the salted chicken with pork powder and betel leaf gel will likely no longer be available by the time you read this, but you can always expect the same level of creativity--as well as the occasional misfire.
But does Thitid really think diners want to be served his culinary experiments, or is it just a bit of chef-y vanity? “Restaurants like Le Du are controversial. A lot of people love them but some hate them: why mess with a good thing? Why not just serve it with rice? But for a lot of people, dining is actually about a new experience.”
This “revolution not evolution” way of thinking is at odds with the last wave of Thai fine-dining restaurants which began springing up in Bangkok some five years ago. At places like David Thompson’s Nahm and Bo.lan, the 2009 opening of two of Thompson’s proteges, Duangporn Songvisava and Dylan Jones, the focus has always been on preserving the integrity of both the flavor and composition of classic Thai food (if dressed up with somewhat more delicate, fine-dining presentation), with a proclivity towards forgotten or rarely-served classic dishes.
Thaninthorn Chantrawan, a former star of Iron Chef Thailand and the chef who opened at another of Bangkok’s new-new wave Thai restaurants, Osha, in 2014, is conscious of the debt his style of food owes to the success of Thompson. “Nahm was a real trailblazer,” says Thaninthorn. “The Westerners in our dining scene led to the fine-dining direction. Presentation is another thing that’s changed a lot because of foreigners serving Thai-Influenced food.”
And presentation is Osha’s strongpoint. Not just in the dining room, which, with its gold-leaf, snail-shell sculpted staircase and custom-printed Ramakien wallpaper, is one of the most spectacular spaces in town, but also in the food. Though Thaninthorn is no longer in the kitchen, much of his menu remains, built largely around the kind of dishes whose names are familiar to even the freshest of tourists, but served in an unremittingly theatrical fashion.
The tom yum, for example, comes in a coffee syphon through which the delicate broth is poured over galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime, while something as simple as a green curry features coconut milk that’s been spherified into tiny pearls. Not every dish benefits from these attention-grabbing flourishes--that tom yum, for example, tastes no different from a perfectly balanced tom yum for 100 baht--but there is no criticizing the depth of flavor in Osha’s food, whether it’s the crisp and fluffy pla nuea oon in an aromatic red curry or, on the more fusion end of the scale, khao tang topped with foie gras granita.
Araya Khantaprab, Osha’s executive director, acknowledges that, from the investment that went into such a dramatic, uncompromised space, Osha’s partners will never make their money back. The restaurant, she says, is not about profit or even just food, but about creating something exceptional here in Bangkok: “Abroad, Thai restaurants are reaching the Michelin level. We are very proud to be Thai in Thailand. We have the location, the team and concept to make now the right time to try something. Tourism is rising again and hospitality is still our no. 1 industry.”
The Osha brand was actually founded in San Francisco, where it still exists and has six, far-less ambitious venues. Araya elaborates on how her Bangkok location can do more to push the standard of Thai cuisine than any international Thai restaurant could manage. “Osha is maximal. The thinking is that in Thailand we can do much more than we could ever do in San Francisco. All the materials and everything can be sourced from here. Hard-to-find ingredients can just be handpicked, and even the decor--we could never do the same thing in San Francisco because it would be so costly.”
So who exactly is the Bangkok customer base for elaborate Thai food with traditional flavor? Right now, Araya says, about 50 percent of them are tourists, but more and more locals are looking for the kind of experience her restaurant provides.
This, says Thaninthorn Chantrawan, is good news for chefs wanting to try something new. “Thai people are more interested in dining and valuing their food more,” he explains. “This is great for us because we can share our thought processes; present dishes in an order of courses, which doesn’t happen in traditional Thai restaurants.”
But Thaninthorn’s optimism isn’t shared by others in his field. Chef Zra Jirarath heads Aston Dining Room & Bar, a restaurant which occasionally incorporates modernized Thai dishes into a predominantly contemporary-European menu that’s served kitchenside over multiple courses--none of which the customer gets to choose. One of his recent menus incorporated a hiramasa kingfish that had been roast-crusted with broccoli and cashew nuts then served with a green curry sauce, coconut rice, and fried zucchini tempura.
“Some customers are not well prepared for this kind of restaurant,” he explains. “They want to just relax and enjoy--they’re used to somewhere like Harvey’s [the California-inspired favorite of wealthy Thonglor diners] and are used to that style of service. If your state of mind is ‘I want to eat this and this and the chef must do whatever,’ then you’re not the target customer for my restaurant. I will never convince you. Maybe you’ll try it once and if you don’t like it then fine.”
Chef Zra’s not alone in his sentiments. Jason Bailey, an Australian chef whose contemporary (says its thai cuisine) curry-specializing (homemade paste) restaurant Paste recently opened a second branch in Gaysorn Plaza, is characteristically vocal when it comes to outlining the challenge of winning over Thai-food purists.
“Paste must go forward into modernism to win the Thais over, but it must have that layer and depth of flavor,” he explains. “If it doesn’t then it won’t go anywhere. When Thais eat Asian food they have a deep desire to be hit everywhere on the palate: the cheeks, the front of the tongue, back of the tongue, roof of the mouth; every sensory perception must be charged in the Thai mouth.”
He’s also not afraid to admit that not all local diners find this about his cuisine: “I’ve asked many Thais about this. I come out of the kitchen and sit right in front of them to get straight from their mouth how it tastes. I’m not going to name the restaurant, but one chef said, ‘Look Jason; don’t make this mistake. We like the concept, the interior, but the taste is wrong.’ They give us one chance and then don’t come back. ‘It’s Western cooking; it’s bullshit Jason,’ that’s what they’ve said.”
With giant strips of silkworm cocoons rising up to the ceiling, glass domes housing leafy arrangements and circular nooks formed by sculptural banquettes, the new Paste is an imposing space compared to its more humble, shop-house origins, and Bailey’s plating is equally becoming. His salads, in particular, manage to juggle a vast range of flavors yet keep them all crisp and distinct. The duck salad alone comes with banana flower, coriander, chili, lychee, white sesame seeds, cucumber, toasted rice, roasted coconut slices, soy sprouts, fried garlic, flecks of seaweed, shallots and Vietnamese mint--delicious!
But despite his own expansion, Bailey is skeptical over exactly how far the Thai dining scene has grown since the first branch of Paste opened in 2013 (according to FB). “I don’t see that it has moved on. I believe it’s still fixed. How many new Thai fine-dining restaurants have we got? There’s a little bit going on--me, Le Du, Benjarong--but I don’t think it’s moved on. Sra Bua has done very well.”
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the Siam Kempinski hotel, which was undoubtedly the city’s first truly modern Thai restaurant when it opened in 2010, is still arguably its most advanced. One of its star dishes is a tom kha with the texture of clotted cream and the temperature of ice cream--a flavor-packed burst of tom ka flavor with a mind-boggling mouthfeel. Founded by chef Henrik Yde Andersen in Denmark, Kiin Kiin became the second Michelin-starred Thai restaurant in the world, after David Thompson’s Nahm.
Almost five years after the Bangkok branch first opened, the luxuriously teak-paneled, double-height dining room still packs in a crowd of both locals and tourists. The food, now presided over by Chayawee Sutcharitchan, a Thai head chef who comes from an engineering background and without any formal culinary training, is also just as show-stopping, characterized by curries turned into ice-cool powder by liquid nitrogen and a scallop pad Thai that features no noodles whatsoever.
Like Jason Bailey of Paste, Henrik is quick to point out that not everything is being done to Bangkok’s food scene that could be. “The city is, in terms of food trends, five years behind. A lot of chefs from Europe have an easy time to impress here, especially the internet chefs who download photos and ideas from the real masters and then present them as their own, Bangkok is full of that. My wish for the new generation of young Thai chefs is that they get jobs abroad and aim high; learn all they can, travel as much they can, and bring it all back to Bangkok.”
Thitid Tassanakajohn of Le Du is perhaps the city’s best example of this right now. After his schooling at New York’s venerable Culinary Institute of America, he backed his education up with time in top New York kitchens like The Modern and Jean-Georges. He’s also one of just a handful of Thai nationals to earn the title Certified Sommelier (CS) from the Court of Master Sommeliers. In a city where Le Cordon Bleu students open their own restaurants within months of graduating, a background like this is hard to find.
That focus on formal education, says Thitid, is the bedrock of how he approaches Thai dishes: “My intention at Le Du is not to disgrace Thai culinary techniques. Before I did this restaurant I studied the roots of real, authentic Thai cuisine and how it’s made. I need to have that understanding as a starting point.”
This research, he says, also provides the justification for what he’s trying to do today: “Three-hundred years ago, Thai cuisine didn’t look like what we call authentic Thai cuisine. There are influences from all over China and India. Thais then were only eating boiled dishes like soup--not even curry. Before the Chinese and the Indians, there was no wok, no spices, so why nowadays can we call those things the mark of real Thai cuisine?”
And on this, Thitid hits on an issue of culinary genealogy that is not unique to Thailand. Cuisines the world over are a blend of outside influences, whether it’s the tomatoes of Italy, the tea culture of Britain or the potatoes of Ireland.
“Someone, at a point in time, stood up and brought new flavors and techniques,” he says. “A revolution happened and it proved to be better. Thai cuisine is the top cuisine in the world, and it’s because of revolution.”