For years and years, visitors to Thailand have complained about the dearth of good Thai restaurants in Bangkok. The situation is complicated by the fact that you can actually eat very well in the Thai capital—on the street, at hole-in-the-wall places and at little cafés. But the moment you try and find a good upmarket Thai restaurant, the choice gets limited. There is the middle-market Baan Khanitha (the Sukhumvit branch) which is consistently popular, there are the restaurants at the Peninsula and Sukhothai hotels (and perhaps those at the Oriental and the Four Seasons) but the vast majority of upmarket places serve bland, five star versions of real Thai food.
Then there’s the whole problem of what “real” Thai food is anyway. Many Thais are happy enough to eat Pad Thai noodles on the street but argue that there is a Thai haute cuisine, full of deep and intense flavours which is only available in private homes and not generally served in restaurants.
Haute Thai: Be it the decor or food, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin aims at the ‘wow’ factor. Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times
David Thompson, an Australian who is probably the world’s best known Thai chef, has opened successful Thai restaurants in his native Australia and in London. Thompson’s London restaurant, Nahm, became the first Thai restaurant to win a Michelin star many years ago and he is also the author of two authoritative books on Thai food (the latest, on street food, has just hit the shelves).
Thompson believes that many restaurants have done Thai cuisine a disservice by sticking to an easily accessible menu and by refusing to explore the cuisine’s history or its traditions. His food at Nahm in London moves away from the Pad Thai-Tom Yum clichés and tries to revive ancient dishes from old recipes.
David Thompson’s Bangkok Nahm is even better than his London restaurant. Manoj Patil/Hindustan Times
The second Thai restaurant to have won a Michelin star is Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, a partnership between a Dane and a Thai. While Thompson wants to go back to the roots of Thai cuisine, the chefs at Kiin Kiin want to take the cuisine forward, often using the techniques of molecular gastronomy.
How, I often wondered, would Thais react to these takes on their cuisine from foreign chefs? I finally got a chance to find out when Thompson opened Nahm in Bangkok in September and the Kiin Kiin people opened a branch at the new Siam Kempinski Hotel (behind Siam Paragon) a few weeks later.
Thompson’s was the more high-profile opening because the Thai press caricatured his oft-expressed view that restaurants are failing to explore the ancient mysteries of Thai cooking. This was misinterpreted to convey that he thought restaurants run by Thais were serving rubbish and that an Australian had arrived to teach Thais how to cook their own food.
The controversy spread out of the food pages of newspapers to the editorials and eventually to The New York Times. Suthon Sukphisit, a Thai food writer, was quoted as saying “He is slapping the faces of Thai people! If you start telling Thais how to cook real Thai food, that is unacceptable.” Even Bob Halliday, the doyen of Thailand’s food writers, who has lived in the country for four decades, was quoted: “When someone comes along and presents himself as the spokesman of Thai cuisine, it is like Osama bin Laden going to the Vatican and saying he is the high authority on Catholicism.”
While the vehemence of the criticism has upset Thompson, the restaurant has continued to do well. On the night I went, there were many Thais there as well as—surprise, surprise!—Halliday himself who appeared to be enjoying a large meal.
I know Thompson’s food from London but this was better. A relish of yellow beans and crab served with crispy fish cakes was excellent. A dish of pork and squid was full of flavour. A shrimp and cucumber salad was properly sour and tangy. Only a wagyu beef curry was less than perfect. The curry was fine but the beef was chewy leading me to wonder whether it was worth investing in expensive wagyu for this kind of curry.
I know Thompson but he had no idea I was in the restaurant till I went up to him after my meal was over so I had the same experience as the average punter. Thompson is pleased by the restaurant’s success but shaken by the criticism. (“Only I can unite the Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts,” he joked.)
The Kiin Kiin branch (Sra Bua) is much fancier than Thompson’s Bangkok Nahm and more expensive as well. The restaurant has gone for a “wow” factor in terms of decor, service and price (at 2,400 baht, or around Rs 3,590, for dinner versus 1,500 baht at Nahm).
I liked the food but thought it was not really Thai (oh, here we go again…) as much as a marriage of modern cooking techniques with Thai flavours. There was a scallop tartare with lemon grass, a red curry that came frozen on a moat of liquid nitrogen, tiny bits of quail in a lake of coconut milk etc.
The intention was to recreate the experience of a meal in a cutting-edge French restaurant (say, Pierre Gagnaire) with a procession of dishes that owed something to Ferran Adria (a lychee foam and the liquid nitrogen), Noma (the red curry “earth” in a flowerpot) and Thomas Keller (the cornets). There were endless desserts and Michelin-style petit-fours. It was not doing as well as Nahm on the night I went but these are early days.
So now, there are three Thai restaurants to go to in Bangkok. There is Bo.lan which I reviewed a few weeks ago, and there are Nahm and Sra Bua. By some coincidence though, all three have Thompson’s fingerprints all over them. Bo.lan is run by two chefs who worked at the London Nahm and even the Sra Bua chef, Morten, is a veteran of Thompson’s London kitchen.
So no matter what happens to the restaurant market, I guess David Thompson wins anyway.
Nahm, The Metropolitan Hotel (Metropolitan Bangkok), Sathorn, Bangkok; +66-(0)2-6253322
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, Siam Kempinski Hotel, Siam Square, Bangkok; +66-(0)2-1629000.
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