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Water Library Chamchuri | Bangkok | Oct ’14

23 Jan
  • Rating: 17.5/20
  • Address : 317 ชั้น 2 อาคาร จามจุรีสแควร์ Phayathai Road, Pathum Wan, Bangkok 10330, Thailand (Chamchuri Square Mall)
  • Phone: +66 2160 5188
  • Price: THB3000 (USD92 at 1 USD = 32.6THB)
  • Value: 4/5
  • Chef: Mirco Keller (ex. Tim Raue [2*, Berlin])

2014-10-16 20.18.13

Quite a lot has happened on the Bangkok French dining scene since October – the new Atelier Robuchon opened at the Cube at MahaNakhon, J’aime by Jean-Michel Lorain (of 3-star La Cote Saint Jacques fame) opened on Sathon [Chef Amerigo Sesti is in charge], Chef Eric Pras from 3-star Maison Lameloise guested for 6 days at Le Normandie, and Henk Savelberg (1-star Restaurant Savelberg in The Hague, which closed in late 2014) has also opened up on Wireless Road. Oh, and Chef Ryuki Kawasaki of Pierre Gagnaire’s Twist in Las Vegas is planning to head down sometime soon as well.

With such a whirligig of French restaurant activity, some of the less hyped French restaurants risk falling through the cracks. The Water Library was a puzzling omission from Bangkok’s 7 restaurants on the 2014 Asia’s 50 Best List, the judges instead choosing more mediocre restaurants such as Issaya Siamese Club and Bo.lan.

I went to the Water Library thrice, and each time had a memorable meal. This is cooking at the high one-star level. In addition, their buttery croissants are justly popular, and can be taken away from the restaurants – these are serious croissants – the best I tasted anywhere in 2014. Unfortunately, the ravages of time (I write this in early 2015) mean that I’ve lost my paper notes, so the following is a reconstruction from memory.

Chef Mirco Keller also clearly enjoys his truffles – in my second meal, truffle butter, perigord foie gras, truffle honey with cheese, summer truffle with crab – all made their appearance. His training with the German Michelins (ex. 2-star Tim Raue [Berlin]) shines through – his sauces are rich, luxurious, and precise. I was captivated by the precision of a pickled onion that functioned as a sauceboat in the beef Chateaubriand – three “petals”, small bursts of sweet vinegar, in a rich sauce. He sources his very good cheese from Phillipe Olivier in Boulogne.

He is unfailingly precise with flavors. Even when a dish does not fully succeed in being delicious – it is always thought-provoking and memorable – a wasabi granite with salmon stung the tongue, and then soothed it with the fat of flesh and salmon roe.

The desserts are generally a bit weaker here: The apple tart is not as crispy as one would like, the pineapple marshmallow on the seasonal menu has an unappetizing jellied hunk of white chocolate, which for me is a wrong texture for chocolate. But the main dishes which Chef Mirco Keller conjures stick vividly in memory.

I lost my tasting notes, so apologies – the following is a reconstruction from the remaining stucco on my gastronomic memory.


A la carte

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2014-11-13 19.28.31

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Fantastic croissant (5/5) and truffle butter; truffle brioche

You only get one free, and you’ve to pay for the rest. The best croissant that I tasted last year. Flaky, buttery, crisp.

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2014-11-13 19.51.28

Diced vegetable and prawn gazpacho

Deconstructed: Sour and tangy, mango, prawn, with a spicy foam (4/5)

2014-10-07 21.30.06

“Tuna Nicoise” – Japanese blue fin tuna with olives, egg, tomato iceand avocado

“Onsen duck egg” (read: sous-vide), in croquette. (4/5)

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Wild caught Scottish salmon with hazelnut, apple and mustard cress

2014-11-13 20.06.28

Pan seared Perigord foie gras with miso sauce, mango and balsamico caviar (4.75/5)

Fantastic foie gras here. Heavy

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Lobster bisque with garlic and piment d’Espelette

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Blood orange sorbet with buttermilk snow

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Roasted rack of lamb from Yarra Valley with fig and beans

[Yarra Valley = 90km east of Melbourne]

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Seared Chilean seabass accompanied by a mushroom-bacon ragout, Japanese yuzu and truffle

2014-11-13 20.30.39

Confit of black cod fish with a light herb vinaigrette and jerusalem artichoke

2014-10-07 21.47.51

Chateaubriand of Wagyu beef tenderloin with mashed potatoes, onion in three ways, and jus de boeuf (4.75/5)

Precise sauces, perfect dose of pickling in 3 onion “petals”

2014-10-07 22.05.55

Apple Tarte Tatin with Madagascar Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Some parts crisp, others soggy (3.5/5)


Seasonal Tasting Menu2014-10-16 20.18.13 2014-10-16 20.21.40

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Gazpacho

Vegetables, prawn, spicy foam

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Wild caught Scottish salmon with hazelnut, apple and mustard cress (4.25/5)

A memorable dish. The sting of wasabi granite was alleviated by the alternating fats of salmon roe and the salmon flesh. Not sensuously delicious, but thought-provoking, like a kaiseki Hassun seasonal course. I grew to respect this dish.

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Pan fried Canadian scallop and Japanese king crab with truffle (4/5)

Summer truffle; sunchoke chips; a truffle sauce made of summer truffle.

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Seared Perigord foie gras with prune de Vars and BBQ sauce, Broccoli

Fantastic. A perfect sear. Miso was added to intensify the taste on crust of fat. (5/5)

2014-10-16 21.14.47

Blood orange sorbet; buttermilk snow

2014-10-16 21.21.14 2014-10-16 21.21.33 2014-10-16 21.21.43

Breast of Mieral pigeon with caramelized onion, cassis, jus

The same magnificent combination of pickled onion cradling a dollop of cassis (blackcurrant liqueur) as the beef chateaubriand was present. Classic. Memory fails me, but I remembered preferring the wagyu chateaubriand slightly over the pigeon. (4.5/5)

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Cheese from Philippe Olivier (4.5/5)

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Pineapple and white chocolate, marshmallow with cinnamon crumble

Unfortunately desserts here aren’t great. The white chocolate disc tasted like a hunk of oversweetened jelly, with little help from any of its friends. End off a meal here with coffee after your main and you shall leave very satisfied (2.75/5)


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Quick Thoughts on Bangkok

19 Oct

I’ve recently spent quite a bit of time in Bangkok. Without a Michelin guide to guide me to the best places in Bangkok, I initially used the Asia’s 50 Best restaurants guide to eat around Bangkok, and then Bangkok.com’s Best restaurants list. I’ve now eaten at all of Bangkok’s restaurants in the top 50, and here are my quick thoughts and ratings on them, as well as a few others places (rankings on the 2014 Asia’s 50 Best in brackets):

  1. (#1) Nahm – one of the best and most precise restaurants I’ve eaten in, though it is not perhaps designed to give you a best-meal-in-my-life experience due to its family-style service. Desserts here are the best thing, save space for them. I’ve been here 3 times now and the quality has been consistent. (Rating: 18/20)
    • a fuller write-up can be found here
  2. (#3) Gaggan – shock-and-awe molecular techniques applied to Indian food. Most of the dishes are just luxury proteins in an Indian sauce. This lack of imagination in pairing luxury proteins with Indian sauces is a turnoff, especially since Gaggan is a supposedly a cutting-edge molecular restaurant. I also feel cooking here is imprecise – part of it may be that the boldness of Indian saucing (which I enjoy more outside of the molecular realm) sits uncomfortably with molecular techniques, which I enjoy most when paired with precise taste-profiles. Flavors at Gaggan were relatively uncomplicated, like sledgehammers. (Rating: 14.5/20)
    • I see molecular food as a precise art. The eye sees an empirical fact about ingredients, and exploits that to create a great dish – for example, Daniel Boulud saw that “[American scallops] had a natural sort of collagen so the scallops sticked at each other.  [His team] could slice them, put things in between and reconstitute the scallops and they would hold up perfectly together” and thus the chef could come up with his signature dish black-tie sea-scallop. At its best, molecular technique is about clarifying and emphasising those precise effects. That is why I found my meal at modernist Mugaritz so congenial – serendipity is represented through the dish “linking”, the wooliness of tempeh Rhizopus fungi being mischievously contrasted with lamb. Modernist cuisine, it seems to me, only really shines when practiced by chefs with a very precise palate, and are willing to put in the time to perfect their dishes.
    • On one hand, we have the Fat Duck, which exemplifies precision. Every dish takes at least half a year to R&D, and there are multiple merits to each dish – for example, the “Sound of the Sea”, has exotic seaweeds, and fresh sashimi, but is only completed by the most banal-seeming element, the delicious tapioca-sardine sand. It really is a more of French restaurant (in the grand tradition of legendary dishes) in spirit than it lets on. Another case in precision: the meditative Mugaritz, which is a study in the unseen possibilities of the nearest ingredients – hake cheek AKA “kokotxas” being used to create a one-ingredient dish, both “bread” and “filling”.
    • On the other hand there are restaurants that are less precise, where the recipe for success is seen as an easy marriage of bold flavors and a molecular gimmick. The tell-tale sign of such a restaurant is superfluity. To questions such as “Why do you have a foam of X instead of a sauce of X? Why did you spherify this liquid?”, the kitchen will not have good answers.  This is molecular gastronomy as trope, influenced by the parable of the “el Bulli olive” – a one-effect-wonder, a pleasing small bite impossible to eat in large quantities, is greeted as the pinnacle of modern cuisine. At these restaurants molecular techniques are less to enhance precise and fleeting taste/textural effects; and more to serve as the vehicle of a bold flavor profile (which easily slides into imprecision) and as a textural spectacle. At Gaggan I had a spherified yoghurt chaat right at the start of the meal which seemed superfluous. I also had Norwegian diver scallops that were neither particularly Indian nor eye-opening. Most of the cooking was just luxury protein in an Indian sauce. It was not particularly innovative nor interesting.
    • Many of the “arriviste” molecular restaurants in developing restaurant markets are not precise enough in their tastes – Tippling Club in Singapore, Gaggan in Bangkok. Given that Gaggan ranks (#3), and Tippling Club ranks (#23) I think the food media in Asia is rewarding these restaurants because of the hype around their modernist approach, not because of the tastes on the plate.
  3. (#21) Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin – Molecular techniques applied to Thai food. Good, though the mains were not eye-opening – the memorable dishes for me were the desserts (jackfruit with coconut milk, and coconut cake), and the main dish of beef stew with rice. (Rating: 15.5/20)
  4. (#28) Bo.Lan – Serves food family-style (like Nahm). Unfortunately, as much as I liked the location, the food was not particularly interesting or memorable. (Rating: 12.5/20)
  5. (#31) Issaya Siamese Club – The desserts are good, but the mains are average and there’s a strange bitter aftertaste for many meat dishes. The best savory dish by far is the savory creme brulee, which is a brilliant cross between a traditional Thai coconut milk soup and a traditional Thai pressed-cupcake. The Mekong Baba (a rum baba) is a great dessert. (Rating: 13.5/20)
  6. (#37) Eat Me – Good bistro food. A delicious lamb rack. Interesting black chicken salad. The flourless chocolate cake is good, the pavlova average, but I haven’t tried their signature sticky date pudding yet. (Rating: 4.25/5)
  7. Yamazato (Lunch sushi rating: 4/5, Dinner kaiseki rating: 12/20): Located in the Okura hotel, Yamazato is a good standard bearer for lunch sushi, but the Hana kaiseki was disappointing to me, because I didn’t have a single eye-opening dish that bore the mark of a creative artisan. The kaiseki dinner was standard hotel fare, but I expected more from the flagship Japanese restaurant in the Okura hotel.
  8. Water Library Chamchuri – (Rating 17.5/20) Highly accomplished food, strong one to two-Michelin-starred standard anywhere. Write-up to come. You are guaranteed an eye-opening meal and very strong mains. Recommended.
  9. Supanniga Eating Room (Rating 4.75/5): Emphasis on Isaan food. Salak (snakefruit) in syrup, roast pork/beef with grilled sticky rice, and cabbage in fish sauce were my favorite dishes.
  10. Nara [Erawan branch] (Rating: 4.25/5): You should not miss the prawn carpaccio, which is delightful.
  11. Krua Apsorn [Samsen Road Branch] (Rating 4.75/5): Don’t miss the curry fried crab with egg, and the very well-calibrated lemongrass-mango salad that comes with fried kingfish.

Nahm | Bangkok | Sep ’14 | “precision”

20 Sep
  • Rating: 18/20
  • Address: Metropolitan by COMO, 27 South Sathorn Road, Tungmahamek Sathorn, Bangkok 10120 Thailand
  • Phone: +66 2 625 3388.
  • Price per pax: THB2500 [set menu + drinks] ($78 at 1 USD = 32.2 THB)
  • Value: 4/5
  • Dining time: 90 minutes
  • Chef: David Thompson
  • Style: Traditional Thai

 

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Three things really impressed me about my first dinner at Nahm. The first was a dessert that was a symphony of heaven, combining icy coconut milk with hot crispy sesame biscuits broken within for an imitatio of the most delicious bowl of cornflakes, with the intermediate soft texture of sweet-sour custard apple. The second was a relish dish that featured two top-class and novel (to me) ingredients, white turmeric and “sour leaves”. The third was a general feeling of precision that pervaded all dishes. No matter whether I loved the dish, or merely liked it, I felt that the cooking was precisely calculated to produce the effect it ended up having. The little touches – the surprisingly satisfying crunch of the apple eggplant, the betel leaf taco in the canapes – all felt thoroughly thought through.

I’ve met a few food enthusiasts since I’ve returned to Singapore. Their reactions to Nahm have on the whole, been polarized. I don’t believe that at such a precise restaurant, the fault is some variance on the end of Nahm. Rather, the root cause is the inflated expectation created by the breathless acclaim it has been receiving recently (culminating in being named Asia’s Best Restaurant for 2014). Any list that claims to pick a #1 restaurant is silly, there are good restaurants, better restaurants, and the best restaurants, but there will never be a #1 restaurant. Rene Redzepi, writing in his recent one-year journal “A Work in Progress”, mentions how much pressure being named #1 restaurant in the World piled on him, and how he was unable to enjoy his work in the first half of 2011. (If there’s one big thing Michelin does right, it’s keeping a non-ranked 1st tier of restaurants – the three stars). I can’t tell how much pressure being named #1 restaurant in Asia brings to the Nahm kitchen and Chef David Thompson, but it changes the diner’s mindset to “once-in-a-lifetime-ism”, setting up expectations of ortolans flying out of cakes and stepping in expecting the last supper.

And Nahm is poorly suited to play the role of “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, because it does not convey to the average international diner (and that includes me) drama and narrative. Firstly, the dishes come out all at the same time, family-style. The tyranny of the tasting menu is well-remarked, but temporal sequencing of dishes allows narrative in a way that family-style serving does not. Secondly, Nahm’s drama and narrative (as far as I can tell) draws upon its revival of centuries-old traditional Thai recipes, written in ancient Thai cookbooks, and therefore set in a culture and language that most international travellers cannot parse. This means that these international diners evaluate the food on a purely solipsistic* basis. And Nahm does Thai food superbly well. But between aversions to spiciness (barbarism or misfortune) and unfamiliarity, a solipsistic basis in evaluating dishes served family-style results in a disjointed experience of “I like this, not so much that”, which prevents the narrative build-up (crystallization a la Stendhal) that is almost surely necessary for “once-in-a-lifetime experiences”.

There are weaknesses. The cocktail program could be improved, for instance, to shy away from tacky combinations like the Coconut Soup Martini, which wasn’t very good. But the unique feature of Nahm is its promise to revive traditional Thai dishes and serve them to the discriminating public – and such a strength, abetted by David Thompson’s precise cooking and laudable ingredients sourcing, justify Nahm’s acclaim.


*[There are a couple of magical moments at Nahm (the dessert, and the wonderful ingredients: white turmeric, apple eggplant, sour leaves) to this dining solipsist. But without the context of reading a very many Thai cookbooks, Nahm does not seem to have the whimsical transport of Alice in Wonderland at the Fat Duck, nor the intense meditativeness of Mugaritz, nor a willful commitment to the dying strains of nouvelle cuisine a la L’Ambroisie. (restaurants which are undeniably of the top echelon in their countries). We have come to expect drama and narrative with our food, but these Stendhal-esque crystallizations will only deepen around restaurants whose histories we care to know, and able to know. As long as the native larder is a cipher to us, we will only engage with foreign food at the level of a solipsist (cardinal sins I have committed liberally, in my write-ups on South America especially). My rating of Nahm here is from the viewpoint of a solipsist aspiring to be an ex-solipsist.]

**Rather amusingly, the next table, a couple, ended up asking for Pad Thai when confronted with the menu. Given the possibly foreign and recent origin of Pad Thai, it would have been out of place at Nahm. But how in the world do you get a reservation at Nahm while remaining ignorant of the kind of Thai food they serve?


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  • Chicken-Pork-Prawn, palm sugar, shallot, garlic, served on a slice of pineapple (4.25/5)

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  • thai sabai (mekhong, white sugar, sweet basil, lime)

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  • CANAPES
    • ขนมเบื้องญวณ (prawn and coconut wafers with pickled ginger) (4.5/5)
    • ปูซ่อนกลิ่น (blue swimmer crab, peanuts and pickled garlic of rice cakes) (4.25/5)
    • กอแระหอยแมลงภู่ (grilled mussels – southern style) (4.25/5)
    • เมี่ยงปลากุเลา (salted threadfin perch with ginger, chillies and green mango on betel leaves) (4/5)
      • a terrific, bitter-ish taste from betel, taco-like around the sour green mango and salty bit of fish.

2014-09-03 22.04.06

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  • CURRY
    • แกงกะทิปูม้า (coconut and tumeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi lime) (4.5/5)

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  • SALAD
    • าใบบัวบกใส่กุ้งแม่น้ าหมูรวน (salad of fresh river prawns with pork and asian pennywort) (4/5)

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  • SOUP
    • ต้มย าไก่กะทิ (coconut and chicken soup with deep fried garlic, green mango and chilli) (4.25/5)
      • Unusual, an opaque soup that had green mango to add a sour tinge.

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  • RELISH
    • น้ าพริกมะขามสด (fresh tamarind relish with minced prawns, pork and chillies with braised mackerel, deep-fried quail eggs and fresh vegetables) (4.25/5)
      • This had fresh-tasting white tumeric slices (the best way I kind describe fresh white tumeric is that it has a mild clean onion taste, but without the astringency, firm, and a joy to eat)
      • http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/ingredients/turmeric.html
      • The “sour leaf” (that’s how it was described) was great, possessing a mild and pleasant sourness that is milder than any lemon or lime I have tried. Cooks who enjoy using subtle effects, would benefit from a fresh supply of these sour leaves. Served with banana flower.

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  • STIR-FRIED, STEAMED AND GRILLED
    • หมูผัดน้ าพริกกุ้งเสียบและมะเขือเปราะ (stir-fried pork with dried prawns, apple eggplants and chillies) (4.75/5)
      • The apple eggplant had an enchanting texture, like soft jelly with a satisfying crunch. A brilliant ingredient.
      • Highly spicy

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  • c3 martini (coconut soup martini)
    • slightly too unguent for my taste.

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family style serving

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  • Green Mango with Sugar
    • Palate cleansing)

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  • DESSERT
    • น้อยหน่าน ้ากะทิกับขนมดอกจอก (custard apple in coconut cream with sesame biscuits) (5/5)
      • A dish to die for. These fresh sesame biscuits were still coated with just the thinnest film of oil when they were served fresh next to a cold bowl of iced coconut cream. When you break up the warm sesame-encrusted biscuits over the iced coconut cream, it feels like eating the world’s best* bowl of breakfast cereal. Instead of cold milk, we get the rich taste of cold coconut milk, and biting into the sweet warm biscuits like crunching into fresh warm sugared cornflakes. A magical contrast of hot-and-cold, crunchy-and-soupy.
      • (*joint-1st breakfast cereal dish, with the Sweet Grain Cereal of birch in Providence, half the world away)
      • Custard apples provide a sour-sweet soursop taste, with firmer texture, a beautiful dish. Truly spectacular.

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  • Thai petit fours (clockwise from top right)
    • Young coconut milk biscuit.
    • Egg flour and almond
    • Grated coconut
    • Caramelized sesame with peanut

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