Thai cuisine has long wowed lovers of its sour, spicy, garlicky cuisine, but strangely, its most feted restaurants not only operate outside of Thailand, but are run by foreigners. Returning to their culinary roots, the world’s two Michelin starred Thai restaurants recently opened in the Thai capital.
Thailand has one of Asia’s most marketable cuisines, with its spicy, sour, sweet, garlicky dishes found in restaurants from Hobart to Halifax. Though Thai food has entered the realm of fine dining in many countries, in Thailand the nation’s inimitable cuisine is best expressed on the street.
Prepared on makeshift trolleys cluttering the footpaths of every town, the best Thai food, cheap and plentiful, has long been found in the toughest and roughest of places.
Thais believe their food should be shared, preferably on a makeshift table flanking a busy road, or at a hole-in-the-wall shop, with as many friends as the love, beer and laughter will allow. While fine-dining Thai restaurants exist in Bangkok – and in some cases are very good – they are usually for tourists.
Thai fine-dining in the capital, however, is coming of age. The world’s only Thai restaurants with two Michelin stars have recently opened satellite outposts in Bangkok. First was Sydney-born David Thompson’s Nahm at the Metropolitan Hotel in late August; his first Nahm is in London.
The new diner has raw-brick pillars that mimic temples built during the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom and serves sharing plates of robust up-country delicacies and long-forgotten favourites drawn from century-old books.
On the starters menu when I visit is delectable ma hor – tiny slices of fruit topped with a paste of pungent fish and sugar – and southern-style grilled mussels with sweet peanut sauce.
My Thai dinner partner says she hadn’t eaten the killer geng dtai plaa – fish liver curry doused with tongue-tingling chilli – for decades.
To finish, we have a daring dessert of durian, the legendary fruit that tastes like mouldy custard apple and is so pungent that it’s banned from most hotels and public transport in Asia. Teamed with top-notch service and a cellar full of spicy, peppery wines, Thompson has created an exceptional dining experience.
Three weeks after Nahm’s Bangkok launch, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin opened at the new Siam Kempinski Bangkok hotel. Run by Danish duo Henrik Yde-Andersen and Thai-born Lertchai Treetawatchaiwong, Kiin Kiin caused a sensation in Copenhagen in 2006 with its “modern Thai cooking”, teaming molecular cooking styles with Thai flavours. A series of lucky strikes followed, including a visit from Michelin judges, who awarded the restaurant one star, and then the Zagat Guide, whose judges declared Kiin Kiin was “taking Thai food to a new level”.
With rich teak panelling, silk weavings, towering ceilings and Schott Zwiesel crystal glasses, Sra Bua might look serious but dining here is a journey into the surreal; an adventure in voyeurism with elements of drama and eccentricity. Dishes “are designed to send you down memory lane”, says Yde-Andersen, explaining that his goal is not to create traditional Thai cuisine but to prompt the diner to reminisce.
The kitchen operates with tongue in cheek. “Harvest”, for example, is a raw carrot growing out of “green curry” cream and sprinkled with toasted rice flakes. Yde-Andersen’s version of Thailand’s legendary red curry is actually curried ice-cream served with slivers of lobster and floating on a bed of liquid nitrogen. The dish not only changes the diners’ perception of this timeless favourite but their acuity of taste. Matched with a lychee-fragrant gewurztraminer from Alsace, the dish changes flavour with the wine, from sweet and citrus to zesty and dry.
It’s one thing to open a Thai restaurant in Australia or Europe, where most diners don’t have the palate for Thailand’s sinus-cleaning spices and flavour-enhancing rotten fish pastes. But Bangkok? Thais are famed for their languid and carefree attitudes to life – but not when it comes to their food. The prevailing belief is that if you don’t have Thai genes you can’t cook Thai food.
Shortly after opening Nahm, Thompson was the subject of vehement criticism from the Thai press, which took exception to the notion of a foreign chef being considered expert in their cuisine.
Both Thompson and Yde-Andersen say that while they had long considered the possibility of opening restaurants in Bangkok, they wouldn’t have done so without the logistical support and investment of hosting hotels.
“[Opening a restaurant in Bangkok] is like a suicide mission. I haven’t slept for four months,” says Yde-Andersen after Sra Bua’s first week of operation. “But it was the chance of a lifetime.”
Nahm at the Metropolitan Hotel Bangkok serves dinner daily.
South Sathorn Road, Tungmahamek, Sathorn, Bangkok; +66 2 625 3333; metropolitan.bangkok.como.bz
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the Siam Kempinski hotel serves dinner daily, lunch on Monday-Friday.
991/9 Rama 1 Road, Pathumwan, Bangkok; +66 2 162 9000; kempinskibangkok.com