Copenhagen’s acclaimed Thai restaurant, Kiin Kiin, is one of only two Thai restaurants in the world to have a Michelin star. It recently returned to its culinary roots, opening an outpost in Bangkok.
Thai food has long being one of Asia’s most marketable cuisines, its vivid spicy-sweet-sourness found in restaurants from Brisbane to Bogota. But it’s not always the most adaptable; “fusion” restaurants flop in the presence of their authentic cousins, and staunch traditionalism teamed with the notion that if you don’t have Thai genes you can’t cook Thai food has kept most foreign chefs well away.
Bangkok may now be coming of age. The worlds two Michelin starred Thai restaurants have opened satellite outposts in the Thai capital within a month of each other. First was David Thompson’s Nahm at the Metropolitan Hotel in late August. The unassuming diner dishing up sharing plates of robust upcountry delicacies and long-forgotten favourites drawn from hundred-plus year old books was gearing up to be an astounding success until a handful of Thai foodie traditionalists got upset at the audacity of a foreign chef to be considered an expert in their cuisine.
One can only shudder to think what they will make of Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, a glamorous offshoot from Copenhagen’s Kiin Kiin which quietly opened at the new Siam Kempinksi hotel in mid September.
Helmed by Danish duo Henrik Yde Andersen and Thai-born Lertchai Treetawatchaiwong, Kiin Kiin exploded onto Copenhagen’s dining scene in 2006 with its “Modern Thai Cooking”, an innovative palate that teamed molecular cooking styles with Thai flavours. A series of lucky strikes followed, starting with a serendipitous visit from Michelin five weeks later who afforded the restaurant one star, and then Zagat who declared Kiin Kiin was “taking Thai food to a new level”.
To open a Thai restaurant in Copenhagen is one thing, but in the belly-of-the-beast Bangkok and at a hotel which has close links to the Royal family is surely asking for trouble? “It is like a suicidal mission. I haven’t slept for four months”, says Yde-Andersen, who lived and worked in Bangkok for three years before opening Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen and knows the Thai’s somewhat dogmatic attitude to their cuisine- fare that ironically maintains many of its origins in Chinese, Indian and Malaysian culinary traditions.
Sra Bua is far from authentic, but nor is it trying to be. Swathed in rich teak-wood panelling matched with silk weavings, oversized ceilings, Schott Zwiesel crystal glasses and top-notch service, while the restaurant may look serious, dining here is a journey into the surreal; an adventure in voyeurism topped with drama, originality and a generous dollop of eccentricity.
The first dish to arrive with Sra Bua’s tasting menu is a raw carrot sprouting out of a terracotta pot. The idea is to pluck the baby carrot and use it to scoop up some of the rich “green curry” soil speckled with roasted rice flakes. It is served alongside a refreshing spoon full of scallop with kaffir and lime salad.
The next dish steams under a glass plate warmer, that when lifted, fills the air with the distinct smell of an early morning Thai market. At the centrepiece are two spoons: one with a sensational pork crackling topped with aubergine; the other a peanut and pumpkin puree dashed with pepper.
Here nothing is as it seems- or should seem. The rich and flavoursome tom yam soup is served with a plate of glutinous jellies: prawn, mushroom and an astringent coriander root to throw your senses off guard.
Sra Bua’s Pad Thai hold’s onto all of its traditional ingredients, but instead of noodles, Yde-Andersen combines egg, rice flour and dried shrimp into a soufflé, stuffing it with plump bean sprouts, lobster and Chinese chives, drizzling with a sweet tamarind- heavy sauce and serving it with a crispy peanut biscuit on the side. It’s interesting and unquestionably innovative, but overpowered with sugar and a strong fermented shrimp aftertaste, my least favourite dish.
Yde-Andersen’s adventure in experimental Thai cuisine started after discovering a red curry left out overnight in mid-winter Denmark had turned into pretty tasty ice-cream. The dish- teamed with juicy slivers of lobster, lychee foam and clouds of nitrogen- takes on a whole new life at Sra Bua, not only changing diner’s perception of this eternal Thai favourite, but their acuity of taste. Matched with lychee heavy Gewürztraminer from Alsace in France and a spicy green curry ice-cream with snapper and beetroot emulsion, the dishes and wine transform when eaten together, zipping from sweet to zesty to dry and back again in equal measure.
And if the meal leaves you craving a “real” curry with rice, chances are you won’t be alone. “The food is designed to send you down memory lane”, says Yde-Andersen, explaining that his goal is to evoke memory, not reproduce authenticity. For the evolution of Thai food in a rapidly modernising- and increasingly international city- this can only be a good thing.
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin is on the Ground Floor at the Siam Kempinski Hotel in Bangkok; tel: +66 21629000; open for dinner daily; lunch from Monday to Friday; tasting menus from 1800 THB per person.