Putting a premium on sustainable local ingredients, a clutch of young Bangkok-based chefs are redefining Thai food in dishes that are as inventive as they are delicious.
Photography by Terence Carter.
This may sound like sacrilege, but the best Thai food in Bangkok is no longer found on the streets. Rather, itâ€™s the domain of a new generation of intrepid and eco-conscious young chefs who draw their inspiration from Thai ingredients, age-old preservation techniques, family recipes, and the city itself. Bangkok has never been a more exciting place to eat than it is right now.Â
On my first trip to the city 14 years ago, street-food stalls and generations-old eateries were still the best options for a good feed of Thai food. If diners wanted something finer, washed down with a decent bottle of wine, there was little choice but to head to a five-star hotel, where over-designed restaurants with over-decorated tables dished up insipid curries for a clientele less interested in culinary virtuosity than in the promise of air conditioning.
Little had changed when my photographer husband, Terence, and I returned to Thailand to research a guidebook two years later. But when we settled into the capital in 2009, we found ourselves documenting a relentless five-year wave of chef-driven Thai restaurant openings like nothing Bangkok had seen before, kick-started by Thai-born Duangporn â€śBoâ€ť Songvisava and her Australian husband Dylan Jonesâ€™s Bo.lan, Aussie-born Thai food master David Thompsonâ€™s Nahm, and American food writer Jarrett Wrisleyâ€™s Soul Food Mahanakorn. Not long after came Ian Kittichaiâ€™s Issaya Siamese Club, Danish chef Henrik Yde Andersenâ€™s Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, Bongkoch Satongun and her Aussie husband Jason Baileyâ€™s Paste and Supanniga Eating Room, Le Du by New Yorkâ€“trained Thitid â€śTonâ€ť Tassanakajohn, and Err by the Bo.lan team. Those groundbreaking eateries paved the way for a group of chefs who are now crafting some of the most inspiredâ€”and sustainableâ€”food in the city. Hereâ€™s where to find them.
1. 100 Mahaseth
Some of Bangkokâ€™s most delicious Thai dishes await at year-old 100 Mahaseth, which occupies an unpretentious wooden house in one of the cityâ€™s oldest neighborhoods, Charoenkrung. The focus here is nose-to-tail cuisine from Thailandâ€™s northeastern Isan region, and the presentation is utterly beautiful. Bone marrowâ€”roasted and buried in charcoal, topped with toasted perilla seeds, scallions, palm sugar, lime, and lemongrass, and plated on pebblesâ€”is a much-Instagrammed dish. And it tastes as good as it looks, the fragrant lemongrass and smoky aromas preparing my senses for the crunch, zest, and rich creamy marrow to come.
Chefs Chalee Kader and Chaichat â€śRandyâ€ť Noprapa didnâ€™t originally intend to open an Isan joint. The young partners had dreamed instead of a pho shop serving the Vietnamese soup they loved to slurp while studying together in California.
â€śWe were going to use so many cuts and parts of the cow to make the pho broth and toppings, then use the offal, tails, and whatnot for other dishes,â€ť Chalee explains. â€śWe could really only do pho for lunch so I thought, which other cuisine used a lot of cow and pig? Isan. Every time we had Isan food growing up it felt like a feast with so much to share.â€ť
Kader and Noprapa decided on a menu that would make Bangkokians realize how deprived theyâ€™d been of authentic Isan food. Serendipitously, most of their kitchen team came from the region and from homes that ate well. The results are dishes such as fermented pork-rib soup, rice-field crab soup with fermented fish, andâ€”one of my favoritesâ€”a hearty cassia-leaf curry with braised oxtail, ya nang (a deep green leaf used in homey vegetable soups), and salted mackerel (another Isan favorite). Healthy and herbaceous, itâ€™s thicker, richer, and more comforting than any Iâ€™ve sampled before.
â€śThe research and our travels have been the core to our dish development and ideas,â€ť Kader tells me. â€śIâ€™m trying my best to dig for more knowledge. I still have a long way to go, but weâ€™ll get there. The more I learn, the more I realize how the Isan way of life has changed the way I cook, use, preserve, and try not to waste foods.â€ťÂ
Just a few minutesâ€™ walk from 100 Mahaseth via the shophouse-lined streets of the Talat Noi neghborhood, 80/20 is the casual diner of 35-year-old Thai chef Napol â€śJoeâ€ť Jantraget and his Japanese pastry chef wife Saki Hoshino. Itâ€™s named for the amount of local produce (80 percent) used in their contemporary Thai tasting menus.
The laidback space, which feels more like an arty cafĂ© than a restaurant serving some of the cityâ€™s most elegant-looking food, closed for renovation just after I dined recently. When it reopens in November, the open kitchen will be larger, there will be a lab for experimentation, as well as a room for the preservation, pickling, and fermentation Jantraget has been doing in the dining area.
â€śPreservation has always been a big part of Thai cuisine,â€ť the chef explains. â€śBut itâ€™s pretty much limited to staples like fish sauce, shrimp paste, and fermented fish. I want to explore what else can be done. I totally believe new products can move Thai cuisine forward.â€ť
Jantragetâ€™s most adventurous dishesâ€”local oyster with algae and kaffir lime; smoked prawn crudo with ant eggs; free-range chicken with local mushrooms and maeng da (waterbug) butterâ€”taste way better than they sound; theyâ€™re also among the most prettily plated dishes Iâ€™ve laid eyes on, presented across beautifully balanced five- and seven-course tasting menus that can be matched with natural wines, craft beers, or fizzy fruit drinks fermented in-house.
Upon the restaurantâ€™s reopening, the chefs hope to be using entirely local produce. â€śWeâ€™ve found better local suppliers for fresh seafood and beef, and our chocolate is produced in Chiang Mai,â€ť Hoshino says with satisfaction. â€śWeâ€™re even making our own miso and vinegar now.â€ť
Seated at the counter overlooking the calm open kitchen of Texan chef Riley Sandersâ€™ compact Canvasâ€”a restaurant in the trendy Thonglor area that serves cuisine inspired by Bangkokâ€™s chaos, energy, and exuberanceâ€”Iâ€™m slowly digesting my nine-course tasting menu, but struggling to describe the chefâ€™s unique cooking approach.
The presentation is contemporary, the techniques are European, yet the ingredients and flavors of the dishes before me are distinctly Thai: river prawns, pink peppercorns, and green mango; toasted rice bread, salted egg, and yellow chili; duck breast with santol fruit, peanut, and garlic; lemon basil, custard apple, and pomelo; pumpkin, pineapple, and pine sugar. For Sanders, after Bangkok, Thai produce is his inspiration.
The 29-year-old spent several years training under award-winning chefs in the United States before accepting a job as a private chef on a Miami-based yacht. His goal: a global culinary education. Sanders used his time off to eat his way through over 30 countries in four years, using Michelin and the Worldâ€™s 50 Best Restaurants list as his guides. Thailandâ€™s capital became his favorite city.
â€śWeâ€™re a Bangkok restaurant and want to be reflective of this city: colorful, fun, interesting,â€ť Sanders tells me. â€śI donâ€™t consider us Asian or Western, and I donâ€™t think fusion is the right genre either. We want to define what cooking in modern Bangkok can be by taking inspiration from the local sights, markets, and ingredients.â€ť
Among the most vivid dishes on his tasting menus are confit-style frog with hairy eggplant and holy basilâ€“scented milk foam, and a delicate square of king mackerel prepared sous-vide in soya milk and topped with a rich green paste of dill and ant eggs. Frogs and mackerel are street-food staples, but theyâ€™ve never been treated with such precision, care, and creativity as they are here.
â€śSmell this!â€ť exclaims Deepanker Khosla, crushing some dill that heâ€™s just plucked from a planter box. â€śItâ€™s wild!â€ť I say, astonished at the concentration of flavor. The scent is heady with an intense taste of aniseed. Khosla then hands me a sprig of Thai wasabi, his eyes lighting up. â€śTry this!â€ť Itâ€™s stronger than any horseradish Iâ€™ve had, immediately clearing my head.Â
Iâ€™m receiving the pre-dinner tour every diner gets at Haoma, a farm-to-table restaurant that, more than any of the other establishments I visit, stretches the definition of Thai food. Set in the 28-year-old Indian chefâ€™s former home, itâ€™s located at the end of a quiet lane in Phrom Phongâ€™s residential backstreets, just a kilometer from the gridlock of busy Sukhumvit Road.
During our tour of Khoslaâ€™s tiny organic farmâ€”flourishing thanks to an impressive aquaponics system that harvests and recycles water from the restaurant, directing it to the planter boxes, vertical hydroponics gardens, and miniature fish farmâ€”we sniff and taste samples of many of the nearly 40 edible flowers, leaves, herbs, and vegetables grown here. We stop at the flapping fish Khosla breeds in high barrels, which Iâ€™ll taste soon enough. Theyâ€™re scooped out at the start of service.
Harvesting produce as needed so that nothing goes to waste is integral to Khoslaâ€™s zero-waste, carbon-neutral, and plastic-free approach, which began with the restaurant renovation. Everything was repurposed, from timber recycled to an iron door grille from which ferns hang. The interior is as luxuriant as the exterior, with vertical walls of potted plants and tabletop herb boxesâ€”the perfect setting for a seasonal tasting menu that includes a glistening piece of grouper accompanied by garden-grown lettuce cream, curlicues of beer batter, sweet potato, and caper salt; and a chunk of roasted cauliflower head with curry cream, crispy Jobâ€™s tears, and sour cream.
What Khosla canâ€™t grow, he sources from local farmers and sustainable fishermen. Heâ€™s also joined charity Thai Harvest SOS, which rescues unused hotel and restaurant food for the hungry. The chef not only donates what he canâ€™t recycle, he repurposes the restaurantâ€™s discarded gems, such as a Parmesan rind that he transforms into a sheet of â€śpastaâ€ť concealing just-picked vegetables on a creamy parmesan mousse. Itâ€™s one of his most surprisingly scrumptious dishes, especially when matched with one of the organic, biodynamic wines in Khoslaâ€™s cellar.Â
Thereâ€™s no smoke and flames, nor the clank and crash of metal upon metal as a wok hits a burnerâ€”thereâ€™s not even a stove in the open kitchen of the dramatic, black-walled interior of 24-seat Saawaan, which just opened in April. Yet Thailandâ€™s famous street food is the inspiration for chef-owner Sujira â€śAomâ€ť Pongmornâ€™s exquisite contemporary Thai cuisine.Â
Prior to opening the fine diner in a beautifully renovated shophouse in Suan Plu, Pongmorn was at the woks at business partner Fred Meyerâ€™s Baan Phadthai in historic Bangrak, where her mission was to create the perfect pad thai. Before that, sheâ€™d been executive chef at Issaya Siamese Club and learned molecular techniques during a tenure at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin.
As she prepares a dish at my table, Pongmorn says her most lasting culinary influence was the home cooking of her father and aunt. â€śI havenâ€™t tasted any kanom jeen nam ngiao [a hearty noodle soup with minced pork, pigâ€™s blood, tomato, and herbs] more delicious than my dadâ€™s,â€ť the chef recollects. â€śThe dish is bold and balanced, resulting from everything made from scratch: from pounding his curry paste and grilling thua nao [fermented soy bean] to frying chili and garlic. He always made a big pot of it. But we only kept a bowl or two for ourselves and shared the rest with neighbors.â€ť
When Thais feast family-style, sharing an array of dishes on the table, thereâ€™s typically something raw, something boiled or steamed, and a stir-fry, among other things. At Saawaan, Pongmorn presents each of these cooking styles progressively in a 10-course tasting menu. The dishes are dainty and delicate but packed with intense flavor, from the amuse-boucheâ€”a sous-vide egg with tamarind and chili oilâ€”to a curry of Krabi-caught cobia fish and stir-fried Songkhla squid with fragrant basil, mushroom, and cured egg yolk.
Â â€śPeople like to think Thai food is untouchable, that you canâ€™t be disrespectful to the original recipes. But thereâ€™s no progress in that,â€ť Pongmorn tells me after the meal.Â â€śThai food is evolving, and diners are increasingly open to trying new things. Itâ€™s very satisfying to be a part of that.â€ťÂ
100 Mahaseth Rd.; 66-2/235-0023.
1054 Charoenkrung Rd.; 66-99/118-2200.
113/9â€“10 Sukhumvit Soi 55; 66-99/614-1158.
231/3 Sukhumvit Rd.; 66-2/258-4744.
39/19 Soi Suan Plu, Sathorn Rd.; 66-2/679-3775.
This article originally appeared in theÂ October/November 2018Â print issue of DestinAsian magazine (â€śBangkokâ€™s New Bountyâ€ť).