By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
The Nation Weekend
REMEMBER THE decommissioned Lockheed TriStar that Somchai Songwatana was rebuilding as a restaurant at his creative-retail property ChangChui in Thonburi? Well, diners are now boarding.
The 55-metre-long, 150-tonne former jet that’s been permanently parked at ChangChui for 17 months is finally whisking passengers off on culinary adventures, its cabin whimsically decorated with stuffed animals.
The one-time member of the Thai Sky Airlines fleet was about to be shredded for scrap when Somchai, the celebrated clothing designer and founder of fashion label FlyNow, flew to its rescue.
The Lockheed L1011 TriStar jet has been transformed into a restaurant with unusual decor to match its fine-dining concept.
He and his team hauled the plane in 20 massive chunks from Don Mueang Airport and painstakingly reassembled it on-site.
It originally had 450 seats, but there are only 90 in the taxidermy-stocked restaurant named Na-Oh, a pun on Noah of biblical ark fame.
Na-Oh was supposed to open last Valentine’s Day with Andy Yang in the kitchen. The Thai chef earned a Michelin star in 2009 for his New York eatery Rhong Tiam. Instead, 19-year-old self-taught Mo-na Teeratada is in charge of the restaurant, which Bondi Belly, led by Natee Laorungrueangdet, is operating.
Upon boarding for what’s billed as a “futuristic food journey”, guests have three set dinners to choose among – five courses for Bt1,500, eight for Bt2,500 and the “chef’s selection” for Bt5,500.
Diners board Na-Oh, a decommissioned and permanently grounded passenger jet at ChangChui, for daily “flights” of culinary fancy.
“The menu will change every three months, but we’re starting with the theme of ‘diaspora’ – using food to discuss the cultures of the different nationalities being evacuated post-doomsday on board Na-Oh,” says Natee.
“As a Thai, I’m proud of jasmine rice, just as Indians love their spices and Chinese their teas. We’ll try to blend all of these together to recall the memory of what we’re leaving behind in the old world as we travel to the new world.”
An antique cage elevator lifts guests from ground to fuselage, where a glass cabinet holding a mama and baby stuffed polar bear greets them.
The team has replaced the airline seats with vintage Art Deco sofas and chairs and added fancy chandeliers and framed prints of Noah and his menagerie riding the high seas. Old steamer trunks serve as tables.
A mother polar bear and her cub attest to the marvels of taxidermy.
It’s a bit disconcerting at first having stuffed animals staring at you while you eat, but the taxidermists have certainly done wonderful work. And the silent creatures are certified legal and ethical, meaning they died of natural causes. An eland and a baboon, looking quite life-like, peer calmly out from behind glass.
The animals, antique furniture and vintage decorative items came from Somchai’s personal collection. He owns 30,000 perfume bottles, and a bunch of them were turned into a counter bar on which stuffed birds perch.
The plane’s former baggage compartment is now a 10-seat lounge with stuffed beasts occupying a sizeable display cabinet.
The former baggage compartment is now a 10-seat lounge with high-backed maroon sofas and a large display cabinet of beasts escaping Noah’s flood – among them white lions, a black bear, a warthog, caribou and more birds.
The cockpit is a private dining room with a classic chesterfield. The tail end has been fitted with a large window affording views of the grounds.
The cockpit is a private dining area.
The five-course set was served at a preview day for the press last week, minus the amuse bouche “Adrift”, which we were told involves fermented black beans, rillettes and foie gras.
The lights dimmed and Mo-na strolled in carrying a lantern and wearing a Zorro-like mask – he bills himself as the Red-mask Chef. By way of an explanation: “He’s the person who drives Na-Oh, no matter who he is.”
To begin what proved to be a quite theatrical performance, he outlined the diaspora concept.
Amah – pickled cabbage in soy sauce
Then each dish arrived with a melancholy back-story. Amah, the staff said, was what your amah (granny) gave you to take on the journey – pickled cabbage in soy sauce. Thanks, Granny!
“We all are escaping Noah’s flood to a new world,” Mo-na intoned. “My fusion dishes represent non-linear storytelling, about the evacuation of peoples of many cultures who are yearning for something they’re missing. Amah represents the significant role that food preservation will play in the future, while the next dishes recall the past.”
Fake Fertile – Portobello mushroom, red snapper and prawn mash
“Fake Fertile” was Portobello mushroom, red snapper and prawn mash, hinting (we were informed) at the fertility of forests, mountains, rivers and seas in the world we’ve left behind. “Remain” was pork belly in caramel-soy sauce with riceberry, wrapped in banana leaves.
Remain – pork belly in caramel-soy sauce and riceberry
Dessert was “Not Just a Potato” – an accurate name since the baked sweet potato was filled with rum-raisin ice cream.
Mo-na returned home last year after being in Australia since age 11. He disliked the conventional education system there, though, and instead took on various jobs, including toiling in a fish market and a fast-food chain.
Not Just a Potato – baked sweet potato with rum-raisin ice cream
“I always cooked for my friends when we got together and they said my food was good, so I started to love cooking, and I liked to mix and match ingredients to create Asian fusion dishes,” he said.
“Then friends of friends heard about me and started hiring me to cook for them. I also worked at many restaurants in Sydney, but I refused to go to Le Cordon Bleu Sydney when my mum applied there for me.”
Mo-na Teeratada bills himself as “the Red-mask Chef”.
Once back in Thailand, he spent six months at one restaurant, but quit that to tackle the Na-Oh challenge. It’s an odd approach, he conceded from behind the red mask, but a bit of fun, the meal somehow suitably ending with a light-and-sound show.
I found plenty to “wow” about in the ambience and the concept, but thought the chef’s strolling and the pensive brooding over each dish a little too off-off-Broadway. As for the food itself, it wasn’t all that exciting or surprising.
Having said that – if you’re in search of an unusual new dining experience, prepare to take flight.
ZOO UP IN THE BLUE
Na-Oh is open daily except Wednesday from 6 to 11pm.
Book seats at (02) 007 7070 or www.Na-OhBangkok.com.