By Khetsirin Pholdhampalit
THE DINING scene in Bangkok is constantly evolving, with new trends being set and others falling by the wayside.
One of those new trends in 2018 was the rise of the degustation menu that saw chefs of Thai, Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Western cuisine creatively turning classic and comfort dishes towards fancy presentations.
The sustainable approach and farm-to-table movement that has been in the works for some time continues to respond to diners’ concerns of where the food we eat comes from, how it is grown and produced and the ingredients that are used.
And the spotlight has also shone brightly on female chefs. Of the 27 starred restaurants in the second edition of “Michelin Guide Bangkok”, the kitchens of eight of them are under the baton of a woman.
The rise of the degustation menu
Growing in popularity among diners, tasting menus offer a small sampling of the chef’ specialities over a number of courses. At the launch of the second edition of the “Michelin Guide Bangkok” last month, Gwendal Poullennec, international director of the guidebooks, made mention of the move towards degustation, saying “we have also seen a trend in the degustation menu, whereby chefs design a complete experience for diners”.
Mei Jiang brings modern flair to Chinese tradition with the introduction of a degustation menu.
Though its crowd-pleasing a la carte menu remains unchanged so far, the famed Chinese restaurant Mei Jiang at the Peninsula Bangkok has for the first time since it opened 20 years ago introduced a 16-course degustation menu prepared by its new Chinese cuisine executive chef Ball Yau.
This, says Yau, is a splendid way of introducing himself to the regulars and a great chance for them to try unfamiliar dishes served in tasting portions.
Braised wagyu beef brisket rolls in beef soup
The 40-year-old chef tries to integrate Chinese culinary tradition with contemporary flair and innovative presentation. His modern version of Chinese-style mixed vegetable stew has a whole organic cocktail tomato filled with braised mixed vegetables and dressed with pumpkin sauce. His braised M6-score wagyu beef brisket is wrapped in thin slices of turnip, all this in beef soup.
Local organic duck at Elements
The one-starred Michelin Elements restaurant at the Okura Prestige Bangkok, which is known for its gourmet French cuisine with seasonal Japanese influences, has also offered new tasting menus, developed in collaboration with the chefs at the two-starred Michelin restaurant Ciel Bleu of its sister property Okura Amsterdam.
“I believe tasting menus are becoming increasingly popular because chefs want to offer patrons the chance to experience their signature dishes as part of the dining experience,” said Element’s executive chef Alvaro Roa. “Our new tasting menu can be likened to a culinary journey that tells the story of exceptional seasonal produce prepared with French savoir-faire and Japanese twists. Moreover, from a practical point of view, a tasting menu is an efficient way for the kitchen operation to ensure that all dishes served to our guest are consistently of a superior quality.”
Tofu is the star ingredient in the omakase-style, multicourse dining experience at Mihara Tofuten
Bean curd has never been so appealing as it is in the fine-dining creations of the new restaurant Mihara Tofuten – Bangkok’s first eatery dedicated to bean curd. This basic ingredient can be elevated for luxurious omakase-style dining, in which the chefs decide what to serve rather than filling guests’ orders. The eatery offers a 12-course degustation dinner menu with 16 items and a six-course sampler for lunch.
Deep-fried Zaru Tofu
“Diners today are more open-minded and discerning and they regularly follow the Instagram feeds of influencers and food gurus to discover the trends in dining out culture. If Mihara Tofuten had opened five years ago, it would not have been a success. Today people prefer something special and unique and restaurants with mastery in speciality cuisine are evidence of the popularity of omakase-style sushi restaurants in Bangkok,” said food critic Kittidech Vimolratana, who is known as @itan on Instagram, and is a co-owner of Mihara Tofuten.
Tofu Ice Cream, Tofu Blancmange and Tofu Chocolates
At the restaurant, cold gazpacho is reinterpreted with a tofu-centric presentation with tofu miso topped with jelly made with shrimp broth, diced tomato and zucchini and a morsel of Kuruma shrimp. The dessert list offers tofu ice cream, tofu blancmange with a shot of espresso and four chilled tofu chocolates in four flavours – pistachio, rum raison, cacao and matcha.
“Diners are willing to pay if what they get is value for money (the degustation dinner menu costs Bt4,900) and explores new dining experiences like nowhere. Thais also love to sample a variety of tastes and the degustation menu meets those needs,” added Kittidech.
Thai Samrum Tri "Local Wisdom Thai Cuisine" - Korat Wagyu beef spicy consomme at R.Haan
Thai restaurants including R.Haan, Saawaan, Le Du and Sorn, each of which earned one Michelin star this year, also offer degustation menus.
R.Haan run by celebrated chef Chumpol Jangprai of R.Haan offers a choice of three seasonal samrub (a set of shared dishes), each made up of multicourse items based on ancient recipes but in attractive new presentations.
“We want people to sample a variety of dishes with different tastes made from carefully selected seasonal ingredients and enjoy a new dining experience. Pairing different items in one samrub is local wisdom. The different flavours don’t only complement each other, but also cater to family members of different ages,” Chumpol told The Nation a few months back.
Yum naem kao tod
Sujira Pongmorn, chef de cuisine at the new restaurant Saawaan, elevates Thai street food in multi-course offerings while maintaining authentic flavours.
Her yum naem kao tod (spicy salad with pickled sausage and crispy-fried curried rice) comes in a totally new look with house-fermented beef brisket, crispy-fried curried rice, pickled cucumber slices and fried ginger.
Run by rising star Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn, Le Du has four- and six-course tasting menus based on seasonal produce and sustainable local ingredients. He offers a new take on kao khulk kapi, cooking organic rice with aromatic shrimp paste and pork jam and serving it with grilled river prawn on the side.
Many restaurants have pursued the sustainable and farm-to-table concept this year, among them Haoma in downtown Bangkok, which has committed to becoming zero-waste by the end of next year.
Pla nil, a fish highly recommended by King Bhumibol, is cultivated in constantly recycling rainwater at Haoma.
Operated by Deepanker “DK” Khosla from India, Haoma has its own backyard with an integrated “aquaponics” system where fish and plants grow together as well as a four-rai farm in Chiang Mai that supplies ingredients for his farm-to-table meals. Whatever food waste emanates from the kitchen ends up in the fishes’ bellies and then the fish waste fertilises the plants, which in exchange filter the water in which the fish live.
“We’ve already reduced about 80 per cent of the waste and the rest depends on our suppliers. We’ll stop using suppliers who use diesel trucks – they have to run on CNG [compressed natural gas]. And we give our vegetable suppliers cotton bags to use for deliveries so there’s no need for plastic. The meat we get in recyclable containers,” said Khosla.
Pru’s own farm grows organic vegetables and herbs and raises freerange chickens and ducks.
The farm-to-table restaurant Pru at Trisara Phuket, the first and only restaurant in Phuket to earn one Michelin star in the second edition of “Michelin Guide Bangkok” which has expanded its entries to include Phuket and Phang Nga, is based on a “Plant, Raise, Understand” concept.
Pru has its own farm, Pru Jampa, to grow organic vegetables and herbs and raise free-range chickens and ducks. Pru’s chef de cuisine Jim Ophorst and his team also work closely with local suppliers and farmers whose methods are certified as environmentally and ethically responsible.
Burned leek with wild mushrooms
“My ultimate goal is to create a 100-per-cent locally sourced menu. To cook something great, you need great products from great farmers. Great farmers are from strong communities. So, at Pru, we don’t want to be just a kitchen. We want to strengthen the local farmer community. This will yield better ingredients for better dishes,” Ophorst enthused.
Based on the idea of “happy supply chain”, new restaurant Charna at Siam Center relies wholly on certified-sustainable producers for its menus ranging from hot pot, grill, salad and appetiser, to drink and dessert.
More than 30 different vegetables and herbs are on offer at the Farm Station at Charna.
The seafood comes from the Save Our Fish-Save Our Sea Network, the only network of Thai fishermen recognised with the Organic Agriculture Certification of Thailand. The pork is from Green Pork@Ratchaburi, a farm that produces meat free of antibiotics, vaccines and growth hormones, while many of the organic and toxin-free vegetables come from the Jon Non Rai and Boon Chaluay farms in Nakhon Ratchasima.
The Cold-pressed Juice Station
The menu even has QR codes for the main producers that, when scanned with a phone, reveals more information about them.
“We want to pinpoint where the food comes from, how it’s grown or produced and what ingredients are used,” said Panadda Ritthiruengdej, public relations manager at Food Passion that operates the restaurant. “The principle is environmental sustainability. We should learn about the produce and the producers and be able to recognise their real value.”
Supinya “Jay Fai” Junsuta, 72, owner of streetside eatery Jay Fai, has become well-known on both the local and international dining scenes and retained her one Michelin star rating this year. Jay Fai is the only street venue in Bangkok to earn this coveted award.
Jay Fai (Photo:EPA-EFE)
Diners still queue at her small shophouse with just seven tables in the Pratu Phee area and order the dishes suggested in the Michelin guide, namely crabmeat omelette and stir-fried crab curry.
Of the 27 starred restaurants in the second edition of “Michelin Guide Bangkok”, the kitchens of eight of them are under the baton of a woman.
From the total 27 starred restaurants in the second edition, eight boast female chefs –Jay Fai, Sujira of Saawaan, Bo Songvisava of Bo.lan, Garima Arora from Gaa, Pim Techamuanvivit of Nahm, Bee Satongun of Paste, Banyen Ruangsantheia from Suan Thip, and Pannee Ganisthanaka of Ruean Panya.
Another attractive restaurant, Front Room at the newly opened Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, is also manned by a female Thai chef. Rungthiwa “Fae” Chummongkhon is introducing a Thai-inspired Nordic approach to a menu with complex flavours that will immediately be familiar to the Thai palate.
Rungthiwa Chummongkhon directs the kitchen of Front Room that offers a Nordic take on Thai recipes and ingredients.
“It’s a challenging job, especially as Scandinavian-style dishes are usually prepared by foreign chefs. I want to show that a Thai chef, particularly a woman, can do it too. I believe Thais have the palate to absorb the complex flavours of sour, sweet, salty and spicy and that is an advantage when it comes to being a good chef,” said Rungthiwa.