For the first time in the history of the prestigious World’s 50 Best Restaurants list – the globe’s most highly regarded restaurant awards, recently announced in London – Bangkok, Thailand, has a restaurant ranked: Chef David Thompson’s Nahm at number 32.
Best Bangkok Restaurants on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List
While that’s exciting news for foodies and the Thai capital’s tourism and hospitality industries, at the Awards’ inaugural regional edition announced in Singapore in April 2013, a total of five Bangkok restaurants were included on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list: Nahm, Gaggan, Eat Me, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, and Bo.lan. We revisited the restaurants to find out what sets the best restaurants in Bangkok apart from the rest.
Toward the end of the last decade a handful of very special restaurants opened in Bangkok that marked a dramatic turning point for the Thai capital’s food scene. They were so different to what had gone before that we argued there had been a restaurant revolution in Bangkok.
Up until that time, Bangkok was a place where tourists ate cookie-cutter Thai cuisine (think: spring rolls, pad Thai, red and green curries) or generic ‘international’ fare, while local and foreign foodies preferred the city’s abundant opportunities to eat on the streets and dined on gourmet meals of classical French in formal dining rooms.
The opening of innovative eateries in stylishly renovated shop-houses such as food writer Jarrett Wrisley’s buzzy Soul Food Mahanakorn and European-trained Tee Kachorklin’s intimate French-Thai fusion bistro La Table de Tee helped transform Bangkok’s culinary scene and change people’s perceptions.
As did the launch around the same time of four other restaurants: Nahm, Gaggan, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, and Bo.lan. While each of the restaurants was markedly different to the next, what they had in common was that they offered something fresh for Bangkok at a very high global standard – whether it was authentic, uncompromising Thai heritage cuisine (Nahm, Bo.lan), experimental molecular Indian food (Gaggan), or deconstructions of Thai-inspired dishes (Sra Bua).
Eat Me, the fifth prize-winner, is an exception. An old-timer celebrating its 15th birthday this month, the restaurant has evolved over the years, remaining resolutely modern, packing in local and global food-lovers night after night, and frequently appearing at the top of Trip Advisor’s Bangkok restaurant listings.
In some ways, with its creative Modern Australian-cum-Pacific Rim cuisine, chic setting, superb service, and lively atmosphere, Eat Me is perhaps the restaurant that planted the seeds for Bangkok’s gastro-revolution – and a culinary movement that has at last been recognised to be amongst the world’s very best.
Best Bangkok Restaurants on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants List
“David Thompson is a hero in all this,” says Mason Florence, Academy Chairman of Southeast Asia North for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants and Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
“He’s a true trail blazer. Along with notable, respected Thai chefs like Ian Kittichai, David has done wonders to raise the profile and international awareness of Thai cuisine, taking it global. Thai and foreign alike, these guys are true global ambassadors for Thai cuisine!”
Indeed, the renowned Australian-born chef brings over two dozen years of immersion in Thai cuisine to his restaurant Nahm at Bangkok hotel The Metropolitan by Como, easily the finest of the best Bangkok restaurants.
Thompson first got excited about Thai food when he holidayed in Thailand in 1986, an experience that ignited a life-long passion for a cuisine that has taken the chef – fluent in Thai and an avid collector of antique Thai cookbooks – on research trips around the country.
After establishing successful Thai restaurants in Sydney and London, where his first incarnation of Nahm became the world’s first Thai restaurant to receive a Michelin star, Thompson made Bangkok his permanent home to focus on the modish restaurant whose décor is inspired by Ayutthaya’s ancient ruins.
With many of Nahm’s dishes based on or inspired by authentic Thai heritage recipes the chef discovered in the old cookbooks, Thompson describes his cuisine as “the kind of food you would have eaten in a Thai house a few generations ago.” His favourite dish at the moment is a salad of freshwater prawns with Asian pennywort, toasted coconut, and peanuts.
When we dine at Nahm, I watch an older Thai couple at the next table taste their first mouthfuls. Their eyes light up. When they see me watching them, the husband says: “This is amazing. I haven’t tasted food like this since I was a kid!”
“What sets Bangkok’s award-winning restaurants apart from others, in addition to their tasty food, is their consistency and pure creativity,” says Florence. “From the contemporary Thai genius at Nahm, Sra Bua and Bo.lan to the mad Indian scientist Gaggan who is reinventing how the world thinks of Indian food.”
When we catch up with Gaggan Anand at his lovely light-filled restaurant in an elegant whitewashed villa, he is living up to his reputation.
Gaggan’s 23 year-old Spanish sous-chef Sergi Palacin presents him with a miniature ‘plastic’ packet of tiny snacks, inspired by Indian street food, that they’ve created as an amuse bouche. Guests will pop the whole snack packet, made from edible rice paper, in their mouth at once.
It’s a fun dish in the spirit of experimentation that might come as a surprise for a man who claims the first dish that excited him was his Dad’s Sunday lamb and his ideal lunch is his Mum’s traditional food.
Yet Gaggan’s adventurousness has been evident in his eclectic menu since he first opened the restaurant, the most surprising inclusion of best Bangkok restaurants – in dishes like freshly shucked French Marennes oysters served with Bangali mustard root Ice cream, Kokum chutney, summer flowers, and black mustard cress, “inspired from Bengal, where locals love to eat mustard and seafood together,” Gaggan says. “We thought in summer it makes sense to serve ice-cream with fresh oysters.” Of course.
Shortly before opening Gaggan, Anand, keen to challenge himself after 14 years of cooking, became the world’s first Indian chef to do a stint at El Bulli’s research lab.
The cuisine he now creates, which he calls “progressive, surprising and a little strange” is the result of his transformational experience with Ferran Adria.
At the end of July, Gaggan will open his own experimental kitchen lab across the lane. He’s exploring medieval Indian cuisine. Don’t be surprised if you see gold on your plate.
#19 Eat Me
Unlike the other four restaurants, which are comparatively young, local institution Eat Me has long been one of the best Bangkok restaurants. It’s also a restaurateur-led establishment rather than a chef-driven restaurant, its design and menus developed over the years by owner Darren Hausler and his food stylist sister Cherie Hausler, who lives in Adelaide, Australia.
Long-term Bangkok resident Hausler can generally be found greeting guests at the upstairs bar or doing the rounds of tables, making sure guests are satisfied. It’s this warm welcome and friendly approach, combined with the style, atmosphere and brilliant staff, that have made the restaurant such a delight to dine at, as much as the food.
Continually evolving since Eat Me’s launch, the cuisine was best described as Modern Australian until New York chef Tim Butler joined the team, bringing contemporary North American influences to dishes, making ‘Pacific Rim’ a more apt description.
“Whatever you want to call it, the most important thing is that it has to be delicious,” Darren says. And it is.
It’s partly due to fascinating and unusual flavour combinations, as well as the premium ingredients, much of which come from small Thai producers, but also from overseas when it makes sense – such as the beef (predominantly Australia) and the scallops that are on the menu when I dine. Served with Spanish chorizo, black bean puree and Thai basil they scallops are from Alaska. They’re sublime.
The deliciousness of the food is also due to its freshness – “We make everything here,” Butler says, “We do our own breads, pastas, ice-creams, sorbets, everything.”
Another appeal is the substantial servings. While there’s been a trend toward small plates in recent years – and Hausler will open a tapas-bar style eatery downstairs soon – servings at Eat Me are generous and dishes are often hearty.
“What we do here is quality comfort food essentially,” Hausler says. “Ultimately, we’re all about making people happy.”
#29 Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin
Sister restaurant to Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, owned by chef Henrik Yde-Andersen and his Thai business partner Lertchai Treetawatchaiwong, and currently the world’s only Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin is the youngest of the restaurants and has rapidly risen up the list of best Bangkok restaurants.
It is the Thai equivalent of Gaggan in some ways. The dramatically designed restaurant is distinguished by the same sense of experimentation and playfulness, specializing in Thai-inspired molecular cuisine that has resulted in signature dishes that are impossible to take off the menu, such as the whimsical Gang Dang, a frozen red curry with lobster salad.
The partners opened the Danish restaurant after eating at Nahm in London.
“We loved what David Thompson was doing there!” Yde-Andersen tells me. “We wanted to open a restaurant that we wanted to eat at which was doing something nobody else was doing – taking Thai food to the level of French cuisine.”
They developed the Kiin Kiin’s unique cuisine by experimenting – by looking at the components of Thai dishes and bringing them together in new and unusual ways.
“Modern, deconstructed, and ‘home made’,” is how Henrik Yde-Andersen describes the cuisine. The restaurant’s consultant patron-chef, he flies in regularly from Denmark to develop the menu with current resident head chef Morten Nielsen, who is creating dishes in Bangkok on a daily basis.
“Definitely dramatic,” is how Chef Morten describes his food. “You could say Nahm is traditional, Bo.lan is adventurous, and we’re theatrical.”
Protégés of David Thompson, Thai-born chef Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava and her Australian husband, Chef Dylan Jones, are just as passionate in their desire to present authentic Thai flavours and as committed to representing long-forgotten Thai recipes. It’s these things that have made Bo.lan one of the best Bangkok restaurants.
They’re also enthusiastic collectors of old Thai recipe books and make no concessions when it comes to foreign palates that might prefer their food to be less fiery.
“Thai. Innovative. Uncompromising,” is how Jones describes their cuisine. “We won’t change a flavour or component, but instead we’ll advise people what to eat.”
Bo.lan was the first Bangkok restaurant to offer innovative, contemporary Thai cuisine based on historic recipes. The chefs had been working at Nahm in London when Bo felt it was time to return home and the couple felt it was also the right time to start a restaurant – one that would be very different to anything Bangkok had seen before.
Their Bo.lan Balance tasting menu was the first innovation, comprised of a selection of pretty amuse bouche followed by plates distinguished by beautiful presentation and small servings intended to encourage diners to try more.
As they currently plan for a future move in late 2014, they’re also considering a switch to a degustation-only menu.
Whether they focus on tasting menus in the future or continue to serve a la carte dishes, one thing that won’t change is the chefs’ dedication to sustainability.
When the couple arrives at the restaurant to meet me they apologise for their tardiness, their arms laden with bottles, bags and jars.
“Sorry,” Bo says, “We’ve been out buying organic!”
The couple uses as many organic ingredients as they can from small Thai producers, they hold a monthly farmer’s market, and they have a shop selling organic products.
In the future Bo says they want to nurture closer relationships with farmers practicing eco-Buddhism, use even more biodynamic artisanal products, and build a green restaurant.
These are the sorts of things that are setting these best Bangkok restaurants apart from the rest.
Best Bangkok Restaurants
Metropolitan Hotel, 27 South Sathorn Road, Sathorn, Bangkok
02 625 3413
68/1 Soi Langsuan, Lumpini, Bangkok
02 652 1700
1/6 Soi Pipat 2, off Soi Convent, Silom, Bangkok
02 238 0931
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin
Siam Kempinski Hotel, 991/9 Rama I Road, Siam, Bangkok
02 162 9000
42 Soi Pichai Ronnarong, Songkram Sukhumvit 26, Klongteoy, Bangkok
02 260 2961
Have you eaten widely in Bangkok? What are the best Bangkok restaurants for you?