This local guide to eating and drinking in Bangkok, Thailand, comes courtesy of Chef Ton of Le Du, one of the most creative Thai restaurants in the country and one of the finest in Southeast Asia, landing on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list at #37 yesterday*.
There are few people best able to provide a local guide to eating and drinking in Bangkok, Thailand, than Bangkok-born Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn. We first met Chef Ton three years ago when working on a magazine story on the legendary Thai cuisine expert Chef David Thompson.
We asked Thompson, whose restaurant Nahm had been named Bangkok’s Best Restaurant at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards that year, to name a young Thai chef he believed could be one of Southeast Asia’s future culinary stars. Thompson named 28 year-old Ton. (He also included Le Du in a story we did on David Thompson’s favourite Bangkok restaurants for Conde Nast Traveller China. The respect is mutual – Ton chose Nahm as his favourite Thai restaurant, below.)
A few days later, Terence and I were on a flight to Bangkok and interviewing Chef Ton at his recently opened restaurant in Bangkok, in the emerging foodie hub of Sathorn-Silom – now restaurant central.
Local Guide to Eating and Drinking in Bangkok by Chef Ton of Le Du
Chef Ton and co-owner and restaurant manager, Tao, name the eatery Le Du, a synonym for ‘the season’ in Thai to reflect their focus on seasonal produce. Located in a retro house on a narrow lane, around the corner from Chef Ian Kittichai’s buzzy resto-bar, Namsah Bottling Trust, and not far from another Bangkok dining and drinking stalwart, Eat Me, Le Du is within a minute’s walk from the BTS. Smart decisions. With a small bar at the entrance, low ceilings, and recycled timber wall panelling, Le Du is welcoming, intimate and cosy.
When Ton and Tao opened Le Du, Ton hadn’t been back long from the USA, where he’d studied at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA) and staged in top New York City restaurants, Jean-Georges, The Modern and Eleven Madison Park. Yet he looked relaxed and at home, as if he’d never left Bangkok, and certainly not like a chef who’d just opened a restaurant. We asked Ton what his overseas experience taught him.
“Discipline, the importance of having a good work ethic, and the mindset of the people who work in those kitchens,” Chef Ton told us. “People work in those restaurants because they love to cook. Nobody forced them, because it’s so tough to get in those kitchens. You put in so many hours so you really have to care about food. It also taught me things like attention to detail, how to make the best of everything, and to respect the ingredient.”
Later that evening at Le Du, as we savoured a seemingly never-ending tasting menu, we watched the chef at the pass in the open kitchen, carefully finishing each plate his chefs delivered, only occasionally stepping over to a stove to ensure each ingredient was perfectly cooked. His confidence and calm manner belied his age. Thompson was right. Ton was a chef to watch.
The food was the most original Thai food that we’d ever eaten. While Ian Kittichai had been dishing up often playful modern Thai for a couple of years and Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, sister to Michelin-starred Kiin Kiin in Copenhagen, was serving some of the most whimsical Thai food at the time, no other chef in Bangkok was doing anything like Ton.
When we’d asked Ton to describe his cuisine earlier that day he’d called it “contemporary, local, seasonal, and Thai-inspired”. But it was so much more than that. He had elaborated: “Because what inspires us most are the Thai flavours and Thai ingredients – although it’s not really Thai food that we’re cooking.” It wasn’t, yet it was.
Over the last few years Chef Ton has created a new Thai cuisine that is very contemporary in style – his elegant dishes wouldn’t look out of place in any fine restaurant in the world – yet his fresh, cheeky approach and fondness for deconstructing and reconstructing classic Thai dishes is post-modernist, while the flavours are as authentic as they come.
Three years later, Chef Ton has three more restaurants. First there was Taper, now closed, which Tao and Ton opened three years ago with former CIA classmate Chef ‘Toon’ Tatchapol Choomduang, who helmed the casual, day-time breakfast and lunch spot, which offered Western classics and Asian favourites.
Then there was Baan – Thai Family Recipes, a chic, intimate eatery focused on the food of his grandparents’ generation that Chef Ton and his brothers, who are business partners, grew up eating. Ton and his girlfriend can sometimes be found on the stoves and the whole family, including grandmas and girlfriends, dine there together on weekends for lunch.
While Taper has since closed, Ton recently opened Backyard By Baan. When Ton’s not in the kitchen at Le Du or checking in on one of his other restaurants, he can generally be found eating. (Check his instagram feed: @cheftonn for more dining tips.) There’s nobody better suited in the Thai capital right now than Chef Ton to contribute to our latest Local Guide to Eating and Drinking in Bangkok.
A Local Guide to Eating and Drinking in Bangkok by Chef Ton of Le Du
Q. What’s special about Bangkok’s eating and drinking scene?
A. Many chefs have come out, both young and old, to do their own thing and do what they believe in so we have more options and creative choices of cuisines.
Q. Your favourite Thai restaurants in Bangkok?
A. Nahm – best Thai restaurant ever. Period!
Err – tasty, simple and filling Thai food. The fermented pork is a killer!
Som Tam Khun Kan – my go-to Isaan restaurant. I eat there every other week.
Q. Your favourite Bangkok restaurants for when people want a change from Thai food?
A. Peppina – great pizza!!!!
Tang Jai Yoo – best suckling pig and many Chinese delicacies. It’s in Chinatown.
Sakuragawa Sushi – amazing sushi for a good price.
Q. Best place for a quick lunch in Bangkok?
A. Patum Cake – all in one home cooked comfort food and it’s fast! Pick up a Thai-style baked pie.
Q. Best spot for a late night meal in Bangkok?
A. Saengchai Pochana – best late night dishes, especially the pork soup with Chinese plum. It will keep you awake after a hard night drinking.
Q. Best restaurant for a romantic meal in Bangkok?
A. Le Normandie at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel – very elegant with dramatic views.
Q. Best place for a group meal for family or friends in Bangkok?
A. An An Lao – it’s great for a family gathering with tasty Chinese food and amazing prices.
Q. Best spots for street food in Bangkok?
A. Udomsuk Road and Sukhumvit 103 – many great noodle places and other shops too.
Soi Convent, Silom – try the famous grilled pork on the stick!
Chinatown – everything you need is here when it comes to street food.
Q. What are the must-try Thai dishes in Bangkok?
A. Pad ka pao – a must! I eat it five times a week. It’s nearly always my lunch!
Yellow southern curry – for those who can stand the heat!
Som tum – a great introduction to Isaan cuisine and Bangkok has great Isaan food.
Q. Best Bangkok eating experiences?
A. Getting the fresh squid from the small fishermen in Satoon – I just grill it, eat it and I’m in heaven
Le Normandie – can’t beat the view and service there. I love it every time.
A drive with my family and loved ones to a restaurant by the seaside to eat the freshest seafood.
Q. Best Bangkok breakfasts?
A. Congee – you gotta have it with poached egg and you’re done!
Kao lao (pork everything soup) – a must for a morning hangover! Hahaha!
Dim sum – a traditional southern Thai breakfast – easy, quick, and filling.
Q. Best place for a long weekend brunch?
A. Little Beast – it’s gotta be the Chinese and Mexican lunch at Little Beast! It’s out of this world (now closed).
Q. Best cafés for coffee in Bangkok?
A. Wonderwall – great drip coffee. Friendly staff.
Luka – good coffee and breakfast in a great space.
Pacamara – amazing roaster and very knowledgeable staff.
Q. Best food market in Bangkok?
A. Or Tor Kor Market – all you need is there. There’s also easy access to JJ market across the road. Go there during lunch so you can try some delicious meal there too before or after you shop. (Or Tor Kor: 101 Thanon Kampheng Phet, Chatuchak; open 8am-5pm; take the MRT to Kampheng Phet Station, Exit #3).
Q. What should someone settling into Bangkok learn to cook?
A. Tom yum goong – it’s quick and easy and is the essence of Thai cuisine.
Pad ga pao – so easy and it’s delicious if you do it right.
Q. Bangkok’s best foodie souvenir?
A. Good fish sauce and shrimp paste!
Q. Bangkok’s best bars?
A. Smalls – easy, cozy and friendly, and people have to meet David!
Sing Sing Theatre – if you want to be seen and you want to have fun.
Baa ga din – sorry, it’s my place but I drink there so often and our bartenders are really talented.
Q. Best place to find Bangkok’s chefs?
Q. Best source of information on eating and drinking in Bangkok?
Bangkok’s chefs Instagram feeds! Ha! Ha!
* UPDATED: 22 February 2017