The Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 was released last week – or rather, the Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket and Phang-Nga, but that’s too much of a mouthful. Here are some reflections and revelations on the second Thailand edition of the little red book.
Started by French tyre company Michelin, the first little red booklets were free when published way back in 1900. Their purpose was to help France’s earliest motorists plan their road trips with handy information, such as maps and where to get petrol; the idea being to inspire more people to buy cars so Michelin could sell more tyres.
The earliest form of the Michelin Guide as we know it today was (re-)launched in 1920, still aimed at tourists doing driving holidays, as guides to the best places to sleep and eat. Advertising was removed, anonymous inspectors introduced, and the guides sold rather than given away. These days you can buy the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 or access reviews for free on the Michelin website, although you don’t get all the additional content so handy for travellers on the site.
Unfortunately, the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 feels far removed in motive from those early guides, and inferior to the Michelin guidebooks we used to use in Europe to plan our eating holidays, and as reference tools on our own guidebook research trips. I get the sense that the Thailand guide is aimed more at affluent Thailand residents rather than food tourists. Is the Michelin guide still useful for culinary travellers? I’m not so sure.
Just as importantly, I don’t think the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 does justice to the great culinary destination that Thailand is, nor to the great chefs, cooks, restaurateurs, and restaurants – from generations-old shophouse eateries to contemporary Thai fine-dining establishments – that make Thailand such an exceptional eating destination.
Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 Released – Some Revelations and Reflections
The Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 doesn’t read like a restaurant guide for culinary travellers to Thailand. For starters, visitors to Thailand who identify as ‘foodies’ go to Thailand to eat Thai food. I don’t believe they’re in Bangkok to eat contemporary German cuisine or even ‘progressive’ Indian.
While there are many Thai restaurants included in the Michelin guide there are more European establishments than I’d expect to see in a restaurant guide to a Southeast Asian city (Singapore aside, for obvious reasons) – and those European restaurants are given higher prominence and greater attention by having been bestowed with Michelin two star rankings.
Yet most culinary travellers only resort to eating cuisines other than those of the country they’re in when they’re on long journeys and need a change (when many turn to Italian or Mexican), when they’re ill (and want comfort food), or for convenience (the hotel breakfast, poolside salads, late night room service).
Of course, there are users of Michelin guides other than food-loving travellers. There are food and beverage professionals – chefs, restaurateurs, wine people, writers, and critics; business travellers who want more than Benihana and club sandwiches; gourmands, stupidly-rich people who travel the world to tick off Michelin and World’s 50 Best restaurants; and self-styled ‘taste-makers’, those sycophantic chef groupies who hijack our favourite hash tags, travelling the world to tick off Michelin and World’s 50 Best restaurants, posing with chefs for selfies to feed their social media feeds. It’s a strange world, it’s getting stranger, and this is a strange guide.
The Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 is sloppy guide that seems hastily compiled, which would have benefited from a good editor. It’s like a curry lazily ladled into a bowl. It needed a good wipe around the rim. Many of the restaurant descriptions in the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 are dreadfully written, with poor use of English, are peppered with clichés, and are too repetitive. There are way too many ‘charmings’, even for me, and I’m fond of the word. The descriptions often say very little about the actual food and they generally demonstrate little understanding of the cuisine of the restaurants reviewed.
Let’s take Bo.lan, for instance. The Michelin guide says:
“Real care and effort is put into the ingredients and flavour, along with a zero-carbon goal – choose from two degustation menus that demonstrate the chefs’ passion. The attractive and intimate villa is charmingly run.”
In fact, there are no degustation menus at Bo.lan. Knowing the chefs, who are acutely sensitive to the subject, priding themselves on the authenticity of their Thai cuisine, from its taste to its presentation, I think that if the Michelin reviewer had actually even muttered the words ‘degustation menu’ under his breath, he would have heard woks and pots crashing in the kitchen, and would have been quickly and quietly escorted from the restaurant. Don’t believe me? Try it.
A ‘degustation menu’ or ‘tasting menu’ consists of a series of small dishes, served course by course, one dish at a time. While degustation menus are often criticised by diners because either the portions are too tiny or, ironically, because there’s too much food, a skilled chef ensures there is balance not abundance, and that the diners feel sated rather than stuffed by the end. A great chef carefully conceives and masterfully curates the content, structure, form, and progression of their degustation menus – some chefs, such as the Roca brothers, go as far as to use their tasting menu to tell a story – while a great degustation menu showcases the creativity of the chef, the talent in the kitchen, and the produce of the location.
When an array of dishes arrive all at once on the table, as the main dishes do at Bo.lan (but note that they are not ‘mains’ as such and I’ll get to that in a minute), this style of serving is traditionally referred to as ‘family-style’ or the modern usage ‘sharing-style’. Families eat in this way right across the world, especially large families and at gatherings and celebrations, from the Middle East to Europe, Australia to Latin America, and of course in Asia.
However, there’s something particular about family-style eating in Southeast Asia, especially in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Traditionally, rice is the main component (not an accompaniment) and it’s served with a relish, salad, vegetables (typically steamed or stir-fried), a soup, curry, and some protein, such as fish or chicken, usually fried, grilled or barbecued. It’s very clever as it ensures you’re getting a balanced, nutritious meal. And this explains why when you go to a Thai restaurant in Thailand and order three curries, the waiter asks “would you like some vegetables with that? We have some nice stir-fried morning glory…” They are not trying to up-sell you.
Bo.lan offers diners this experience by serving all the ‘main’ dishes together, just as Nahm did under David Thompson, so if you dined there tonight you’d receive the following all at once: a salad of grilled banana prawns from Phang Nga province with Khun Wantana’s dressing and longan, stir-fried herb-fed chicken with rainy season bamboo shoots, Mon-style beef curry with cassia leaves served with pickled mustard greens, soup of fragrant winter melon with daily ocean fish, and a lon of fish sauce-marinated rice field crab with stuffed hummingbird flowers.
Bo.lan’s website even says “Please note that course-prohibited is practiced at Bo.lan. (this is said twice)” That’s an awkward way of saying: you’re not going to eat one course at a time. Nor are you going to get a degustation menu. It’s repeated on the next line. Because guests don’t always get this. Perhaps because food writers often get things wrong.
Maybe the Michelin reviewers were confused because at Bo.lan the sour fruits, amuse-bouches and a single plate arrive separately at the start of the meal, and then after the family style meal, the desserts and petit fours after served. Or maybe they were thrown because the dishes are described in a vertical list on a page. Michelin inspectors: that does not mean you’re going to be a served a degustation meal. That’s called a ‘menu’.
Then there are the rankings, which are mystifying and maddening. Although creating controversy seems to have been part of Michelin’s strategy in recent years to attract attention in markets already saturated with restaurant guides. Take Michelin’s Singapore guidebook, which ignites impassioned debate upon publication amongst Singapore foodies, and has done every year since its 2016 launch.
From the start, the Singapore Michelin guide has been criticised by Singaporean food sites such as Eatbook for its puzzling exclusions (some of Singapore’s best restaurants, Burnt Ends, Tippling Club and Wild Rocket were left out of the inaugural guide); surprising winners (such as just-opened restaurants); lack of diversity; geographical focus (it’s city centred and like a lot of restaurant guides rarely ventures into the suburbs); conflicts of interest due to sponsors and partners; and “less-than-anonymous” inspectors handing out name cards (we’ve heard this also happened in Bangkok).
Although the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 doesn’t seem to have received the same kind of harsh criticism here in northern Southeast Asia as the Singapore guide gets. Maybe that’s because Thais are too polite and expats don’t feel it’s their place. Or maybe I just haven’t looked hard enough yet.
What irks me most is the inconsistency. While we’ve enjoyed meals at the legendary street food joint, Jay Fai (the crab omelette and drunken noodles really are as sublime as they say), how can the Michelin inspectors give Jay Fai one star and, say, 100 Mahaseth a Bib Gourmand (given to good value restaurants)? There’s no denying 100 Mahaseth is incredibly great value (Jay Fai is not), however, if Jay Fai has a star, then so should 100 Mahaseth. Read why in our post on 100 Mahaseth and its owner-chef Chalee Kader.)
And this is not to disrespect the owner-cook of Jay Fai, 72 year-old Supinya Jansuta, who, wearing a beanie, goggles and long sleeves, so as not to singe her hair and eyelashes or burn her arms, singlehandedly mans two flaming woks. She is a street food warrior queen. But so is the Thonburi street food cook we recently spotted, also sweating over two woks on the footpath outside her eatery, plating up mountains of Thai food, from top quality ingredients, while a room full of locals patiently waited in the air-conditioning inside? Where’s her star? Bangkok has no shortage of street food warrior queens.
By the same token, how can the Michelin inspectors justify one star for Jay Fai yet relegate restaurants such as Issaya Siamese Club, Namsah Bottling Trust, Blue Elephant, La Table de Tee, Soul Food Mahanakorn, and Supanniga Eating Room (just to name a handful) to a ‘Michelin Plate’? Again, no disrespect to Jay Fai, however, they are all superior to the street food eatery (to any street food eatery) in so many ways. I’m also not saying they should all receive stars. But for a guide that claims to award restaurants based on their consistency, the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 is astonishingly inconsistent.
As with the 2018 guide, there are no three-star restaurants in the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019, and just four Bangkok restaurants received two Michelin stars: Gaggan (progressive Indian), Le Normandie (identified as ‘contemporary French’ although it was fairly ‘classic’ French when we last dined), Mezzaluna (innovative European), and Sühring (contemporary German).
You’ll note that the four two-star restaurants are all offering European food, bar one that I’d describe as Euro-Indo fusion. Chef Gaggan might call his cuisine ‘progressive Indian’, but do a Michelin-driven road trip around Spain’s Catalan countryside and dine at the scores of starred restaurants dotted around the region and you’ll quickly discover that the food of the Indian chef who staged in elBulli’s Barcelona research lab is heavily influenced by Catalan cuisine.
As an aside: after a Catalan eating trip, you’ll probably never want to eat another spoon of spherical yoghurt, which Gaggan calls a ‘yoghurt explosion’ and for which he’s famed. Unbeknownst to many diners, the molecular creation was developed by Catalan chef Ferran Adrià of elBulli, after Unilever discovered the spherification technique in the 1950s, and it took off a lot faster than the plate-licking trend, spreading like fire through molecular kitchens across Spain and Europe to the rest of the world. They’re as commonplace in their region of origin as bread rolls on a French restaurant table.
(Who am I kidding? Who could tire of yoghurt spheres? If you want to learn how to make them, watch Chef José Andrés, who has been credited with introducing them to Americans when he created them on his 2007 ‘Made in Spain’ television series. Or read how to make spherified yoghurt from the godfathers of Molecular Gastronomy, Hervé This and Malcolm DeBevoise. You’ll need this Ultimate Molecular Gastronomy Starter Kit with spherification tool kit to make your own yoghurt spheres. Christmas is coming. Not hinting or anything…)
You’ll also note that there are no Thai restaurants on that short two-star restaurant list. Yet based on Michelin’s definition of a two-star restaurant (“excellent cooking, worth a detour”), Thai restaurants such as Bo.lan, Issaya Siamese Club, Le Du, Saawaan, 100 Mahaseth, and Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, are not just worthy of detours, but of special trips, and that just happens to be the Michelin’s three-star definition – “exceptional; worth a special journey”.
I guarantee you that those restaurants are all of far more interest to food tourists to Thailand. I’ll go as far as to bet you a spherification kit. And while they’re not Thai cuisine restaurants as such, so are Canvas, a restaurant inspired by Bangkok, using 100% local produce, and Haoma, a farm-to-table restaurant in the heart of Bangkok. Hey, where is Haoma?! Just as incomprehensible as Haoma being left out of Michelin’s 2019 Thailand guide, is the fact that Nahm was left in.
Nahm would only have been headed by its new chef, San Francisco-based former food blogger Pim Techamuanvivit, who started at the Bangkok restaurant in May 2018, for just a few months (if that) when the guide would have gone to the printers. According to the restaurant’s PR, the chef – who is travelling back and forth between Thailand and the USA as she’ll soon be opening a big new San Francisco restaurant – wasn’t going to introduce her new menu until the end of 2018.
Could it be possible Michelin’s inspectors thought the restaurant was still helmed by David Thompson who founded Nahm almost two decades ago in London, when it became the world’s first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant? Perhaps they weren’t aware that Thompson, head chef Prin Polsuk, and some of the old team had left to focus on Thompson’s other restaurants?
But it was pretty big news in the food media, Thompson is globally famous and a culinary ambassador for the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Surely Michelin inspectors would know that sort of thing. And if the Michelin reviewers did know that there was a new chef helming the Nahm kitchen – so new that she probably hadn’t found her office yet (it’s a warren in there) – how could they make a proper assessment when Thompson’s old dishes were still being served and a new menu hadn’t yet been introduced?
Regardless of the quality of the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019, Michelin as a brand still carries kudos and chefs and restaurateurs understandably remain chuffed to be selected for inclusion in the little red book. Although I’m sure they’d be even more delighted if the listings actually described their restaurants accurately.
Another aside: the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 restaurants were announced at an event last week called the “Star Revelation”, which promised that “the collective breath of foodies, dining enthusiasts and industry players from around the globe will be held”. (Another example of where an editor would have been useful.) Unusual for these sorts of award ceremonies, attendees paid to attend the gala dinner with 5-course meal for, according to Michelin’s website, THB23,540 per head – or US$715, AUD$981 and UK£555 at today’s exchange rate – considerably more than you’d pay to eat at any of the restaurants in the book. Typo, perhaps?
It’s surprising considering the long list of sponsors (that’s who usually covers these things) and that the Tourism Authority of Thailand, according to the Coconuts website, reportedly allocated THB 143.5 million (just under US$4.5 million at today’s exchange rate) to the five-year Michelin contract. I’m guessing the chefs and restaurateurs who attended must have been feasting on bowls of caviar and foie gras and were gifted boxes of the guides.
(To clarify: there aren’t two guides. The book is called the Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket and Phang-Nga. Why it includes Phang-Nga, hardly a gastronomic centre, and not Chiang Mai, which is a destination for food-lovers, is baffling. But the Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket and Phang-Nga is a mouthful, so we’re calling it the Michelin Guide Thailand here, as that’s what loyal Michelin users will search for when planning a Thailand trip. Though how loyal they’ll be after using the guide remains to be seen.)
Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 Starred Restaurants
The new Thailand Michelin Guide for 2019 lists 217 restaurants, most of which are in Bangkok, and 67 “lodging establishments” (‘accommodation’ to the rest of us), with four two-star restaurants, 23 one-star restaurants, 72 Bib Gourmand (value for money) restaurants, and 55 restaurants awarded Michelin plates or ‘L’Assiette Michelin’ – restaurants “where the inspectors have discovered quality food”. Something that isn’t hard to do in a fantastic culinary destination like Thailand.
Michelin 1-Star Restaurants
Chim by Siam Wisdom
Ginza Sushi Ichi
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon
Ruen Panya (new; in Minburi)
Methavalai Sorndaeng (new)
Pru (new, in Phuket)
Suan Thip (new)
Sra Bua by Kiin Kin
Michelin 2-Star Restaurants
See our next post for our reviews of the best Bangkok restaurants in the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019 edition or the Michelin Guide Bangkok, Phuket and Phang-Nga if you prefer that you need to book on your next trip to Thailand. If you’ve seen the Michelin Guide Thailand 2019, I’d love to know your thoughts.
Pictured above, new one-starred Canvas restaurant by Terence Carter.