Sunday, May 5, 2013

Bangkok - a little bit of this and that

I rarely mix work and pleasure on trips.  Perhaps I am too self aware to know that it is hard for me to switch from work to play mode and vice versa so it's not fair on travel companions nor myself to try to do both.  But Bangkok seemed easy enough, with enough distractions to keep everyone entertained without taking a toll on me.  So we planned a do-nothing-much kinda weekend to well, do nothing, after a tough few work days.

I haven't been back to Bangkok since December 2010 and was eager to check out the dining scene, try a few new places, and otherwise just go with the flow.  Since I was already checked into the Siam Kempinski for work, it was easy just to extend a couple nights rather than switch hotels, especially given its central location, right next to the big malls Siam Paragon, and Siam Center and right by the BTS Siam station.  The scorching heat nearing 40 degrees celsius and awful traffic meant that BTS was our best travel companion.  Plus, the few bad hats of taxi drivers who still try to nail you for a flat fee fare that would exceed what you are expected to pay if they would just use the meter.

Bangkok has really evolved into a real metropolis and with that, the people seemed to have unfortunately taken the city abrasiveness prevalent in a lot of other cities.  What used to be the land of smiles is now more appropriately the land of scowls, perhaps with the advent of stress and other negatives of being in a big bad city.

Fortunately, the food is still very good and very good value.  This was probably the first time that I had not done any repeats and was glad for it since that meant an extra opportunity to try some new options.

Despite the youth of the concierge at the Kempinski, I wasn't too impressed by 2 recommendations to try Baan Khun Mae.  Without having done research, I asked for something near the hotel which was akin to Bann Kanitha.  Baan Khun Mae is not that kind of place.  While it was extremely good value for what they had, it was pretty ordinary grub you can get back in Hong Kong (Kowloon City would give it a good run for its money).  But the other recommendation of Taling Pling, which is right inside the Siam Paragon mall, was a better option.  Slightly modernized (to be expected for a mid-range chain) it was surprisingly decent.

Catfish and Mango Salad
Deep fried chunks of catfish flesh tossed with crunchy julienned green mangoes in a fish sauce and lime dressing is always a winning start.  Thai salads have a sadistic edge to them, with the salty and sour leave you craving for more and the heat stung tongue and lips unable to curb the need to consume even more.  Vicious cycle.

Crab Meat Curry
Loved that we didn't have to peel a crab considering the late hour we were having dinner and how famished we were.  Chunks of crab meat were instant gratification and the use of the green vegetable in the curry were a great way to pick up even more of the sauce.

Caramelised Bananas and Coconut Ice Cream
This doesn't look Thai to the eye but is quintessentially Thai in ingredients with a very fragrant and sweet ball of fresh coconut ice cream adorned with the little stumpy yellow bananas Thailand is famous for.

With list after list making up the foodie universe these days, it was both apt and convenient to have dinner at Sra Bua, which is right inside the Kempinski.  Sra Bua made No. 29 of Asia's 50 Best in 2013 and is set in a beautiful room with high ceilings, solid wood furniture and a water feature in the middle.  Very tranquil in feel even if filled with diners and I loved the fact that there is a lot of space.  A great place to entertain and offer up modern molecular Thai food prepared by non-Thais.  Visually stunning and captures the essence of traditional Thai tastes although I did find the food just a tad salty (something I found on this trip in general but hadn't noticed before).

Mackeral Salad
The use of a smoked mackeral in a traditional Thai salad was interesting but a welcome change.  The smokiness did not overwhelm and did well to complement the fresh herbs and a typically piquant dressing made from the usual fish sauce, lime and chillies.  My dining companions not used to spicy food couldn't down this, however.  Shame.

Lobster with Frozen Red Curry
This was an interesting one in that it was a traditional hot dish served up cold.  Chilled lobster chunks interspersed with grapes and avocado were fresh accompanied by a scoop of red curry ice cream under the foam.  This was served with liquid nitrogen poured into the base plate to create a mystique trail of smoke but beyond that, I couldn't say I was wowed.

Quail in a Tom Kha Gai
This was very well done and easily my favorite savory dish of the night.  Perfectly roasted quail with a crisp exterior and pink center, with the very tasty tom kha gai poured in tableside.  This was awesome with the steamed jasmine rice served alongside and you could just eat this all night.

Banana cake with Salted Ice Cream and Toasted Almonds
One of the best desserts I've had.  Soft and moist banana cake served with fresh and dried coconut and toasted almonds and balanced by a salty ice cream.  The salt ice cream was a little radical since it wasn't contrasted with anything sweet in it, but did enough to complement the rest of the dish.  Don't try it alone though.

Inspired by the experience at Sra Bua, and having had varying experiences of Thai food after that, I was craving something non-Thai but different from the usual Italian which Bangkok is famous for. Little Beast provided just that something homey but with an edge to leave you wanting more.

Asparagus and Watercress salad
Something which sounded so ordinary was made special with a lemon dressing that was tart enough to entice but not to scare and balanced so well with the fresh shavings of Parmesan.  A very welcome way to eat your greens so your momma would be proud.

Raisin and Pistachio Pork Sausage
Home-made and oh-so-good.  None of that over-sodiumed stuff you buy home from the deli but good ratios of lean and fat given a little nutty crunch and sweet plump raisins.  Good even on its own without gherkins.

15-hour Lamb Shoulder
Execution at its best.  Shoulder was tender and even had a acceptable gaminess that even non-lamb eaters can get used to.  The use of a ginger carrot coulis made it reminiscent of an Indian dish from long ago but without being overpowering.  The warm barley provided a carb fullness that wasn't uncomfortable.  The green and mushroom salad didn't do too much else to accentuate but perhaps when you got sick of eating ginger carrots and lamb, it was a nice reprieve although quite unnecessary given the quality of the dish overall.

Fig bread pudding
I can never resist fresh figs and so this was a no-brainer of a choice despite a 25 minute wait, which was well worth it considering the excellent quality of the bread - chewy yet soft with enough custard to keep it moist.  Wondrous.

And so when it came to the last meal of the trip, we were determined to end on a high.  It was back to Thai but not the kind we are used to and can easily get back home.  Issan Thai, which is North East of the capital, is not a cuisine readily available outside of Thailand.  Typically the spice factor is turned up and there is less use of coconut, and even the staple is not long grain Jasmine but sticky rice.  It comes across as a little more Chinese in influence and has influenced cuisines of neighbors such as Laos and Cambodia.

Suppaniga boasts northeastern influence from the owner's grandmother's roots in Trad and Chantaburi provinces with hints of Issan.  Everything is simple and has a homey feel to it.  But the complexities are discernible and you can taste the hours of days gone by spent by gramma in the kitchen.

Watermelon Mojito
Even drinks are simple but good.  Crushed mint in a tall glass of watermelon juice is just the thing for Bangkok in April.  Wished I had this from day 1 of the trip given the ulcers I have amassed from excessive heat in the body system.

Moo Cha Muang
An out-of-this-world spicy curry made with a tender cut of pork and tree leaves (cha muang).  We are told this is rarely available these days and were lucky to have had the opportunity to try this.  I really like the use of leaves in curry and don't know why more people don't use it.  For those cutting down on carbs, leaves are a great way to alleviate the urge to reach for the bowl of rice to mop everything up.  It's not a one-for-one swap but is a pretty good substitute especially since it's good for you.

Ka Lum Tod Nam Pla
I was taken aback when our friendly and knowledgeable server recommended this.  It looked every bit as bland as the picture in the menu and paled in appearance to other vegetable dishes.  But we understood why when he explained the use of a special fish sauce from Gramma's Trad province.  It was fragrant and tasty without being salty.  The big cabbage leaves were a little unwieldy and extremely crunchy since it was barely cooked but were a good platform to showcase the fish sauce given its natural sweetness.  My only complaint is that they should probably have chopped them down to more manageable sizes.  But you know what, leave Ms Manners aside and you'll be ok.

Pu Jah
A tasty blend of crab and pork minced and steamed in its shell.  Fooled by its size, this was actually substantial in the tummy.  Pleasant with the Sriracha but not a wow in my book.

This was yam and sweet potato balls in a coconut based soup.  Sounds common enough and akin to a bubur chacha, for those who hail from Singapore/Malaysia, but the twist is the salted egg they drop into the bowl, taking away the sweetness of a conventional dessert and giving it a contrast not dissimilar to how the French have been doing for years themselves with the salted caramel.  This is Thailand's answer.

And from what I ate on this trip, Thailand does have a lot of answers.  Now it just needs to fix the traffic and climate, and make its people learn to smile again.

Taling Pling
G29, 991 Rama 1 Rd
Siam Paragon Shopping Center
Pathum Wan, Pathumwan, 
Bangkok 10330

Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin
1/F, Siam Kempinski, 
991/9 Rama 1 Rd

Little Beast
44/9-10 Thong lo 13
Bangkok 10110

Suppaniga Eating Room
160/11 Soi Sukhumvit 55 (Thonglor), 
Between Thonglor Soi 6 & 8, 
Klongton Nuea, Watthana
Bangkok 10110

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