17 of Bangkok's Top Tables
Bangkok's fast-maturing dining scene runs the gamut from obscure local delicacies to Michelin-rich magnificence from around the globe. RICHARD MCLEISH goes on a mad-dash, belt-loosening glutton's errand, eating his way through the city's coolest new restaurants. Photographed by CHRISTIAN HOGUE.
Published on Nov 4, 2015
Famous for being a pleasure dome, Bangkok never fails to engage the senses. As the city modernizes, the dining scene is growing up, too. Internationally lauded chefs, regional specialists and shrewd independents all service the collective palate of the city that now knows its massaman from its chamuang curry, its Romana from its Napoletana. In the hopes of easing your navigation of the city's gastronomic delights, we're divided the current best and brightest into bento box sections of key trends that capture their galvanizing spirits. Prime your palate to check each of these categories off your list: you're sure to come away with a full-bodied taste of the town.
The stars have been raining down on Bangkok in the past couple of years, with chefs who've clocked Michelin acclaim elsewhere opening outposts in the city. Or, in the case of Dutch chef Henk Savelberg, closing up shop in The Hague in favor of the Thai capital as the sole home base for his modern, French-inflected haute fare (savelbergth.com). Here are four others that pay homage to the masters.
1. L'ATELIER DE JOEL ROBUCHON
With 28 Michelin stars in his trophy cabinet, Joël Robuchon's arrival in Bangkok rippled through every tablecloth in the city. The words "no expense spared" come to mind as you take in the original Warhol prints and Swarovski crystals inside. The extravagance continues on the plates (worth US$1,000 each, incidentally), where delicate highlights include a sculpted toast tower constructed next to a quail-yolk-topped tartare and a lonely Hokkaido scallop bathed in a buttery kumquat reduction. The calm, precision action on display by the army of chefs in the open kitchen meets the huge expectations associated with the place (and price). While the décor, food and fuss aren't for the fainthearted, it's a compulsory outing for any curious purveyor of the pointy end of the dining scene. 5F Mahanakhon Cube, 96 Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra Rd., Silom; +66 2 001 0698; robuchon-bangkok.com.
2. VOGUE LOUNGE
Culinary gods, forgive us for being skeptical. A themed café usually sets our gauche radar aflutter—but we needn't have worried with the world's most revered name in fashion backing a show run by a chef, Vincent Thierry, who has repeatedly raked in three Michelin stars for Caprice in Hong Kong. Much like the best designers, Thierry and his exec chef on the scene, Cyril Cocconi, deliver seasonal lines scoring high in both style and substance. On our visit, this meant royal purple leaves sprouting from a mussel-stocked grass-green courgette velouté, and fresh morels providing an earthy richness to their veal-loin headliner. With a fresh mixology menu slanted towards the light and fizzy, a prime location straddling the Silom and Sathorn strips, and a rotating roster of cool-as resident DJs, Vogue is hopping at happy hour—which extends to 9 p.m. What’s more, the lavender and golden hues, the Warhol- (yep, we’re right upstairs from Robuchon) and old-Vogue-cover-bedecked walls, and the tiled lantern-lit patio provide perfect backdrops for your own Instagram-worthy photo shoot. 6F Mahanakhon Cube, 96 Naradhiwas Rajanagarindra Rd., Silom; +66 2 001 0697; voguelounge.com.
Asparagus at Vogue Lounge.
3. GINZA SUSHI ICHI
Positioned in a basement under Ratchaprasong with a Tokyo-style tuck is the Bangkok branch of Michelinstarred Ginza Sushi Ichi. The two hinoki wood-lined rooms are overseen by sushi chefs with ninja-worthy professionalism reminiscent of documentary-star Jiro, who dreams of sushi. The savvy sushi selections are flown in daily direct from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo—whenever it shuts, so does Ginza Sushi Ichi. The omakase-style service takes you through the best of the fish at the dedicated discretion of the chef—who, if you're lucky, might be the founder and overseer of the entire operation, the beloved, artistic Masa. This is the place to trump your snobbiest of sushi-expert friends, nicely rounding out the high-end spectrum with Mugendai and Mikaku, along with newcomer Kom-ba-wa. The pinnacle of Japanese in an already Nihon-happy city. LG/F, Erawan Bangkok, 494 Ploenchit Rd. Pathumwan; +66 2 250 0014; facebook.com/ginzasushiichiBKK.
A fresh trio at Ginza Sushi Ichi.
Pipping Joël Robuchon at the post for being the first tristar awardee in town was Jean-Michel Lorain, known for La Côte Saint Jacques, in Burgundy. It takes the old-world French mantle established by Le Normandie and Le Beaulieu across town and turns it on its head, according to the restaurant's "upside down" mantra. We counter that it's not quite a full inversion, but pretty radical for such safe origins. It's unashamedly French, propelled by maître d' Marine Lorain following her family tradition. The curious back-block location and ornate interior awash in violet and chartreuse standout, but the real marquee is the attention to detail on the plates. There's pigeon, snail and foie gras, naturally, alongside some Asian accents too—razor clams are served with sea urchin cream. U Sathorn Bangkok, 105/1 Soi Ngam Duphli; +66 2 119 4899; jaime-bangkok.com.
Lightly smoked sea bass and caviar, J'aime.
The right choice of restaurant can launch a memorable night out on the town. It's less a common cuisine that binds these new favorites of ours than a familiar vibe; they are the answer to when someone says, "let's go somewhere 'nice.'" Whether it's an upscale twist on the tavern or a modern Italian, these spots—like the older Quince, Sensi and Gaggan (just named Asia's best restaurant by San Pellegrino)—are all about classy, pomp-free bustle.
Sidle up to the bar in one of the 28 chef's table seats and have a chat with Zra Jirararth, the rock star overseeing this open kitchen. This amiable, talented, Cordon Bleutrained Thai chef will inevitably effuse his passion for not just food but also its provenance. Dedicated to upping the quality of both local livestock and the livelihoods of the farmers who raise them, he regularly buys a collective's entire season's crop, serving the best portions to his customers and figuring out waste-not ways to dispense with the rest, such as creative staff meals. In this greenery-draped steel structure tucked down Sukhumvit 31, the food on the seasonal set menu is both fanciful and fun. Happily, the brilliance appears in the dishes you'd least expect, that is, in those overdone degustation must-haves: foie gras (at our tasting, seared, with cherries and pineapples, all atop a crunchy bed of gingerbread crumbs), Wagyu beef (two ways—slowcooked cheek and rare steak) and dessert (sweet corn concocted four ways—grilled, popped, ice cream and pannacotta). 68 Sukhumvit Soi 31; +66 2 102 2323; astonbkk.com.
Putting the final touches on a colorful salad at Aston.
6. LADY BRETT
Meat us at Lady Brett, the evening follow-up to the original Rocket coffee bar next door (not to be confused with nightspot craft-cocktail den U.N.C.L.E. upstairs), which has stepped out with a revamped menu strutting directly and unapologetically into the carnivore zone. The narrow, crimson-hued tavern now sets our hearts ablaze on a fire stoked by bamboo, hickory wood chips and Laotian charcoal. We assumed the Aussie black Angus sirloin would be the star, and it was divine, but do not overlook the unassuming pork neck, and be sure to top it with a combination of the spicy soy chili and spicy barbecue sauces—you will melt. Especially if you accompany it with sultry sides of miso eggplant and truffle-and-sour-cream mashed potatoes. This is the part where we're supposed to segue into dessert, but we think it's best to backtrack and leave you with this kiss goodbye: the duck rillettes appetizer is perfectly pulled strips of garlic-and-chive-seasoned meat nestled in a crispy potato cradle. These are the glammest potato skins you'll ever find, so even if you've got a Jake Barnes bank account, just order your own Lady Brett these and a rum-fortified red wine Conquistador cocktail, and settle into your banquette to the DJ's late-90s grooves—you're sure to lance her heart. 149 Sathorn Soi 12; +66 2 635 0405; ladybrett.com.
Lady Brett mixologist Philip Stefanescu.
It's hard to sum up in a word exactly why we adore this perennially packed hotspot on Soi Convent, but let's start with delightsome. Step inside and owners Choti and Debby Tang will welcome you warmly with a glass of bubbles, and maybe a pâté-licious amuse-bouche. Order some jamon iberico and a couple of platters of the city's best meatballs, little spicy pork and fennel flavor-bombs, to start; there are huge plates of delicious meat mains but we always go with the homemade pastas. Chef Luca Appino will crank up the charm, lighting up your pici with duck ragu or risotto with homemade sausage with his 1,000-watt smile. Post-meal, retire to the bar for dangerously smooth barrel-aged Negroni, a gin-spiked Secret Earl Grey, a special request from genially accommodating barmaster Colin Tait—or a tipple off their brand-new botanical cocktail menu. Ah, let's not kid ourselves: you paraded through a sampling of Colin's concoctions pre and during dinner, meaning you'll head home delighted and divinely drunk. 10/15 Soi Convent, Silom; +66 2 235 2777; vesperbar.co.
Seafood paella at Vesper.
It wasn't too long ago that, in Bangkok, casual Western eating meant pub grub. A tip of the hat to places like Opposite Mess Hall and Rocket for schooling the town's proprietors on balancing a laid-back scene with comfort food the chefs nonetheless take great pride in perfecting. The next generation of relaxed restaurants is blooming with more diversity of fare... some even too cool for a fixed address.
You might like Indian food, but Rohit Sachdev is betting you're over Indian restaurants in their standard Bangkok incarnation of curry house holes-in-the-wall assaulting you with fluorescent lights and Bollywood music. You'll be pleasantly surprised to enter Charcoal, an airy room of warm woods and leathers lined on one side by tall windows and the other by a glassed-in kitchen filled with gleaming tandoor ovens. This is a sophisticated yet casual, new-school take on the best of Bombay, whose running theme is the dabbawalla-delivered-tiffin system that feeds 200,000 some people home-cooked lunches daily. So that's comfort food and kebabs—get the creamy chicken murgh malai, paneer tikka and tandoori malai broccoli—but, also, since Sachdev and his crew are the gents who brought us Above Eleven and Gramercy (our favorite classy-cool rooftop resto-bars, which are helpfully in the same building), royal Mughal fare and a cocktail-pairing menu courtesy of the city's drinks master, Joseph Boroski. And not a curry in sight. Fraser Suites Sukhumvit, 38/8 Sukhumvit Soi 11, 5F; +66 89 307 1111; charcoalbkk.com.
9. PIZZA MASSILIA
We might have mentioned it before, but Bangkok is now bumper to bumper with food trucks. So many have rolled onto the scene in the past year that it's hard for us to remember all of their names, let alone at which temporary truck stop our favorites will be parked on any given weekend. The burger wars rage on to delicious effect and there are surprisingly well-done pastas and deli sandwiches, but our favorite meals on wheels are the blackened-bubbled pizza pies—particularly the scarmorza and sausage one—dished up by the chefs at Massilia, whose lightbulb sign on a cerulean truck with its sides flung open into a hidden garden littered by checkered-cloth tables evokes a movie set. A charming movie in Marseille... filmed in the heart of Silom. MK Gold Parking Lot, Soi Sala Daeng; +66 94 552 2025.
10. NAMSAAH BOTTLING TRUST
Take Thailand's biggest celebrity chef, add a deep pocket and a burgeoning food scene and the result is the richly adorned Namsaah Bottling Trust. It's the contemporary chapter of Thai culinary powerhouse Ian Kittichai, who doesn't need a Michelin star to fill tables (and, in fact, will help you fill your own at his new, sparkly Issaya Cooking Studio). If his Issaya Siamese Club is for grown ups, Namsaah is for the adventurous millennials, with its hot pink exterior and provocative menu. Sip on a caramel Sang Som whiskey sour at the ground-level bar or in the serene front garden. Then progress seamlessly from playful popcorn shrimp to pad Thai with foie gras, in full embrace of the Kittichai kaleidoscope. 401 Silom Soi 7; +66 2 636 6622; namsaah.com.
We have to wonder if chef Paolo Vitaletti is homesick. Because here, he's imported from the motherland everything from the flour to the impressive oven to the Neapolitan chef himself, who mills around the kitchen with appropriate swagger. We've always loved Appia, but this casual spot down the road feels truer to broadly grinning Vitaletti's heart. The buzzy room turns tables of families, friends, colleagues over endlessly each night so that even the city's glamor set leaves with full stomachs—possibly because they've been gorging themselves on the ever-enticing specials, such as the The Duke pizza that, on one visit, was upgraded with cheese hand-carried from Italy by Paolo's visiting mother. If that's the cure for homesickness, vieni, mama Vitaletti. 27/1 Sukhumvit Soi 33; +66 2 119 7677; peppinabkk.com.
It's tempting to say Thai is among the world's favorite cuisines, but that's an oversimplification, what with all the internal variations, from regional to royal. David Thompson splashed into town with Nahm, which codified the traditional Thai shared dining into a "tasting menu," quickly adopted by other upscale places like the beloved Bo.Lan (which reopened in a gorgeous garden in Thonglor). Meanwhile, a cult of the casual was developing following the successes of the still-packed, street-food-inspired Soul Food Mahanakorn and its neighbor, Supanniga, serving authentic Trat and Isan food. The following six run the same spectrum, from degustation to chill, but are tied together by, well, chili and excellent Thai.
Steeped in royal traditions with contemporary frills, Benjarong is the latest playground for Danish chef Morten Bojstrup Nielsen of Nahm in London. Here, royal recipes are given room to move through innovative reimaginings of flavors and presentations. A recent highlight was the chili popcorn, followed by a 24-hour-cooked lamb massaman to die for. It sits in the Dusit Thani—a famed throwback to the origins of modern Siam, presenting a welcome challenge for the traditionalists looking for new takes on their old favorites. Dusit Thani Hotel, 946 Rama IV Rd., Silom; +66 2 200 9000; dusit.com.
13. SRA BUA
This place—straddling two categories here, as its boldness was grounded in its Michelin-rated origins in Copenhagen—has led the innovation in a local context. Continually daring to reinvent the Thai flavor palate, Sra Bua has recently revamped its menu. The fare is pure Bangkok: Thai food through the fusion filter. The molecular approach still holds its ground as the traditionalists and purists grapple with the true definition of a cuisine. Shelve your expectations and buckle up for the ride that will take you on a crosscountry journey through quirky reinterpretations of street food—pomelo salad in a crisp fried cone had us wanting more, but it was only the beginning of an 11-course meal—to temperature-defying curries. Exercise for the imagination and stomach alike. GF Siam Kempinski Hotel, 991/9, Rama I Rd., Pathumwan; +66 2 162 9000; kempinskibangkok.com.
At the ornate Sra Bua.
14. PASTE (GAYSORN)
Bold and on point, Paste (Gaysorn) is the second outing for chef Jason Bailey, another Australian chefs pushing the contemporary canon. For this outing he has teamed up with an aristocratic Thai family with royal connections and old recipe books. Dedications on the menu include the sous-vide duck, rubbed with northern makhwaen pepper. Another barometer of how much the royal flavors and descendants will move with the times. 3F Gaysorn Plaza, 999 Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini; +66 2 656 1003; paste-gaysorn.com.
15. LE DU
French refinement meets youthful confidence at daring Le Du. The menu is the boldest fusion of the city, with lots of play at work by the enthusiastic youthful kitchen. With a name meaning "season" in Thai, the flavors revolve accordingly. The current seven-course tasting menu features khao chae, a pork and shrimp ball with roasted chili, pickled radish and jasmine ice cream—typical of the texture and flavor cacophony. Known for being daring, it hints at a city ready for more. 399/3 Silom Soi 7; +66 92 919 9969; ledubkk.com.
16. HOT ROD
With cinematic mise-en-scène and manicured plates of goodness, it's a quick and willing seduction of guests at Hot Rod. Clearly the work of designer Ashley Sutton, the jungle-tinged sci-fi-inspired room rings around a counter for 12 to sit up and watch the wielded wok. On the handle is partnering chef Peter Pitakwong. And suddenly tapas-style service makes perfect sense. That means shared plates of fried chicken, creamy crab curry on noodles and tom yum haeng seekrong moo—a sleek plate of fleshy baby back ribs coated with lemongrass, galangal and chili. A few more Hot Rod-style eateries and this town may soon rival Tokyo in the cool cuisine stakes. GF Park Lane, 18 Sukhumvit Soi 63; +66 2 714 2575; fb.com/hotrodbangkok.
Ribs at Hot Rod.
17. THAI LAO YEH
Representing forgotten corners of the Kingdom's vast culinary range are a growing number of regionally focused eateries. For its part, Thai Lao Yeh chimes in with northeastern and Laotian dishes. Delicacies such as frog's legs, chicken feet and even the seasonal but popular ant eggs accent the adventurous spirit of the traveling menu. Celebrate regional cuisine, we say, before it gets lost in the big city. GF, 14/29 Sukhumvit Soi 45; +66 2 259 2871; cabochonhotel.com.