It's only 6pm, but a dozen expectant food lovers are already taking their seats around the glittering laboratory kitchen that has just opened above the elegant dining room of Gaggan, anointed for the last two years as number one on the elite Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list. People eat early in the Thai capital as it is the only sure way to avoid the deadly traffic jams – and if you managed to get a precious reservation by booking two months before, then no one wants to miss the first few courses of a gastronomic feast.
The restaurant is housed in a century-old wooden villa hidden away down a narrow street in the upmarket residential neighbourhood that surrounds the American embassy, just behind Bangkok’s green oasis, the sprawling Lumpini Park. My fellow diners are a cosmopolitan crowd typical of the Bangkok fine-dining scene: two chefs who have flown over from Tokyo, Middle East bankers, Aussie food tourists who reserved months in advance, expat American businessmen and a smartly dressed Thai family.
We all sit patiently as the chef’s assistants are busy chopping up vegetables and stirring sauces, all of us awaiting the entrance of Gaggan Anand himself, the Indian-born chef who is at the vanguard of a gourmet movement that has propelled Bangkok into, arguably, the top fine-dining destination in South East Asia.
For someone used to the solemn, often pretentious atmosphere in a European three-star Michelin restaurant, eating at Gaggan is definitely a shock. The chef is a larger-than-life personality, performing partly like an actor in his open kitchen, partly as an orchestra conductor, ensuring his two assistants perfectly fulfil their tasks, gently teasing them rather than the terrible scolding and shouting that can go on in, say, a French gastronomic kitchen. He even serves some customers himself, after chatting with them and explaining the dishes. Just as surprising is the food: an 18-course fixed menu that spans a kaleidoscope of tastes, from Anand’s so-called Black Forest Gateau – actually a combination of Hokkaido clams and chicken liver – and Charcoal, an incredible molecular treatment of sea bass, to I Want My Curry: chicken kofta and lamb masala served in traditional metal tiffin boxes, that rank as probably the best curries I have ever tasted. The curry, he explains, “is a tribute to the cooking of my mum, of all Indian street food, because if you are from Kolkata and put this in your mouth, well you are transported right back there, getting the same flavours that I was raised on”. Anand learnt his trade in Spain alongside Ferran Adrià, the master of molecular cuisine, but insists that: “I am not interested in using molecular techniques to shock people like a magician, I am interested in how these new methods can elevate the taste of ingredients. And frankly, most diners don’t even know I am cooking molecular.”
Just as everyone is getting ready to leave, Anand says to his assistants: “I’m hungry; anyone feel like a pasta?” Suddenly he is in action, boiling water, frenetically stirring his sauce, then shaving mountains of fresh truffles over the steaming pasta. Of course, none of us move, and even after 18 courses, everyone is happy to share in such a joyous, spontaneous cooking demonstration.
The Asia's 50 Best Restaurants listing is an offshoot of The World's 50 Best Restaurants, the British-based guide that, in just a few years, has transformed the food world by proposing an alternative, more visionary view of cuisine compared to the classic Michelin recommendations. This has championed a new generation of chefs such as Adrià, René Redzepi of Noma and Heston Blumenthal. While Michelin restricts itself in Asia to guides on Japan, Hong Kong and, since a few months ago, Singapore, Asia's 50 Best Restaurants covers the whole continent and has made its mark by recognising the talent of local chefs or committed foreigners who have settled in Asia and been inspired by the local cuisine. Of course, travellers and locals alike are impressed by the gourmet celebrity that accompanies celebrity Michelin chefs when they jet in from Europe to cook for a few days in Bangkok's luxury hotels. The fact that Joël Robuchon, the world's most starred chef, has opened one of his gastronomic ateliers here is a clear sign that the establishment food world now realises Bangkok is the latest new foodie destination. But as Mason Florence, local restaurant expert and editor of Bangkok 101, the city's monthly style guide, tells me: "Bangkok has a host of truly world-class restaurants, but it is unique because unlike Asia's financial centres – Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai – fine dining is far more cool and laid-back here. It is still sophisticated and gourmet, but with an unpretentious feeling of freedom, spontaneity and experimentation."
The restaurant that Anand succeeded at the summit of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants is also in Bangkok. Nahm, which was created by another foreigner, the Australian David Thompson, is on the ground floor of the exclusive Metropolitan Hotel, one of the numerous luxury hotels housed in the towering skyscrapers that line both sides of Sathorn Road, Bangkok's booming business quarter. The cuisine here is now recognised, even by initially dubious locals, as the ultimate temple to Thai gastronomy. After running successful restaurants in Sydney and London, Thompson took the gamble of opening in Bangkok itself, where he brilliantly revives centuries-old traditional Thai recipes alongside reinterpreting the tastes of Bangkok and Chiang Mai's vibrant street-food culture. Dishes such as a fiery curry of minced prawns, yellow eggplants and holy basil; smoky fermented fish served with coconut-poached bamboo; and a tangy, sourish clear soup of roast duck are all an explosion of tastes, though guests can always ask for moderate use of the lethally hot chillies.
Surprisingly, I found the cuisine less spicy across the road at Bangkok's other Thai gourmet address, Issaya Siamese Club, where local celebrity chef Ian Kittichai oversees the kitchen. Issaya is perfect for a romantic dinner, housed in a wooden colonial villa surrounded by a lush tropical garden, where the chef grows many of the aromatic herbs that mark his farm-to-table cuisine. Although he is now internationally known, with restaurants in Hong Kong and New York, Kittichai started out in a humble fashion, pushing his mother's food cart through the streets of Bangkok. His signature dishes remain classics like yum som-o – pomelo salad with baby shrimps, crunchy peanuts and chopped egg; and mussaman gae – succulent lamb shank simmered in a mild Persian-inspired curry, with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg.
For a change of ambience, the next night I reserve a restaurant that serves late, the funky Eat Me, one of Bangkok's favourite after-hours hangouts. Although it is just a few minutes' walk from the infamous bars of the Patpong quarter off Silom Road, a whole host of hip new diners are popping up here between Soi Convent and the Chong Nonsi subway station. I have known the genial owner, Darren Hausler, since he opened Eat Me 18 years ago, but he, too, has moved his diner into the gourmet zone, without losing any of its arty, casual personality. Exhibitions of avant-garde paintings hang on the walls, and in the kitchen, New York chef Tim Butler has spiced up the menu with fusion recipes, such as tamarind-glazed quail, wild king salmon with charred corn and smoked paprika, and a delicate sea urchin risotto with preserved lemons. After midnight, Eat Me is packed with chefs relaxing after work and gossipy food critics, and everyone is talking about the opening of what looks like the next gourmet hotspot: Freebird. Aussie restaurateur Marcus Boyle has decamped from Singapore along with young chef Dallas Cuddy, to create this laid-back diner in the fashionable Thonglor neighbourhood. I manage to pop in on my last night, and it is already filled to bursting. Adventurous foodies will love dishes such as grilled duck hearts with eggplant miso, blueberries and white radish, though there is plenty of choice for vegetarians too, including a delicious sweet-potato salad with shaved fennel, smoked walnut and honey. Definitely an address to watch out for in the future.
The gourmet scene is not the only place where Bangkok is buzzing. Serial shoppers are all heading up to the emerging Phrom Phong quarter to the dazzling new futuristic mall at the top of Sukhumvit Road named The EmQuartier, which not only hosts every haute couture label imaginable – along with emerging Thai designers – but also boasts about 50 restaurants and a jungle waterfall in the central glass atrium.
And when it comes to deciding where to stay, there are new trends in luxury accommodation, too, compared to the usual grand addresses such as the legendary Mandarin Oriental. The funky So Sofitel is a breath of fresh air, the young hipster staff dressed in vivid outfits specially designed by Christian Lacroix. Guests can take in panoramic sunset views over the city at the rooftop Hi-So bar, then indulge in some classic French cuisine at the adjoining Park Society restaurant.
Across the city in Thonburi, over on the other bank of the Chao Phraya River, Klapsons The River Residences is one of several exclusive designer condominiums that is renting out spacious apartments with hotel facilities by the month.
I end my last night in Bangkok following an insider tip to check out the restaurant of the W hotel in Silom. While the hotel's main building is a futuristic glass and metal tower, The House on Sathorn restaurant takes diners back in time, as it is located in a magnificent 19th-century pastel yellow mansion, formerly the Russian embassy. If the surroundings are sumptuous belle époque, the cuisine is cutting-edge experimental, overseen by a genuine Young Turk chef, the flamboyant, tattooed Fatih Tutak from Istanbul. The whimsical, visually spectacular dishes, such as the intense orange dessert Trying to Learn Mandarin, are inspired by his life and travels, but despite Tutak exclaiming that he wants to create a "fun-dining" rather than a fine-dining experience, it is pretty clear that he has his sights set on joining the rest of Bangkok's culinary elite. But he will just have to wait till the next Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list is unveiled at the end February 2017, right here in Bangkok.