Bangkok in Rainy Season

For nearly six months of the year, from May through October, Thailand experiences the monsoon season. It has its own rhythms, its own challenges and its own joys.

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Much of the time, rainy season days are humid in the morning as the pavement dries out after overnight rain. The skies are mostly blue and the fresh air provides no filter to the sunlight, which bakes anyone unfortunately enough to be outside the shade like ants under the magnifying glass of a cruel, petulant child.

As the day progresses, cumulonimbus clouds build like fluffy albino cotton candy reaching into the stratosphere. They darken over the afternoon, their shade growing ever more menacing. Often, one half of the sky will still be sunny and blue while the other half will be an advancing, sheer wall of dark grey.

Once the wind picks up, you know that it is just a matter of minutes – at most a half-hour – before the rain starts to fall. Often, this happens in a fierce opening of the heavens, fire hoses turned on full force, a deluge turning roads to canals and canals to lakes. The torrent can just as rapidly cease, leaving the temperatures considerably cooler and, if the clouds vanish, the stars clearly visible even in a city with so much light pollution.

Sometimes, though, the rain stays around at varying degrees of intensity, snarling traffic, stranding pedestrians and leaving behind flooded sois (alleys) that take hours to drain. Thankfully, this does not happen too often and when it does, you just alter your plans and either stay in (if you were caught at home) or stay out (if you had not yet made it home).

Patience is called for.

The joy of rainy reason comes in the moderately cooler weather – each degree of reduction is appreciated – and the breezes. This year, while our rainfall has been heavy, there has been minimal flooding. The greatest joy of rainy season is the cool season that follows it, though.

Little Bao opens in Bangkok

There are a handful of restaurants in this world that I love and always look forward to visiting again. Little Bao, a hole in the wall Chinese burger bar in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels, is one name on that short list. The good news is, I no longer need to travel to Hong Kong to enjoy the inventive, well-executed food: Little Bao BKK just opened!

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Tucked in the back of the 72 Courtyard community mall on Thong Lor, Little Bao BKK is nearly as hidden as its HK sibling. But once you spot the giant neon bao boy, you know you’ve found it! We visited on the second day of business and the chef, May Chow, saw us from the doorway.

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The space is several times larger than the original location and is designed with a contemporary feel that is influenced by classic Hong Kong diners of the 1950s and 1960s. They still do not take reservations, but with the larger space I suspect a seat will be easier to get than in Hong Kong.

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The menu is largely the same as the original location with just a few extra dishes. The execution meets the same high standards as the original with only a few minor exceptions, all of which are understandable given the newness of the team. Above, yellowtail with black bean ponzu and okra. Tasty combination of textures and flavors.

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The pulled short-rib pan fried dumplings with coleslaw is a favorite from the original menu. The meat is very tender and the dumpling has a crispy side, again offering a contrast of textures that is fun to eat.

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We ordered two of the classic bao, the steamed Taiwanese style buns that are sliced in half and then filled hamburger-style. In the foreground is the pork belly with shiso leek, sesame dressing and hoisin ketchup. In the bak, the Sichuan chicken with black vinegar glaze, Sichuan mayo and coleslaw. Both met expectations, although I found the chicken sauced a little more heavily than in HK, causing a bit of bun failure.

Interestingly, the HK branch makes a bit deal about having a “no bao cutting” policy, but in the new location, knives were provided. I do agree, though, that cutting the bao smashes the bun and destroys the product’s integrity.

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One special item is the “under the bridge” crab fried rice with chili garlic, black bean and shiso. The texture of the fried garlic is a pleasing contrast but it was a bit overpowering after a few bits. Also, you’ll notice that the “shiso” isn’t shiso at all, but green onion tips. We inquired about this and after a few minutes, the wait staff explained that the kitchen was out of shiso. Which is a shame, because the citrus flavor of shiso would have helped tame some of the heat of the garlic.

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For dessert, we ordered my all-time favorites: the fried ice cream bao. The bao buns are deep-friend, allowed to cool slightly, and then filled with ice cream: green tea with condensed milk in the foreground and salt ice cream with caramel in the background. This was almost as good as in HK but I found the buns a bit oily and the green tea ice cream tastes chalkier than I remember it in HK.

Overall, the restaurant is off to a good start. We noticed a few disconnects where supporting items on the menu did not match the ingredients that arrived on the plate. The staff was less engaging than in HIK and also less proactive. Again, we visited on their second day of business so these are things that we can expect to be resolved soon.

Meanwhile, I recommend this to everyone in Bangkok and any friends who are visiting. If you haven’t caught Little Bao in HK, here’s your chance!

Little Bao BKK
72 Courtyard
Thong Lor
Open daily from 6:00 pm
Reservations not accepted

 

Sky Lane at Suvarnabhumi Airport

There are a lot of times when infrastructure in Bangkok leaves me underwhelmed. But sometimes, the planets align and we have a piece of infrastructure that impresses. Such is the case with the recently-reopened “Sky Lane” bicycle track around Suvarnabhumi Airport.

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The 23.5-km (14.6-mile) track opened originally in late 2014 or early 2015 and was so well-received that they closed it for five months to upgrade it, with the corporate sponsorship of Siam Commercial Bank. The track reopened in November and is been a big success. Some highlights of the project:

  • The track is double-width, striped with a passing lane and distance markers every quarter-kilometer, and paved to international standards
  • More than 600 light poles allow for after-hours riding. Currently the track opens at 6:00 am and last entry is 7:00 pm; I understand you can ride until 10:00 pm
  • Four sets of clean, large men’s and women’s restrooms are located in each quadrant of the track
  • Entry is controlled by snap bands with RFID chips, which can be obtained for free by registering with a photo identification
  • There is a 1500-space parking lot with security guards, lighting, closed-circuit cameras and plenty of room to safely on- and off-load bicycles and change gear
  • There is also a shorter 1.6-km training track near the parking lot, allowing families and those who need a shorter route to ride; this track has a parallel jogging track
  • I have made three trips there so far, all in the morning. Arriving at 6:30 this morning, the parking lot was busy and hundreds of riders were already on the track. Despite this, the facility did not feel crowded.

One thing you discover is that out in the open fields on the outskirts of Bangkok, there is a stiff breeze! Along one side of the track, it was easy to average a speed of 30 km/hour. On the other side, heading into the wind, it was tough to stay much above 20 km/hour!

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As the track surrounds the airport, I enjoy the opportunity to watch the planes. There are a few good vantage points, although you are set back from the action, not right up against it. There are a few early morning arrivals and departures of larger jets and I suppose a true enthusiast could time his or her riding with the schedules of the most interesting airlines.

There appears so be some construction near the entry of the Sky Lane, presumably for some shops and hopefully restaurants. I’ve read on the website that bike repair facilities will be coming, too. Bicycle rentals would be an obvious addition, I hope.

All in all, this is a world-class facility that gives the every-growing cycling community a safe space to ride. If you have the opportunity and are so inclined, I would encourage you to check it out.

 

Dinner at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon Bangkok

Joël Robuchon is one of the most successful chefs in the world, with a chain of eponymous restaurants in major cities around the globe. Last month, I had the opportunity to dine at the Bangkok branch of his “L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon” chain, literally the artist’s workshop of Joël Robuchon. It is widely considered Bangkok’s finest restaurant and I could see how that argument is made.

Let me share a bit about the experience, which was exquisite. I’ll preface this by sharing that four friends of ours generously gave us a certificate for the seven-course tasting menu with wine pairing, so we did not pay for this meal out of pocket. Additionally, Tawn knows the executive chef here in Bangkok, so let him know we would be coming, ensuring particularly attentive service. That said, I believe that this is a fantastic experience for anyone and a good value for the money, for an extremely special occasion.

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The restaurant is located a few floors up in the Mahanakorn Cube, a small shopping complex adjacent to the construction site for what will soon be one of tallest and most spectacular buildings on the Bangkok skyline. As you enter, you step into a small, darkly lit but richly decorated sitting room and are greeting by polite staff.

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The entire room is laid out as a long counter seating perhaps 30 people. There is a small private function room in the back. The layout is evocative of a sushi bar and thus the diners’ attention is drawn towards the kitchen and service staff. This reinforces the idea that the restaurant is an artist’s workshop: you are hear to observe the craft.

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We were seated at the middle of the counter with a direct view of the main cooking station. This also allowed us additional attention and interaction with the chef as well as the rest of the staff. There is a very good ambiance and you can tell that while the team takes their work seriously, they have fun and enjoy working with each other.

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The amuse bouche, a pairing of crisp and soft quinoa and a mouse with smoked piquillo peppers. Interesting pairing of textures and flavors just to whet the appetite.

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The breads are baked in-house by their pastry chef and the large bread bowl is refreshed throughout the meal, not that you particularly need to fill up on bread.

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Such is the attention to detail that the design of some of the rolls match the bread plates.

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Le caviar imperial de sologne – a surprise of Sologne Imperial caviar served on a lobster broth gelee with dainty dots of cauliflower puree. The flavors were very clean and the detailing was meticulous.

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Underneath the caviar is a thin disk of crab meat. And that is a flake of edible gold leaf in the middle. This was a good example of where beautifully balanced flavors and technique are amplified by the thoughtful presentation.

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Executive chef Olivier Limousin and his staff playfully presents the next course. He is a bon vivant and gracious host.

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La truffe noire – the black truffle. A poached egg with black truffle, perched atop a cake of risotto with shaved parmigiano reggiano cheese. A nice combination and another artful presentation, although I would argue the risotto was a tad under-seasoned.

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Le foie gras de canard – pan fried duck liver, roasted tangerine with chopped rosemary and a mango sauce. This was a very simple pairing, proving that simple flavors, executed well, can be amazing.

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Close-up detail of the cross-hatches on the surface of the foie gras, letting the fat render beautifully. Coarse salt and chives were the perfect addition to the rich main ingredient.

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Roasted artichoke on a thin puree of artichoke, served with chickpeas cappuccino scented with tumeric. This was a dish that surprised on two counts: not only was the dish itself very unctuous, but it was beautifully paired with a wine that made a beautiful transformation after a bite of the dish. Artichoke is usually kills most wines.

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The fish course was a black cod, marinated with miso served with a pumpkin veloute with chestnut and black truffle.

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Close-up of the fish, you can see how the scales appear to have been fried and turned into crunchy bits, which were distracting. I loved the flavor of this dish, particularly the broth. I didn’t identify it as a pumpkin veloute with chestnut and black truffle. It seemed much more like a butter and orange sauce, but maybe my palette was off.

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There was a dish of lamb chops with mashed potato that was exquisitely prepared. It is such a simple, rustic dish and yet so satisfying to eat.

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Likewise, the confit of Challans duck with potato mousse and black truffles with a parmesan crisp. It was beautiful to look at and satisfying to eat. I should mention that the lamb chops above and the duck confit were an either/or option: Tawn ordered one and I ordered the other, although we shared the dishes.

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A look at the confit duck hidden buried under the potatoes.

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A view of the “sushi” display cases along the counter: this one decorated in a wintry scene with powdered sugar and vanilla beans.

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The parade of desserts began with a gelee of Japanese Amaou strawberries with pink Champagne granite and meringue.

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A deconstructed picture so you can see the gelee and granite below the meringue.

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Then, in a Japanese black lacquered bowl, they served a gelee made from the Japanese soft drink Calpis (vaguely like a yogurt) covered with supreme of lychee, a raspberry coulis and a delicate flower meringue filled with raspberry.

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This photo shows more about the structure of the dessert, although it doesn’t do it justice. Very tasty treat.

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A few petits-fours were served, filling us beyond the bursting point.

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After we had called for the check, yet another dessert arrived, a chocolate and raspberry mouse, with a candle – a treat from the chef to celebrate our anniversary, which was the reason for the meal.

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The dainty little doily is edible.

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The staff took a picture of us at the end of the meal, looking much too bloated, I suspect!

Overall, it was a tremendous treat and at nearly four hours, quite an adventure. As for the question of value, this will always be a matter of opinion. The seven-course menu is 7,500 baht with a supplement of 4,000 baht for wine pairings. (A five-course option is 5,000 with 3,000 for the wine.) It is safe to say this is the most expensive meal we’ve ever eaten!

The decor, ambiance, hospitality, service, wine pairing, plating, flavor, technique and experience were all remarkable. For a very special occasion, it is an extravagant treat and you get you money’s worth. For less special occasions, there are thankfully less expensive lunch sets and there is also an a la carte menu.

As to the question of whether L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon is the best restaurant in Bangkok, I would say it is. You may or may not be able to afford it and you may or may not find it worth spending the money on, but the overall experience is better than anything else in town.

 

Street Food on the King’s Birthday

His Majesty the King of Thailand, Bhumibol Adulyadej, turned 88 this past Saturday and the entire country was out to celebrate. His Majesty’s birthday is also Father’s Day, making it a celebration for the entire family. Together with my food writer friend Chow (follow her blog Bangkok Glutton), we took some new friends, recent arrivals to the city, out for their first street food crawl.

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Our main stop was Yen Ta Fo Rot Sadet, located on Mahachai Road in the old part of the city, also known at Rattanakosin Island. This stall specializes in yen ta fo, a type of fish noodle soup made with a broth flavored with red fermented bean curd. They also sell a variety of other noodle dishes.

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Our guests on the two sides, along with Chow and my husband Tawn. For first-timers, they were taking it all in stride and were not at all picky are delicate about the environment, cleanliness, plastic stools, etc. This is a good sign for their future as street food aficionados!

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The yen ta fo itself has this color that is a bit unsettling: bright pink, which comes from the fermented bean curd. The whitish items are a variety of fish cake and fish balls. The greens add a nice contrast. Their broth is nicely balanced: sweet and sour, spicy and salty all in the correct amounts.

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From there, we walked up the street to Thip Sa Mai, which is probably the most famous Thai street food vendor. Famous for their pad thai served wrapped in a thin omelet, the lengthy queue outside their shop has reached ridiculous lengths.

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We enjoyed a look at their scalding hot woks, from which another serving is turned out every fifteen seconds. (Click here to see a video of it!)

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We then walked down to Ratchadamnoen Avenue, or the “royal path,” which is modeled on Avenue des Champs-Élysées in Paris. It was festively decorated with beautiful lights and crowded with families strolling along it. The streets were packed as people cruised to view the decorations celebrating His Majesty’s birthday.

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There were numerous vendors selling snacks and treats of all sorts including this gentleman, who was selling khanom tang taek, or bankruptcy treats as “tang taek” means “broken bucket,” a euphemism for bankruptcy. This is a rare dish to see these days, a thick pancake filled with freshly-scraped coconut meat and sugar with black sesame seeds in it.

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The end result is crispy and chewy at the same time, with savory coconut meat inside. This vendor also had kernels of sweet corn added, for additional flavor. It was a really interesting dessert. (A bit more about it and a video can be found here.)

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Lovely view of Loha Prasat, or the metal castle, one of only three ever built in this style anywhere in the world and, if I understand correctly, the only one still extant.

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We walked down to the Democracy Monument to another famous shop, this one for desserts. There is a variety of sweet and savory toppings to be added to your dessert, which is then covered with shaved ice, syrup, and coconut milk.

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The dessert’s heritage is very much Chinese, something very similar to what you will find in many Asian countries.

And that concluded our street food adventure and a fantastic celebration of Father’s Day and the birthday of His Majesty the King. A happy occasion all around!

 

Rainy Season Finally Arrives

This has been an unusually dry monsoon season in Thailand. So much so, that much of the country has been suffering from drought. September is typically the rainiest month by far, and true to form, it brought relief from the dry weather.

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For the most part, the rains have been tolerable. Sometimes heavy, but none of the severe flooding that torrential monsoon rains are known for. Our soi (small street) is prone to flooding after as little as 30 minutes of heavy rain. So far, there has been no need to put on the waders!

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The thing I like best about the rainy season is the cloudy, overcast weather. It amazes me, how much cooler the temperatures are when we are not baking in the direct sun. This time of year is also breezy, which helps keep temperatures more tolerable.

Now that October has arrived, the rains should decrease in frequency and by November, the relatively cooler “cool season” will arrive. This coincides with the start of a new job, which I will take as an auspicious sign.

 

Making Everywhere More the Same

There is a dynamic tension when you move abroad. You celebrate what is different about your new home. At the same time, you miss things about what you left behind. After more than nine years living in Thailand, a conversation with a Thai friend who is considering returning to Bangkok after a long time in the United States, made me realize that everywhere is becoming more similar.

As I put it to him, “In the nine years I have lived in Bangkok, I have gone from really missing many things about living in the United States, to now being able to find most of those things here.” The obvious exception being family and friends who still live back there.

But when it comes to brands, foods, and treats that I used to think of as specific to one area or another, more of those items are available in most major cities around the globe.

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Pinkberry is a Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt chain whose loyal customers’ cult-like adoration of the brand is similar to what you see when Krispy Kreme donuts opens in a new corner of the world. (Which happened here two years ago…)

I really like Pinkberry and enjoy getting some when I am back in California. No longer must I wait for a trip to the United States, though, as the first Pinkberry opened a few weeks ago at Central Chidlom mall in Bangkok. Certainly more branches will follow.

Harrods, Eric Kaiser, Fauchon, Laduree, Isetan, Uniqlo, Gap, Starbucks, Din Tai Fung, Krispy Kreme, Bon Chon, Muji, and now Pinkberry. The list of items you miss from home gets shorter and shorter as more and more of those items become available here. And that’s not to mention the items like tasty southern-style barbecue or European-style bread that is available from local providers.

That is a good thing, from a quality of living standpoint. But it causes me to wonder if there isn’t a downside to the ease and convenience with which I can get previously-regional items anywhere across the globe.

Does a place become a little less special when the local specialties are now available across the globe? Do we become a little more spoiled when an increasing number of our desires can be fulfilled, no matter where we are? And at some level, does “place” cease to matter?

No easy answers to those questions, but they are worth asking.