Weekend Lunch Now Served at Appia

One of my favorite new restaurants of the past year is Appia, the Roman trattoria on Sukhumvit Soi 31. Now that evening operations at the nearly always-packed restaurant are running smoothly, owner Jarrett Wrisley and owner/chef Paolo Vitaletti have introduced a lunch menu. Based on my first visit this afternoon, I think I now have twice as many reasons to make regular visits to Appia.


The first thing I noticed upon arriving just before noon (the restaurant opens at 11:30 on Saturday and Sunday) is that the already welcoming dining room is even warmer and cozier with daylight streaming in the one wall of windows.  It would be very easy to just curl up in a banquette and spend the whole day there draining a few bottles from Appia’s thoughtful wine collection, grazing from lunch to afternoon snacks to dinner.


The lunch menu is largely different from the dinner menu although you will recognize them as relatives. For example, the succulent porchetta appears not as a stand-alone dish but as a sandwich with roasted peppers and homemade pickles. There are a variety of salads, sandwiches, pasta and grain dishes (these, too, do not completely overlap the dinner menu) and a handful of egg dishes.


With two of us dining, we had to restrain ourselves a bit while still trying a cross-section of the menu. We began with a roasted pumpkin salad, which is garnishes with rocket, pumpkin seeds, almond slivers, and pomegranate seeds, dressed with dijon mustard and honey. This salad was perfectly seasoned and the pumpkin was tender but not mushy, a texture that can be unappealing with a room-temperature salad.


We also tried the crab sandwich served with spicy aioli and provolone cheese on whole grain bread, served with a side of the homemade pickles. While the sandwich may not have looked like much, its pedestrian exterior hid a generous portion of fresh, sweet, large-lump crab meat. This sandwich along with a salad would make for a very satisfying meal.


The first of our two egg dishes was the uovo alla pizzaiola – two Parisi eggs (imported from Italy) baked in a vibrant tomato sauce topped with stringy fresh scamorza cheese. Served with some toast, this assertively seasoned dish verged on the hearty, even though it is vegetarian (albeit not vegan). Chef Paolo really coaxes a great deal of flavor out of just a handful of ingredients.


The second of our egg dishes was Appia’s take on Eggs Benedict: poached eggs served on corned beef, chicory, n’dujia sabayon (think spicy spreadable pork sausage Hollandaise sauce), over sourdough bread. This dish packed a punch! The bitterness of the chicory was cut by the saltiness of the beef and all of it was tamed by the n’dujia sabayon. The dish brimmed with umami.

Prices are very reasonable for the quality of food, with sides and smaller dishes starting at around 140 baht and mains topping out at 380 with most in the 280-300 range. Since lunchtime dining has just been introduced, there isn’t yet a crowd, but I would imagine that before year’s end reservations will be advised.


Food in BKK: Soul Food Mahanakorn

Krungthep (Bangkok) is both an excellent food city and a disappointing one.  Excellent because Thai food is some of the finest fare on the planet – complex, multi-layered food made with very fresh ingredients – and disappointing because unlike some other cities in the world that are good food cities, Krungthep seems to be missing the sweet spot, that convergence of high quality, moderate price, and comfortable atmosphere.  I’ve found any number of places that hit two of the three, but in the capital of the Thai kingdom, the culinary triple crown is elusive.

The endless number of street vendors and air condition-less shop houses provide authentic, inexpensive food but without the atmosphere that encourages you and your friends to linger.  In fact, they would rather you don’t linger so they can seat more guests.  The fancy restaurants, often in hotels, have great atmosphere and generally good food, but will bankrupt you.  And then there is this whole breed of restaurants that have opened in the last half-decade that are the result of hi-so Gen X’ers who have too much money and too little food knowledge.  Their restaurants are popular as a see-and-be-seen place but the food always looks better than it is.

Which was why I have been so pleasantly surprised by a month-old arrival on the local dining scene: Soul Food Mahanakorn.


Food writer Jarrett Wrisley (blog) whose work can be found in The Art of Eating magazine as well as the Atlantic Monthly’s food blog, is the proprietor and chef of Soul Food Mahanakorn – “Mahanakorn” is Thai for “metropolitan” – which is located a  block away from my home on Soi Thong Lo.  Earlier this year, I started reading the Atlantic Monthly’s food blog, impressed by the general quality of writing.  Jarrett’s articles about Thailand and Thai food caught my eye because unlike so many food and travel writers who are mired in cliches, he seemed to have a true appreciation for and understanding of the many facets of Thai cuisine.

It didn’t take long following Jarrett’s posts to learn that he was in the process of opening a restaurant.  Details came in bits and pieces but the menu’s tag line – “Good ingredients.  Honest cooking.  Serious drinks.” – sums up what he was writing about in his blog.  It caught my interest: could I really find a restaurant in Krungthep that would be serious in its pursuit of good food without falling into the traps of either pretending or pretentiousness?  And would that be delivered in an atmosphere that was convivial and at a price that wouldn’t place it in the only for special occasions category?


Tawn and I were unsure exactly which day SFM (as I’ve abbreviated the restaurant in my mobile phone) opened, but took at chance and stopped by a month ago on what turned out to be their first night of business.  I think we have the distinction of being the second table seated.  We took to the place from the start.  The interior of the three-story shophouse, which was initially a little hard to identify as you walked along the street but now has a lighted sign outside, has a welcoming atmosphere with a good-sized bar on the ground floor with perhaps eight tables between the bar and the front of the restaurant.  More seating is on the second floor with the kitchen on the top floor.  One imagines the staff must have well-developed leg muscles.


The interior is welcoming, modern without being decorated in any specific motif.  The wood paneling on one wall suggests perhaps a speakeasy in the Deep South but not in a Cracker Barrel sort of way.  The chairs are retro 50s, custom made and comfortable for lingering over a drink.

If you were to explain SFM in reductionist terms, it is either a Thai izakaya or a Thai tapas bar, depending on whether you want a Japanese or Spanish point of reference.  What that means is that it is a drinking establishment that serves small plates of food.  You can certainly eat well without drinking, although you would be missing out on some clever custom drinks that feature indigenous ingredients and generous amounts of liquor.  There is also a smart wine list that offers some real bargains. 

But decor and good drinks, as important as they are, are not what is missing so often in Krungthep’s air conditioned restaurant scene.  Does SFM deliver in the food department?


We’ve made four visits in the month since they’ve opened and the menu continues to expand.  Quality has been high since day one and the execution continues to improve as the kitchen team becomes more familiar with the menu and dishes and presentation are refined.  The menu is largely what could be described as Thai soul food – favorites from each of the four major regions of the country along with a few dishes that creep in from elsewhere in the region.  For example, the gaeng hung lay pictured above, a Burmese style stewed pork with ginger that is really tasty and inspired my recent experiments with braised pork with star anise.


SFM is not fusion food – the food here stays pretty true to its roots.  Jarrett takes some dishes and allows a little culinary license that honors the original but takes things to a new level.  For example, one of my favorite dishes on the menu is yam makeua yao, eggplant salad dressed with a mixture of palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, and chili.  The twist here is that he replaced the traditional minced pork with a little bit of bacon and added a touch of balsamic vinegar.  I’m hard pressed to believe that any Thai mother wouldn’t agree that the dish is improved with these changes and would rush out to buy some balsamic vinegar for her cupboard.  Another minor change is that the eggs, normally hard boiled, are served soft boiled.  Reportedly, there was some push-back from his cooks but they have now accepted this change, which I think is delicious.


It seems that nearly every culture has fried chicken as a comfort food, even before the Colonel’s global proliferation.  SFM’s menu is anchored by a gai tod done up in the style of the Southern Thai city of Hat Yai – that means seasoned with a salty, spicy edge that you can’t get enough of.  The dish is served with an interesting twist: pickled watermelon, a condiment that really reminds me of food from the Southern United States where pickled watermelon rinds are commonplace.


Another dish from the South (of Thailand, that is) is khao mok gai – a baked rice with chicken the roots of which trace back through Malaysia to India.  You would recognize this as biryani and it was even served with a cooling yogurt and mint sauce.  This dish has become one of our favorites and it is a good example where the attention to quality ingredients really pays off.


SMF offers many specials based on whatever is available at the fresh market.  This adds variety to the menu and ensures there is something new to try on each visit.  A recent special was larb pbed – a duck salad that is traditionally Issan, or Northeastern Thai.  Larb is commonplace on Thai restaurant menus the world round and it features minced or sliced meat (often pork but chicken and duck are common, too) tossed with shallots, cilantro, mint, and uncooked rice grains that have been toasted and then ground.  The dressing is made of fish sauce, lime, chili. 

What sets the SMF version apart is that it is made with smoked duck, which is a bit of an unusual and tasty twist to this classic dish.  If you are worried about authenticity, though, there is no need to be.  The Thais with whom I’ve dined have enthusiastically praised the food and the dishes are both instantly recognizable and recognizably spicy.  Settings on the the Scoville scale have not been turned down one notch.


Another example of a “what’s fresh at the market” special is this sea bass baked in banana leaf with aromatic Thai herbs.  This is how fish is commonly served in Thailand (although usually whole with head, fins, and tail attached) and the lemongrass, lime, and Thai dill infuse the tender, moist fillet with a very appealing flavor.  The fish is served with a traditional spicy seafood sauce made of blended green chili, cilantro, and lime.


Another example of how “soul food” crosses borders is SFM’s tamarind glazed pork spareribs.  These ribs will be familiar to any devotee of American barbecue but the sauce, which borrows heavily from the Thai sweet and sour flavors of tamarind and palm sugar, is something else entirely.  It is served with a pineapple relish.

The attention to detail in the kitchen and commitment to quality ingredients and well-made food are appealing.  The atmosphere is friendly and comfortable, not too loud but not austere and minimalist.  But what really makes Soul Food Mahanakorn work is that it hits that sweet spot I mentioned at the start of the entry.  It not only delivers on its promises about food and atmosphere, but does so at a reasonable price.  Dishes run from about 100 baht on the low end to just over 200 for specials like the sea bass.  Drinks are about 150-200 but all are doubles.  Over our four visits, we’ve been able to enjoy a filling, delicious meal including drinks for an average of about 600 baht a person, US$20.  That puts it solidly in the once a week category.

I almost hate to share the details of this place because while I want the restaurant to be very successful, I don’t want them to be so successful I can’t get a table!  But here they are:

Soul Food Mahanakorn – 56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Soi Thong Lo) – About 100 meters up from Sukhumvit Road on the right hand side.  BTS Thong Lo station.  Telephone: +66 (0)85 904 2691
Hours are listed as daily on the website, but I believe they are closed on Mondays right now. 5:00 p.m. until late.

Kiki’s Dinner Service

Funny how two and a half days in a city can take a week two blog about.  We’re nearing the end, though.  More telling, perhaps, is that Andy is just catching up to the first day of our trip.  Of course he has many more pictures than I do plus had been in Taipei for a week before we arrived.

The final day in Taipei followed the bleak and misty pattern that had been the tone of the weekend.  We took the subway to the north end of town, out past the suburbs, really, to the Tamsui Fisherman’s Wharf and the nearby market area.  From the terminal station of the subway (Danshui) we strolled along several streets that had many of the same foods and items for sale that we had seen at the night market.


The mist was just enough to get you wet if you weren’t using an umbrella but not enough to keep us from enjoying browsing the shops.  We had just eaten bao at Din Tai Fung so there wasn’t a lot of room left for snacking.  That didn’t keep me from looking at all the interesting things to eat.


Two types of noodles!  And the vendor’s arm as she stirs them.


Stuffed tofu skins.  Not sure what it is stuffed with but I’m sure someone will tell me in the comments.  Pretty sure that isn’t mozzarella cheese on top, though.


I did buy some grilled mochi (pounded rice).  The proprietor’s daughter was running the stand and took my order, grilled the mochi, figured out which bottle had the sauce I ordered (she sniffed them), took my money and made change.  Very cute.


We then got on a ferry to the Fisherman’s Wharf.  Looking at the map, we probably could have taken a bus or walked there just as easily.  The Fisherman’s Wharf is “D” on the map and the shopping street is “A”.  As the boat approached the mouth of the river and made the turn around the breakwater to the entrance to the wharf, we were rocked with some pretty strong waves.  Strong enough to crash across the bow and onto the lower windows, which is where we were sitting.


The big attraction at the wharf is Lovers Bridge, shown in both the above pictures.  By this point the wind was really blowing and the mist was growing heavier.  As Sugi and I posed for a picture, her umbrella was caught by the wind and snapped like a twig.  I’m sure Andy will have a picture of that for you soon.

Tawn smartly stayed in a coffee shop, taking a nap, while the rest of us wandered about, sacrificing umbrellas to the winds.

That evening, after some gift shopping (pineapple cake!) at Sogo, we met Andy’s parents for dinner at Kiki Restaurant, a Szuchuan restaurant that’s been around for nearly twenty years.  If you ask me, Szuchuan may be the tastiest of all the Chinese cuisines.


Tawn, Andy, Andy’s parents, Sugi and me in front of the restaurant.  I think Andy has his mom’s nose and eyes and his father’s forehead and chin.  Let’s discuss…

The restaurant had wonderful lighting for taking pictures.  If you are designing a restaurant, please spare a thought to food bloggers and install halogen lamps over the tables.


Braised tofu.  Had my mother made tofu this way when I was growing up, I would have learned to love it much earlier.


An elaborate version of drunken chicken.


Bitter melon with salted duck egg.


Morning glory stir fried with garlic and fermented tofu.


Boiled pork with thick, sweet soy sauce.


Dan dan noodles – served with ground pork and bok choy.


Tripe and duck’s blood stew in a spicy chili sauce.  We got into a discussion of what tripe is.  I had always thought it was intestine but, as I’ve since learned thanks to Wikipedia, it is stomach.  There you go.


So called “water wok” beef – a stew with bean sprouts and bamboo shoots.  The type of chili in here isn’t spicy so much as it numbs the tongue for several minutes.  Seriously, the front half of my tongue was numb after two servings.


Last but not least, yes we did try stinky tofu.  Here it is fried up in a dish with dried chilies and spring onions.  Actually, pretty tasty.

The meal was excellent and a bit thank you to Andy’s father for treating us.  It was an excellent end to the trip as we headed to the airport shortly thereafter.  But not before some dessert!


Stopping at a local dessert chain we encountered some Engrish.  “Garss jelly” and “Retrospective tea” were two of my favorites.  It would seem that “old-fashioned” might be a better translation.  Note that in addition to English we have Japanese.  Ah-ha!  More proof that there are lots of Japanese tourists here.

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Last but not least, here’s a photo Andy took while I was filming my tasting of salted plum stuffed cherry tomatoes dipped in candy coating at the night market.  Superb shot.




Din Tai Fung Dumplings

Perhaps the best of all the great food we ate in Taipei were the dumplings and bao at Din Tai Fung.  Before we headed there, we received many recommendations to try the xiao long bao, Shanghainese steamed buns, from this famous fifty-year old chain.  Since I love Shanghainese buns, I was excited to try.

If you’d like, here’s a short video (less than two minutes):

What you might notice first at the branch of Din Tai Fung located in the basement of Sogo department store are the large plate glass windows that let you and everyone else look in on the kitchen.  This has to be the ultimate sign of confidence for a restaurant for poor sanitation or hygiene, sloppy techniques and poor quality would become quickly apparent with such visibility.  Certainly, this served as a visual promise of what was to come.



We took Andy’s parents’ recommendation seriously and ordered basically every type of dumpling they offered.  The order taker looked a bit skeptical that the four of us were going to eat so much food.  But who could possibly resist?


The lovely food we tried.  Each dish is named in the video above.  The key item is the lower left-hand dish – this is the famous xiao long bao, the Shanghainese style pork “soup” buns.  They are called this because when forming them the cook places a small cube of gelatinized soup stock into the wrapper with the seasoned pork.  When the buns are steamed the stock liquifies.  The goal is to pick up and eat the buns without tearing the skin and, thus, spilling the soup.


Sugi didn’t know this the first time she tried to eat them, eliciting cries of anguish from her fellow diners as they watched the soup spill onto her plate.

Funnily enough, the restaurant provides a laminated sheet with directions in both Japanese and English (lots of Japanese tourists here) about how to properly enjoy your bao.


I’m pleased to announce that next time I fly through Taipei I will be scheduling my flights so I have a layover long enough to allow a trip into town to eat at Din Tai Fung.  Oh, but the good news!  There are some three dozen locations of the restaurant including several in Japan, Singapore, throughout east Asia and a branch in Los Angeles and Sydney.  Even if I don’t get to Taipei I should be able to enjoy these dumplings much more often.  When does the branch open here in Thailand?


Tawn’s Birthday

Lenotre2 Tawn’s birthday was last Wednesday, so we went out for dinner at Lenôtre Paris, a Parisian outfit that has several cafe locations here in Bangkok.  Owned by the Accor Group (Sofitel Hotels, Ibis Hotels, Motel 6), the chain offers a nice taste of French cuisine and very nice baked goods.

Lenotre3 Early afternoon, Tawn text messaged his father, inviting his parents to join us for dinner.  Beforehand, I cautioned against him getting his hopes up.  Not surprisingly, Tawn’s father responded that he didn’t feel comfortable joining us for dinner and declined the invitation.

We made it a fun evening on our own, though, visiting the small location on Soi Thong Lor, the next block over from us and just a short drive further down the street.

Thanks to the drizzly weather, there were few diners, a great deal of privacy and, subsequently, very attentive service.  We sat on the second floor overlooking the wet pavement and reflected lights as the busy evening traffic crept up and down the street.


Shortly after ordering, an amuse bouche arrived, breaded morsels of cheese on pea shoots.  A tasty way to warm up our taste buds for the meal to come.


As an entree we shared the “Paris-Bangkok” plate: a small portion of duck confit, a cream of asparagus soup, a salade nicoise, and a goose liver pate.  This was the culinary highlight of the meal, nicely prepared and packed with flavor.


For my main course I had the lamb chops with mashed potatoes and snow peas.  I requested the lamb medium-rare and I think is was a bit underdone.  While flavorful, one piece was particularly tough to eat.  The connective tissue had not been sufficiently cooked and so there was a lot of chewing.  It wasn’t bad but I’d probably not spend the money on this dish again.


Tawn ordered a fettucini carbonara, which for some reason he mis-read as having salmon in it.  Instead, it arrived with lots of pork belly (bacon) that hadn’t been cooked enough to render more of the fat.  The result was a particularly oily version of a dish that is already heavy.  Again, the flavor was fine but it settled into one’s stomach with a rather solid “clunk”.


Finally, our dessert arrived, a Grand Marnier souffle that was wonderfully light and eggy, with a raspberry sorbet “lolipop”.  While I was taking pictures, the bottom of the candle melted in the heat of the souffle, resulting in a waxy blue streak through the side of the dessert.  Oh, well… happy birthday!


Ootoya: oishi des ne?

P1060345 I love Thai food and one of the great things about living in Thailand is – no surprise here – there is no shortage of great, inexpensive Thai food. 

If Khrungthep is the Mt. Olympus of Thailand then Thai food is our ambrosia and, ignoring the obvious question of who the gods and goddesses are, blended fresh watermelon juice must be our nectar. 

Even with that plethora of good Thai food, from time to time I still want to eat something else.  Just as when I lived in San Francisco I didn’t eat American food all the time so, too, here in Thailand I like to travel around visiting the different huts in the global culinary village.

One of my favorite huts to stop by is the one run by Ootoya, a Japanese chain that specializes in teishoku, or set meals, comprised of a protein, bowl of rice, miso soup, and a plate of pickles.  Ootoya doesn’t do sushi and is largely about grilled items.  The food is fresh, portions generous but not overwhelming, and the ingredients healthy.  Below: Examples of Ootoya’s teishoku, grilled hamburger with onion sauce on the left and grilled saba (mackerel) on the right.

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There are plenty of locations throughout the city, especially in the mid-Sukhumvit area where there are a lot of Japanese expats.

P1060350 One other nice thing is that Ootoya updates its menu regularly.  There are a lot of “spring specials” on the menu, even though the seasons here don’t quite correspond with the seasons in Japan.  It is just nice that we get to see a wide variety of dishes.  One of their winter specials was baked then grilled slices of daikon radish served with a fermented red bean sauce.  So tasty!  Very simple combination but tremendously satisfying.

For spring we have fresh steamed vegetables, served in a steaming basket and sterno stove at your table.  Unfortunately, it takes practically the whole meal for the veggies to get tender!  Short video segment below.


P1060258 In other news, we had a brief visit from our friend Tomas recently, right.  Tomas and his partner Jose moved a few years ago from Houston to London and after a short return to the United States are back in London. 

Tomas was here at a conference and fortunately could make the time to meet for dinner at Curries and More followed by some drinks at the top of the Banyan Tree Hotel.

Don’t think that Tawn and I aren’t interesting in accepting their invitation to stay with them on our next visit to London.  Prices being what they are in the British Isles and the dollar’s value being what it is, we’ll certainly take the offer of lodging especially when it comes with a generous serving of Tomas and Jose’s warm hospitality!


Things that come up during a move, part 1

Sudha Nui SF 2003 2 When you are packing and organizing in advance of a move, all sorts of things are rediscovered that you haven’t seen in a long while. 

Most of the time, that’s a sign that the thing you’ve rediscovered is pretty unimportant and you could donate it to charity.  Sometimes, though, the rediscovery is a good one and the thing is useful to find again.

In a box near the TV and stereo I found this small Fujifilm Instax picture taken of Tawn and myself and Tawn’s parents.  They were visiting him in 2002 and we went to Fringale restaurant in San Francisco. 

This was taken near the end of the meal, after we (primarily Khun Sudha and I) had consumed the better part of three bottles of wine.  Khun Nui had had just a sip and Tawn, the driver, had maybe a glass.

After Tawn dropped me off back at home – I was still living on Eureka and 21st I think – I could barely walk down the hall, having to use both hands on the wall to steady myself against the spinning.

The next morning, Tawn’s father reported to him that he had “almost” been drunk the night before.  That was when I realized I (or at least, my liver) would never be able to compete with my father-in-law.