Casa Lapin

Today is the start of a four-day weekend for the Songkhran holiday (aka Thai New Year). Tawn took me to a cute little place he had been wanting to try, the Sukhumvit Soi 49 branch of Casa Lapin.

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This chic coffee chain (some might say “hip”) is tucked away behind Paste, a currently trendy restaurant across from Samitivej Hospital.

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Owned by architect and coffee lover Surapan Tanta, Casa Lapin (“rabbit house”) also has branches on Soi Thong Lor and Soi Ari. The fact that the place is owned by an architect isn’t surprising, as the interior is inviting and thoughtfully designed.

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The spacious setting makes effective use of the narrow footprint of the shophouse it occupies. It has a warm feeling that encourages you to hang out.

2014-04-11 02Coffee is offered in a variety of ways – drip, French press, espresso, siphon – and is tasty. A limited selection of foods is available – I had a container of cornflakes with dried fruits and cashew nuts added, kind of a cornflake muesli.

2014-04-11 03The selection of pastries was nice, too, and make for a tasty treat. The ham and cheese roll was flakey and delicate, a great pleasure to eat. The almond croissant was also nice.

2014-04-11 04While it would be nice if they added some more food selections – quiche and salads, maybe? – Casa Lapin x49 is a pleasant place to hang out. One more sophisticated but affordable brunch option in a city in which such places have long been a rarity.

 

Food in Bangkok: Karmakamet Diner

Hot new “must try” restaurants in Bangkok are like dandelions: they pop up frequently but don’t last long. One recent flowery addition to the local dining scene, Karmakamet Diner, stands a chance at staying around, at least if their brunch is any indication.

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Karmakamet is a local brand specializing in high-quality and beautifully packaged perfumes, aromatics, and candles. They started with a small shop at Chatuchak Market and grew slowly. Eventually, a small tea shop opened at Central World Plaza and then not that long ago a cafe opened in Silom.

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In the last few months, they have opened their first full-blown restaurant in a stylish converted warehouse tucked just behind Emporium’s second car park structure. The building resembles a greenhouse-cum-factory with views of the pretty garden through windows glazed to keep the sunlight from being unbearable.

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The interior space is richly designed with lots of vintage-looking details. Most of the dandelion restaurants in Bangkok also feature fetching interiors, but Karmakamet Diner seems to have been more thoughtfully designed than most. It really is a pleasant space with interesting things to notice whichever direction you look.

Of course, my primary concern in any restaurant is the food. While I haven’t been there for dinner yet, I have had weekend brunch there three times over the past six weeks. Each time the food quality was consistent, the presentation attractive, and while the dishes are relatively pricey, I find them a fair value given the quality, portion size, and beautiful setting. Let’s take a look at what I tried – rest assured I dined with other people and didn’t eat all of this food myself!

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Home made granola with fresh fruits and yogurt. Tasty, although it is granola so I’m not sure that I can expect anything amazing.

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The crab-avocado sandwich has a spicy truffle mayonnaise, rocket, hard boiled egg, and tomato confit. This was a tasty sandwich although the use of plain thick-cut white bread was a bit of a letdown. Something whole grain would have been nicer.

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Panini with roasted vegetables, melted cheese, pesto, and a ridiculously tasty portion of ratatouille. A pretty simple dish but well-executed. The choice of bread was very good.

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The croque madame was one of the highlights. Layered buttered toast with Gruyere cheese, ham, bacon, and sous-vide egg, topped with melted Mozzarella. It is every bit as rich and decadent as it sounds. Perhaps not for the high of cholesterol!

2014-02-10 05A pasta dish featuring capellini with cod roe and garlic. This was a nice dish, pleasantly salty from the roe. There was also a very spicy crab pasta (not pictured) that was enjoyable and, true to its promise, very spicy.

2014-03-01 5Penne with N’Duja, an Italian spicy sausage that seems to be quite the favored ingredient here in Bangkok these days, along with Burrata cheese. The sauce was really tasty, though, and the pasta was properly cooked.

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Eggs Benedict – available with either ham or smoked salmon, or with salmon patties as a substitute for the English muffins. I tried the ham and the salmon patty versions and enjoyed both. The eggs were perfectly cooked with firm whites and liquid yolks. The Hollandaise sauce is smooth and velvety although just a bit more tart than I like. There is a careful balance to achieve with the acidity, maybe a matter of preference more than anything else.

2014-02-10 03The “full breakfast” features just about everything you would consider to be a breakfast food, plus a bit of mixed greens salad. It is a huge portion and makes you glad that food is generally served family style here in Thailand. As a side note, food at Karmakamet Diner did come out family style in a hodge-potch manner. Diners ordering individual plates be forewarned!

2014-03-01 2The so-called “can’t resist pancake” – the pancake is buried under duck confit, sautéed potatoes, crisp bacon, and sour cream served with a side of maple syrup. My first reaction (before taking a bite) was “what the heck is this mess?” After I tried it, all was forgiven. The pancake is really just there to absorb all the tasty flavors from the bacon, duck, and syrup.

2014-03-02 3For dessert, we shared a massive slice of French toast surrounded with fresh fruits and topped with an orange sauce and maple syrup. Shared among four or six people, it is just the right amount of sweet with which to conclude the meal.

Service was generally attentive and responsive. One thing that I greatly appreciate is that the kitchen properly warms the plates before putting food on them. Especially for dishes like Eggs Benedict, a cool or even room-temperature plate will cause the sauce to quickly form an unappealing skin. The plates were warm, almost hot, to the touch. Bonus points for attention to that detail.

Without having tried the dinner menu, I’m not yet sure if Karmakamet Diner is just another pretty dandelion restaurant, soon to fade with the changing trends. But if brunch is any indication, I think they may blossom into something much more lasting and substantial.

Burgers in Bangkok: Daniel Thaiger

Note that Soi 38 has become much less crowded due to city inspectors enforcing zoning laws. Daniel Thaiger food truck is now at Sukhumvit Soi 23. Follow them at https://www.facebook.com/DanielThaiger/

Bangkok is a street food city. It is no exaggeration to say that there are tens of thousands of street food vendors. And yet the opening last year of Daniel Thaiger, a street food vendor usually found on Sukhumvit Soi 38, created a niche in an otherwise crowded market by selling American style hamburgers.

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Soi 38 is listed in pretty much every tourist guide book as one of the go-to places for street food in Bangkok. Located in the upscale middle stretch of Sukhumvit Road and adjacent to a BTS Skytrain station (Thong Lo), it is extremely easy to access. As the sun lowers on the horizon, street food vendors start setting up and most of them continue to serve until well after midnight. Because of its popularity, it is also crowded with foreigners and most restaurants have menus available in many languages. The food remains top-notch, though, despite no longer being a secret known only to locals.

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About forty meters into the soi, just past all the street vendors selling the usual Thai foods (congee, fried noodles, soup noodles, satay, sticky rice and mangoes, etc.), you will find the small Daniel Thaiger truck, alternating sides depending on the day of the week. A crowd, many of them looking suspiciously like hipsters, fills the sidewalk around the truck and seating is always a challenge. Diners are not just foreigners, though. A surprising number of Thais join the queue.

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One half of the couple behind Daniel Thaiger – Honey, pictured above in black with glasses – is the front of the house. She greets, takes orders, makes sure the few tables and chairs are kept clean, and checks to make sure you are satisfied with your meal. Which you are likely to be.

2014-01-31 05The other half of the team, Mark, mans the gas-powered griddle and oversees the production of about 140 hamburgers a night. A native Angelino (meaning he’s from Los Angeles, for those of you unfamiliar with the term), Mark’s concept of “hamburger” is definitely and thankfully shaped by the In-n-Out burger chain. Their focus – and his, too – is on quality, fresh ingredients. Mark hand-forms the patties each day and makes sure to check with his diners, asking how the food is and seeking their suggestions and ideas.

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The menu is very simple: plain burger (beef or pork), bacon and cheese burger, a pork-and-oat burger, grilled cheese, and tuna melt. When parked on Soi 38, they are unable to make fries due to not having access to electricity. But the truck also sells chips and bottled beverages. Above, is a two-patty beef burger with bacon and cheese. I always order medium-rare, which I think compliments the flavor of the high-quality imported beef. The fact that your burger is cooked to your desired level of doneness shows an attention to detail missing at most burger restaurants in town.

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With the truck open five days a week (closed Sunday and Monday), every few days Mark will throw a special on the menu. This evening it was a jalapeño mac-and-cheeseburger, which includes a nice little serving of spicy mac-and-cheese on top of the burger. This is an awesome combination. I’ve also tried and enjoyed the chili cheeseburger.

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Collaborating with a local producer of fine meats, they also offered a pastrami burger. Tasty, although the flavor of the pastrami gets lost in the beefiness of the burger. All in all, though, the hamburgers are top-notch. Not only the best in Bangkok, but perhaps the best I’ve had anywhere. They certainly satisfy my craving for In-n-Out.

The truck is usually open by about 5:30 and it is common for items to start running out by 8:00 and for Mark and Honey to shut down by 9:00. Follow them on Facebook for daily specials.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Dining in Bangkok: Quince

“Quince” is the name of a new restaurant that recently opened, after a lengthy soft opening, on Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 45. Named after a fruit that is generally astringent and sour, but which yields delicious results with attentive preparation, the restaurant is meant to convey the idea that there is substance beyond the surface, a celebration of food and friendship that is about more than initial impressions. With that in mind, I dined at Quince three times over the last month and found a restaurant that, despite a few initial hiccups, seems to be ready to make a unique mark on the local dining scene.

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Located in a three-story renovated home tucked behind home decor shop Casa Pagoda (the owners of which are also involved in the restaurant), Quince features different dining areas with distinct atmospheres: the front room, which faces the bar, has high ceilings and a lively vibe. It fits in well with the “see and be seen” aspect of upper-end Bangkok dining culture. The back room is a more intimate space with a softer ambience and a lower volume. When I dined there, I found it very easy for a table of four to carry on a conversation at a civilized volume. The restaurant also has a trio of private dining rooms that allow various sized groups to enjoy privacy and quiet while they have their meal. 

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The chef consultant is Jess Barnes, pictured below slicing blood sausage at a recent Big Bite Bangkok event. I first met Jess in March at the Lard-o-Licious pop-up restaurant at Opposite. Jess, who hails from the Barossa Valley in South Australia, has a professional background strongly rooted in Italian food and butchery. His cooking, though, runs the gamut from classical to modern, and his emphasis is on whole-animal cooking and local/seasonal ingredients.

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As such, the menu changes frequently, which makes multiple visits interesting but also seems to be a little challenging for the staff. The menu is divided into small dishes, salads and veggies, and more substantial plates. Prices for the first two groupings seem a bit lower than I would expects while the more substantial plates have more substantial, although still reasonable, prices. There is also an extensive, well built wine list that feature good values – something you can’t often say in Thailand.

Let me share some pictures from the variety of dishes I tried in my three visits, along with some notes about them. All in all, I really enjoyed the food and found it tasty, well-prepared, and often creative. There were a few dishes that didn’t seem to fully come together, but that is common when a restaurant is in its soft opening phase. I would expect that in the coming months, the menu will grow stronger as winning dishes earn a regular place and weaker dishes undergo some tweaking.

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Most restaurants in Thailand serve food family style and Quince follows this custom with lots of smaller plates that are perfect for sharing. On the left are roast potatoes with garlic and rosemary. On the right, sautéed mushrooms with tarragon, garlic, and sherry vinegar. Both these dishes were well-executed although both would benefit from a more assertive use of herbs. 

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Jess’ background is butchery and his skills particularly shine in dishes like this pig cheek rillette, served with quince jam and pickles. A rillette is a poor-man’s pâté, with meat (usually pork) chopped, salted, and cooked in fat until it achieves a spreadable consistency. This particular rillette tasted slightly underseasoned when eaten on its own, but when paired with the homemade quince jam, it came to life. This is a dish I would buy to keep in my refrigerator for late-night snacking.

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The fried squid with romesco sauce and ham powder was a tasty menu item. The squid itself is faultless although doesn’t stand apart from similar dishes at other restaurants. It is the romesco sauce, a Spanish nut and red pepper sauce that appears several times on the menu, that is the star of the dish. Jess’ romesco sauce is fiery and rich, with a combination of flavors that compel you to eat more and more of it.

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The roast bone marrow with parsley and capers, served with toast, is a dish I first tried at the Lard-o-Licious event. I really enjoy bone marrow and appreciate it being on the menu. In this preparation, the Italian parsley, with its characteristic bitter earthiness, seems overpowering. Perhaps if it were minced more finely with the capers, it would be an easier condiment for the marrow.

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The menu contains a lot of items that are vegetarian (10 out of 26 dishes on one of my three visits), perhaps a testament to a period of his life when Jess was into veganism and first discovered cooking. This dish of roast carrots, poppy seeds, shallots, and honey is not only gorgeous to look at, it is a delight to eat and it says a lot that a chef with a butchery background is able to create so much flavor without the use of meat.

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Another example of this skill, and a dish that is one of my favorites on the menu, is a plate of smokey eggplant, labne, sweet onions, romesco, and edamame. There is surprising depth of flavor in this dish, which will trick you if you don’t get a bit of all the ingredients in your first bite. The eggplant itself has a rich smokiness, almost a meaty quality, but is under-salted on its own. But when you include the labne, onions, and romesco, whole dimensions of flavor are unlocked. This is a standout dish.

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On two visits, I tried the ricotta gnocchi with parmigiano, vegetables, mint, and chilli. The first time, the vegetable was zucchini, which went really well with the mint. The second time the dish had broccoli instead of zucchini, which was less successful. In both cases, though, the chilli was not noticeable and the dish would have benefitted from it being spicier. The gnocchi, though, were tender and perfectly cooked.

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Visiting the “more substantial” portion of the menu, I tried the grilled wild tiger prawns with prawn mayo and leeks. The prawns were fresh, cooked very well, and had a nice char on them.

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The fish of the day was different each time I was there. Or, rather, the preparations were different as on two visits the fish was sea bass. On my second visit to the restaurant, I tried the poached sea bass with a chorizo, crab, and seaweed broth. The fish was cooked well but the broth didn’t work for me. Despite the color, I didn’t detect any flavor of chorizo sausage, an ingredient that would have paired nicely with the meatiness of the fish. To top it off, the seaweed overpowered the broth, giving it a fishy flavor that was unpleasant. Of the six diners in our group, only one enjoyed this preparation.

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On my third visit to Quince, I tried the poached sea bass again, this time with a caponata, a Sicilian cooked eggplant salad that also had green tomatoes and clam. The vegetables were nice, but I found the fish undercooked and there were several scales on the piece that was served.

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The fourth seafood dish I tried, a crab omelette with chives, sweetcorn, and lime, was a tastier option than the sea bass. The preparation and flavors were good. The dish seemed a bit out of place on the menu, though. Crab omelette is a Thai staple and while it wasn’t prepared specifically in a Thai style, it seemed to be the only dish on the menu referencing Thailand. While the dish was tasty, it seemed not to fit the rest of the menu and I don’t know if I would order it again unless I was eating it as a one-dish meal, in which case it would be just about right.

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The “more substantial” plates from land-based proteins were more successful than the sea-based ones. One of Quince’s signature dishes (which was sold out on my second visit so I had to try it on my third), was wet roasted chicken served with saffron and almond broth, barley and harissa. This dish is very tasty and the chicken has a lot of flavor. It would be perfect on a cold, rainy night or – since we have no cold nights in Bangkok – just a rainy one. The barley was a nice choice and a good match to the chicken. My only criticism: the harissa listed on the menu, a Tunisian chili sauce, seemed largely absent in flavor. For being in Bangkok and having a primarily Thai clientele, the food at Quince seems very shy when it comes to spice.

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The hanger steak, sliced medium rare, and served with rocket with anchovy mayo, was a well-preapred classic. The steak was flavorful and nicely cooked. The peppery rocket was a good choice to accompany the dish and the anchovy mayo was nice, too.

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One standout main course was the pork shoulder braised in milk and herbs, served with cauliflower purée. This is another dish (minus the cauliflower) that I first encountered at Lard-o-Licious, one of what I am coming to consider as “Jess Barnes staples.” In this case, the preparation at Quince was better than at Lard-o-Licious and it was a favorite of the diners who joined me on this visit to the restaurant.

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The final meat dish, one I tried on my first visit to the restaurant, was a grilled lamb loin chop served simply with romesco sauce. The chops were well-seasoned but seemed inconsistent in size and shape, not looking like they were the same cut of meat. Nonetheless, the lamb paired well with the romesco sauce. I haven’t seen this particular dish on the menu in subsequent visits, although there seems to usually be some cut of lamb available.

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The dessert selection on the Quince menu is limited and seems to usually have three items plus a trio of gelati. On my third visit, I tried the lemon tart served with salted caramel, peanut brittle, and dulce de leche sorbet. I found it very refreshing and the peanut brittle was particularly interesting.

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This chocolate tart may be the signature dessert as I have seen it on the menu all three times I’ve visited Quince, although each time it is dressed up differently. This was my favorite of the three ways, served with fresh fig and a bitter orange sauce that complimented the chocolate. On the other visits, the tart was served with salted caramel, peanuts, and vanilla ice cream (okay) and then rose sorbet, fig, and orange (somewhat more interesting).

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On my second visit, I tried this orange and almond torte served with milk jam, muesli, and pistachio. This dessert provoked mixed reactions: one fellow diner had some sharp words to say about its appearance, finding it messy to the point of revulsion. I returned to the dish for several bites and while I agreed that it looked a mess, the torte was very moist and I like the orange and almond flavors. Maybe a rework of presentation would make it a winner.

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Based on three visits, I am pleased with Quince. The atmosphere is pleasant, especially the fact that the different dining spaces provide different types of ambience, so where you sit can be matched to your preference. The service, which has admittedly been hit-and-miss, will likely improve as the staff becomes more familiar and routines are developed. The food is creative and well-executed and, most importantly, there is a clear sense that Jess and his kitchen team are exploring. Food lovers will appreciate the thoughtfully-prepared menus, particularly as the dishes continue to be refined and improved over time.

  

Rainy Season Brings Early Flooding

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Once again, rainy season has arrived in Thailand. The skies fill with ominous, dark clouds and once the wind picks up you know you have just a few minutes in which to seek shelter, otherwise you will be drenched by the downpour. While the rain usually follows a consistent schedule, arriving in the late afternoon and early evening, Thursday morning the rain rebeled, giving us two hours of heavy rain at dawn followed by another two hours of drizzle.

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That was too much for the drainage system to handle and our end of the soi (small road) flooded quickly. Sidewalks were covered by a few inches and water in the road was deep enough to stall a few cars.

(Short video)

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The security and maintenance staff at our condo erected a barrier of sandbags, trying to minimize the amount of water that flowed into the first level of the car park.

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Despite their efforts, the entire ground floor was wet.The basement level was flooded a few inches deep as the sump pump struggled to clear the water. The elevators were out of service once the mechanical rooms were breached by the water.

While most of the city recovered pretty quickly from the heavy rains, the morning commute was a mess and by late afternoon, several areas still had standing water. Just wait until September and October, the months when the rain is generally the heaviest!

 

Sunsets on Ploenchit

Yesterday evening I finished a meeting over by Ploenchit BTS station just after sunset. The sky was a beautiful color – particularly pink in the east – and I stopped to take some pictures that turned out rather nice. I thought I’d share them with you.

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The first thing I noticed was the pink sky in the east, a reflection of the setting sun in the towering clouds on that side of the metropolitan area. This view is looking along Ploenchit Road, which turns into Sukhuvmit Road as soon as it crosses beneath that expressway. The Skytrain line runs down the middle of the street and the next station is Nana. Traffic is still pretty light after the new year holiday last weekend.

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Turning around and looking northwest, you can see Wave Place on the left and a new condo, both of which face Witthayu (Wireless) Road. The pink sky in the east is reflected in the windows of Wave Place. Immediately to the right of the condo, just poking out the right side of it, is the Baiyoke 2 Tower, the tallest building in Thailand. The LED lights at the top are showing a Thai flag: red, white, blue, white, and red stripes in that order. In the foreground is one of the remaining old properties that lie along Ploenchit Road, holdouts against the development that is taking over this area.

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A few minutes later I climb up to the Skytrain station platform and take another picture looking east. The pink sky is gone and it is actually dark purple at this point. But because I used an exposure of about 1/13 of a second, the sky’s color appears lighter.

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Looking due west, you can see a train departing Ploenchit station for Nana. Behind it is Mahatun Plaza, one of the older office buildings in this area, and the brand-new Park Ventures tower, about which I wrote yesterday. The side-view of the building is meant to evoke the wai – the polite Thai gesture of greeting where the palms of the hands are placed together, fingers points skyward.

 

Food in Bangkok: The Bibimbab

Recently a new Korean restaurant opened near the mouth of Sukhumvit Soi 24 immediately across from the Emporium. It is called The Bibimbab and its menu focuses on the classic Korean one-pot meal which features a ridiculously hot stone bowl filled with rice, vegetables, meat, and chili paste, which you then mix together before eating. Tawn and I visited for dinner two weeks ago.

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There are those cuisines with which I am extremely familiar and there are other cuisines about which I don’t know nearly as much as I’d like to. Korean is one of the latter. I always enjoy eating Korean food but I often feel a bit lost, uncertain of what I’m doing, how I should order, and whether the food I’m eating is very good or just passable by Korean standards. Bear that in mind as I talk about the restaurant, please.

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The Bibimbab is an attractive place to passers-by. The restaurant is airy and bright. The logo is colorful and modern. It is the type of place that is designed to appeal to people like me: those who like Korean food but don’t know much about it. That fact alone should probably make me nervous, right?

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We visited on a weeknight a few weeks after they opened. The tables were full and new customers were arriving and filling seats just as quickly as they were vacated. The interior looks a bit like a fast-food restaurant although it provides table service. The menu focuses on bibimbab, fried rice, and soups. They do not offer any of the “grill it yourself” dishes that are popular at many Korean restaurants.

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The restaurant’s branding and social media marketing is very up-to-date. They clearly want you to connect with your favorite bibimbab restaurant via your smart phone, tablet, computer, etc.

How To Eat Bibimbab

Their website actually offers useful information for the novice Korean food eater including helpful cartoons illustrating how to eat different dishes as well as general Korean food eating etiquette tips. Above is one an example of one of those helpful cartoons.

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Your meal begins with complimentary banchan. These are the side dishes (often erroneously referred to as kimchi, I learned – which refers only to the fermented vegetables) that accompany rice in Korean meals. Just by writing this entry, my knowledge about Korean food has expanded! The restaurant refills these throughout your meal. While the staff was busy, they were helpful and friendly.

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An overview of our meal. We ordered two dishes and shared them. Along with the side of rice and broth that came with one dish, we had a very hearty meal for two people, coming in at about 500 baht or under US$17.

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Our first dish was the jeyook bibimbab, rice and vegetables with spicy stir-fried pork. This was tasty. One of the nice things about bibimbab is the crispy crust of rice that forms at the bottom of the bowl. When it is time to eat it, there’s a nice crunchiness to it, a textural contrast to the rest of the dish.

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We also ordered dakbokkeumtang – spicy chicken stew with vegetables. While this wasn’t the spiciest Korean soup I’ve had – I remember a date years ago who took me to a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles, serving me a spicy tofu soup that nearly dissolved my tongue – it was spicy enough. Flavors were good and I couldn’t help but think that this would be perfect food for chilly weather… if only we had some chilly weather in Bangkok!

Overall, I was satisfied with The Bibimbab and imagine we’ll go back from time to time. The prices are reasonable for dinner, the portions generous, and the food is tasty. The question about authenticity is one I can’t answer, but at some level you have to ask whether authenticity is more important than simply enjoying the food.

 

Terminal 21: Mall as Airport

In early November, a new mall opened in Bangkok.  Terminal 21, located adjacent to the Asoke Skytrain station along Sukhumvit Road, is a 9-story mall with 20 stories of serviced apartments and office space above the mall.  What sets this mall apart is that it is themed as an airport.

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By an “airport theme” I mean that there are many airport motifs throughout the complex.  These range from information boards that looks like the digital “arrivals” and “departures” flight information displays you see at an airport, to the escalator signage looking like they indicate the directions to different gates, to each floor being themed after a different international city.

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“Departure for Level 3” reads the sign above the long escalator that ascends from the mezzanine floor to a point halfway up the mall.  Given its fantastic location, the mall has been crowded since its opening several weeks ago, filled mostly with local sightseers, much like the international airport was when it first opened.

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Floors include Tokyo (left), Istanbul, Rome, and Paris (right) with each floor decorated in a manner meant to evoke the feel of the city.  Lots of visitors are stopping to take pictures with these decorative items, leading to the likely chance that you will walk through the frame of someone’s picture at some point or another.  Even the mall security and cleaning staff are uniformed appropriately for the floor on which they work.  Yes, that means that on the Paris floors the staff cleaning the toilets are dressed like French maids.

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The San Francisco floor has a miniature Golden Gate bridge spanning an atrium.  The only shops on this floor are restaurants, which seems appropriate for a city well-known for its food.  I’m not sure that the selection of restaurants would necessarily do the City by the Bay proud, though.

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With its location adjacent to both the Skytrain and subway stations, Terminal 21 is positioned at a literal crossroads of Bangkok, accessible to customers from many corners of the city.  The mall looks like it has targeted the middle of the market: there are many popular stores but no high-end ones and there are also a large number of smaller boutiques featuring local independent businesses.  Compared to other malls in the city, it is not nearly as fancy as Central Childlom or Siam Paragon but is much nicer than Platinum or MBK.  I suspect it will be a winning formula.

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The thing that I find terribly ironic, though, is that in a city with an airport that has been criticized for being too much of a mall (the picture above is of the actual airport, not Terminal 21), we end up having a new mall that has an airport theme.  To compare the two:

Suvarnabhumi Airport

Terminal 21 Mall

High end shopping

Local boutiques

Took 4 years after opening to get rail service, which is expensive and inconvenient

Served by rail service from the first day on both the Skytrain and Subway lines

Easily mispronounced Sanskrit name  

Easily pronounced English name

Confusing signage and endless moving sidewalks  Clear signage and quick escalators
Intolerable waits at immigrationBreeze through metal detector at entrance
Insufficient toilets, often dirtyPlentiful toilets cleaned by women in French maid outfits

 

Skytrain Sukhumvit Extension Opens

Transit Map 2011-08 

Another piece of Bangkok’s transit network puzzle fell into place on August 12, as the 5-station extension to the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit line opened.  After more than a year’s delay caused by a problem ordering track switching mechanisms on time, passengers can now travel all the way to Soi Bearing (Sukhumvit 107).  This extension gives access to the Bang Na district, a very congested area of the city that has long been in need of additional mass transit.

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Updated map on the ticketing machine obscured the day before opening.

The BTS Skytrain, the first of Bangkok’s three rail transit systems, opened in December 1999 and currently operates a 55-km network composed of two lines and 32 stations.  An average of about 472,000 trips are made on the system each day, with many days exceeding the half-million mark.

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The five new stations all have the same design with the the tracks running through the center of the station and two platforms on the outside of the tracks.  An improvement in these news stations, along with two stations on the Silom line that opened last year, is that the roof covers the entire space.  The original stations have an opening in the area over the tracks, resulting in passengers being partially exposed to the elements, especially the when the sun is lower in the sky.

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One improvement – all the new stations have elevators.  Most of the stations in the system do not have elevators, making travel by train inconvenient for people in wheelchairs (who would have a hard time with most of Bangkok’s sidewalks, too) and parents with strollers.  In front of the elevator doors are three safety posts, the purpose of which is not clear.  Perhaps they are meant to keep someone from rolling out of the elevator and onto the tracks.  I guess if someone was backing out they may not see where the edge of the tracks is, although they would have to travel a couple of meters before reaching it. 

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One challenge to mobility is that the stretch of Sukhumvit Road on which these new stations are built, has narrow sidewalks.  The placement of station stairs and escalators essentially blacks the sidewalks, leaving no room for wheelchairs or strollers or even for two people to pass each other.  This seems like a problem that could have been overcome, although I have noticed that the traffic lanes actually narrow as they pass beneath the stations, so perhaps squeezing out more space was impossible. 

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Fortunately, there are signs of some amount of foresight in the construction of the track viaduct and support structure.  At the point between Udom Suk and Bang Na stations, the track viaduct is wide enough for two pairs of tracks.  In the picture above, just above the pedestrian bridge, you can see the end caps for two additional tracks.

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Turning 180 degrees and looking southeast along the tracks, the left side of the next support beam has a pad on which one of the track viaducts could rest.  The train track passes between two levels of the expressway at Bang Na.  One of the planned future extensions, although there is no specific timeframe in which it will be built, is to have a spur line branch off from the main Sukhumvit line and head northeast along the expressway.  This extension would include a stop at the BITEC convention center.  Currently, the closest station (Bang Na) is about a kilometer away, although an indoor walkway is being constructed to connect the station and the convention center and looks set to open in a few months.

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The problem with the new five-station extension is that it is projected to add some 100,000 additional trips to the system each day, but during rush hour the system is already at peak capacity.  This view of Asoke station, taken at 6:30 pm on a weekday, is too typical. 

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The layout of station entrances, something that would be difficult to change significantly, is narrow and results in ticket machine lines running into the fare gate lines running into still other lines. The entrance areas at the new stations seem to be wider, which will hopefully help.  Another thing that would help at existing stations is to remove small retail kiosks adjacent to the fare gates.  These consume real estate that could ease the congestion of foot traffic.

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The capacity problem is less about station entrance design, though.  It is primarily an issue of not enough train cars.  There are 35, three-car Siemens trains on the system.  Last year, following the opening of two new stations on the Silom line, 12, four-car Bombardier trains were added, running exclusively on the Silom line.  This additional capacity was immediately swallowed up.  In October 2010, the operator of the Skytrain ordered an additional car for each of the three-car trains, although it seems these will not arrive until at least next year.  Also next year, an additional four-station extension will open on the Silom line.  Dr. Pichet Kunadhamraks of the Ministry of Transport’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, indicated by email that he thinks these additional train cars will satisfy demand.

Earlier this year, the Transport Minister asked for residents’ patience until 2015, by which point some 60-plus kilometers of additional rail lines will have opened, adding to the approximately 103 kilometers currently operating.  It will be interesting to see whether these new lines and extensions open on time and, if they do, what impact they have on the city’s traffic.  Bangkok is a city that would be well-served if it had a comprehensive network of rail transit.  It would also be well-served by a bus network that feeds into that network, rather than largely duplicating it.  That, however, is a topic for another day.