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.

Thai street food: khanom tang taek

There was a time when I wrote a lot more about Thai street food. In the years since I had to stop working from home and started getting a real job, I’ve had a lot less time to write – but rest assured I haven’t stopped enjoying Thai street food! In the past few months, I’ve discovered a tasty treat that I had not encountered in more than ten years here: a snack named after a broken barrel.

Called “khanom tang taek” this snack is basically a pancake cooked in a deep pan, filled with shredded fresh coconut, black sesame seeds and sugar.

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Baked until crisp, it is folded in half (the breaking of the “barrel”) and served while still warm.

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It isn’t the fastest treat to make, perhaps one of the reasons you see so few street vendors making it. But the flavor and texture and wonderful and I count myself lucky to have a vendor who is regularly found at lunchtime across the street from my office.

 

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.

 

Thinglish: Level Up

Level_Up“Thinglish” is a portmanteau of “Thai” and “English”, describing the odd mixture of languages that you encounter as an expat here. One of the words that keeps catching my ear is “level up” which, the more I think about it, is quite an elegant word.

The meaning, as you might expect, is the same as the cumbersome “increase the level of” as in, “We need to increase the level of skill in their leadership capability.” But that is an awkward phrasing. My colleagues will instead say something like, “We need to level up their leadership capability skills.”

Before writing this post, I did some research and learned that “level up” is actually a gaming term, meaning “To progress to the next level of player character abilities, often by acquiring experience points in role-playing games.” Which, come to think of it, does sound a bit like the leadership development we do!

There is no shortage of opportunities to re-learn the English language when you live in a country where it isn’t the primary language. But that’s a good thing: it keeps your mind elastic!

Vanilla Home Cafe

About two years ago, I asked Jarrett Wrisley, the American food writer and proprietor of Soulfood Mahanakorn and two other restaurants in Bangkok, what he thought the next food trend would be here in the City of Angels. His response: home style Thai food cooked by locals with really good quality ingredients and refined technique.

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He was spot on. In 2014, we started to see more and more restaurants here in Bangkok that serve what you might call “Grandma’s food” – dishes that you rarely see most Thai restaurants serve, especially outside of Thailand. There are many places that are doing this trend well, and in this entry I visit Vanilla Home Cafe.

Located in the basement of the recently remodeled Silom Complex, Vanilla Home Cafe comes from the same family-run business that owns the S&P chain of eateries. Interestingly, some of the “Grandma’s food” menu items from Home Cafe are making their way onto the S&P menu, which I count as a good thing.

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Appetizer of Gratong Tong – crispy golden cups with minced chicken and sweet corn. This isn’t the rarest of dishes but is one that be a candidate for the endangered list. Crispy cups with a chicken and corn relish. What’s not to like?

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Yam som-oh – pomelo salad with a dressing of lime, palm sugar, fish sauce, shallots, and chilies. This is also pretty common. The “yam” style salad can be made with countless ingredients but the pomelo version is one of my favorites. Perfect balance of flavors and not too sweet.

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Naamprik mamuang gunghaengbon plaasalidpuu – green mango chilli relish with crispy fish. The “naamprik” is really the dish that set this “Grandma’s food” trend in motion. There are many different versions of this dip, all of which are served with blanched vegetables and other condiments. Some are fiery, others not so much. This version with green mangos has a really nice balance of flavors. Spicy, but with just a small amount with some veggies to cool the fire, it is fantastic and fantastically healthful.

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Gaeng kuahaed paw – Earthstar mushroom curry, a forest mushroom in a rich curry that isn’t as spicy as you might expect. Served with an interesting local green that has the same effect as asparagus on your urine’s smell.

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Kaijiaw gapraw muusap – minced pork with chili and basil omelet. Probably the most common dish but a classic that grandma would be remiss not to serve!

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Muutod plaakhem – deep fried pork patty with salted fish. Yes, at first you think it is just a pork patty. And then you taste the salted fish. And the chilies. And the shallots. And the lime. And the coriander. Wow, there is a lot of flavor going on here!

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Plaahaeng taengmo naamkaengsai – crazy obscure dessert. Perfectly ripe watermelon served over crushed ice with dried fish. Yes, you read that right. Think of it this way: you know how sweet watermelon and salty feta cheese is all the rage these days? This is the non-dairy version of that flavor combination.

Location: Basement of Silom Complex, adjacent to Saladaeng BTS station in Bangkok.

 

Questions About Visiting Bangkok

A friend is visiting from Japan. And like the countless friends and friends-of-friends and colleagues-of-friends (and so on) that visit each year, he asked for some suggestions of what to see, where to eat, and where to sleep. Having been asked that question countless times before, I sent the PDF lists I have.

It occurred to me that I should be using this website for that purpose. After all, it is much easier to keep the pages updated and much easier for people to check in instead of passing around a PDF that is likely to be out-of-date the minute it is received.

Walking Map of Central Rattanakosin

So this evening I took some time to transfer those lists to the website. This all-purpose page may be of interest to you or someone you know. It has links to a page showing all the must-see sights in Bangkok for a first-time visitor; many of the recommended restaurants; and many of the recommended hotels at different price points.

One of these days, I will create a page showing the “hidden gems” of Bangkok – the things you should do if you have already seen the main attractions or want a different perspective on life here.

So please feel free to visit these pages, provide your comments and feedback, and share them with friends, friends-of-friends, and so on.

Office of Snacks

One of the things that has been a bit of a challenge working in a Thai office for my first time, is to get used to the sheer volume of snack foods that are around. Yes, I know that all offices have their share of snack foods, but it seems to reach new extremes here in Thailand.

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Conference tables are for snacks, not people.

Each business unit, department, or cluster of desks has a stash of snack foods, not including the fresh fruit and perishable snack items bought daily by my colleagues. And what makes it even worse is that most of these people are skinny to the point of looking malnourished.

After the first few weeks, I started to buck the trend and avoid the snacks. My trick is to eat a bit extra at lunch so that the munchies don’t come calling in the middle of the afternoon. But then my colleagues look at my lunch tray with two dishes on it and express dismay that I’m eating so much food!