Carefully curated Thai classics served on an elegant open-air riverboat
For two decades now Baan Khanitha has maintained a rock-solid reputation on Bangkok’s restaurant scene. With four famous branches—located across the city—it’s clear that the much-loved recipes of the former silk fashion designer Khanitha Akaranitikul have become part of the fabric of this bustling, ever-changing metropolis. And the latest addition to her restaurant mini-empire is the Baan Khanitha Cruise, a set-menu dinner on the river unlike any other.
As Bangkok locals, we often take for granted such excursions, relegating them to the domain of those with more time than taste. However, with such a formidable reputation—and easy access from the pier adjacent to Baan Khanitha’s Asiatique The Riverfront branch—this particular cruise attracts all with the promise of fresh, sumptuous, quintessentially Thai dishes.
On the evening of our visit the threat of thunderous rain and an ensuing lightning show loomed large, making it hard to imagine venturing onto a boat—least of all a dinner river cruise. However, Asiatique was nevertheless teeming with activity and by the time Baan Khanitha’s grand 16 metre antique rice barge made its entrance to whisk us away, the rain storm had subsided.
Ornate and intricately decorated with a Thai colonial feel, the solid wooden barge oozed a restrained air of excellence and refinement. There has always been something quite kitsch about establishments that hold true to period costume and decorations, but here it just felt right. The décor is minimalist but bold, and effortlessly impresses from the moment you first place your foot on its solid teak decking (word of warning: those feet should probably not be wearing high-heels).
Once seated, and leaving the world of glaring lights and blaring music behind, our amuse-bouche immediately set the tone for the meal. Small, delicate parcels of fresh coconut, tangy lime, roasted peanuts, dried shrimp, sharp shallots, and ginger, served on Betel leaf with a light but piquant dressing, Miang Kham is, sadly, one traditional tidbit that is rarely served in restaurants in Bangkok nowadays. But you know something is being done well when the table is more engaged in eating than talking, and the starters haven’t even come out yet.
Next up our waiter, in what can only be described as performance art, shepherded us through the sprawling array of appetizers. From the fluffy, flawlessly fried shrimp cakes with plum, to the spring rolls, light chicken dumplings, and a forgivingly spicy shredded chicken pomelo salad, everything—down to the very plates we ate off of—told a story that gratified not just our bellies but our eyes.
I’ll admit to being a bit cynical when I heard that Tom Yum Goong Nang would be part of the next course, however this version of the classic Thai soup definitely deserves its place on the menu. Bold and herby, with a well-spiced, intoxicating light broth, smatterings of silky wild mushrooms, and an oh-so very generously-sized prawn, it was difficult to maintain linear conversation whilst wolfing it all down.
Showmanship is nothing to be scoffed at, so when the smoking lemon sorbet palate cleanser made its appearance the table was abuzz with delight. Of course, the better part of me knew that it was just the liquid nitrogen surrounding the plate that gave it an other-worldly look, but something about the deep lapping waves surrounding us, and the heavenly lit temples and bridges that drifted by, conspired to make every bite all the more special.
Our palates were brought back down to earth with the congenial array of mains served with aromatic steamed brown and white rices. As we passed the imposing and awe-inspiring riverside view of the Grand Palace, out came red roast duck curry served in an intricately carved pumpkin, perfectly stir-fried bok choy with deliciously delicate mushrooms, and a wondrously explosive sweet and sour crispy sea bass.
However, the best was saved to last. The giant grilled Ayutthaya river prawn was worth the journey alone. I could actually spend hours talking about how beautiful this dish was. If lobster and shrimp had a secret love-child, it would be in the form of this mouthwatering, meaty but light crustacean. Brushed with a conservative hint of sweet chili, I found myself wanting to prolong every single bite. The Platinum Dinner Set (B2,800), differs from the Gold (B2,400), simply because of this dish—but I couldn’t imagine skipping it!
The background music on-board was as elegant as the entreés, and as Dvořák reached his crescendo and we made our way back down the river—having gone as far upstream as the Rama VIII Brdige—out came the sweets. The crowd pleaser of mango and sticky rice served with coconut ice-cream, as well as a generous array of traditional Thai sweets, came with tea and coffee. The entire journey, which started at half-six and ended roughly around 9pm, felt amply long but in a way too short at the same time.
The Chao Phraya River is in no danger of running out of river cruises to delight the revolving conveyor belt of tourists, but this is definitely one experience that locals can also look to enjoy as much as out-of-towners. Gazing into the deep shimmering waves around me, positively stuffed and satiated, engrossed by all the sights, I’ll admit to having fallen back in love with this city. Eating on the river—like this— needs to be on everybody’s bucket list.
By Zipporah Gene
Baan Khanitha by the River
Asiatique, Charoenkrung Rd.
Tel: 063 474 6857, 063 474 6858
6:30pm: Check-in and register, 7pm: Board at Asiatique Pier, 9pm: Return to Asiatique Pier