Samantha Proyrungtong, who administers the official ‘Bangkok Foodies’ Facebook group, lets loose with her take on the city’s dining scene—past, present and future
I don’t know what everyone on the interweb has been harping about, lamenting that 2016 was the worst year ever. For a foodie in Bangkok, 2016 was a strangely exhilarating and eventful year—kind of like running onto a minefield made of exploding smoothie bowls, bao buns, and celebrity chef restaurant chains.
The year that passed saw the back of institutions like Rocket and U.N.C.L.E at the 72 Courtyard mall, and the destruction of an iconic timepiece, Hemingway’s Restaurant. Not to mention the biggest shock on the food scene in years—the closure of the Sukhumvit Soi 38 street market. Mae, po and ba hawkers all over Bangkok have been swept from footpaths and deposited into the outskirts of the city, which for many means the destruction of livelihoods.
Since that fateful day on Soi 38, there have been rumours that Bangkok plans to become the next Singapore in terms of independent vendors in sterile and orderly food courts. But with all of Bangkok’s charming “bureaucracy”, it’s difficult to see this coming to fruition. A shame really… we could be one ‘Joke’ or ‘Crispy Pork’ stand away from that elusive Michelin star in Bangkok.
As for meals on wheels, food trucks were rapidly adopted themselves into the mainstream. Originators and ultimate successors, such as Daniel Thaiger Burger and Pizza Massilia, expanded and settled into fixed locations. A smart move? So far yes, although it ultimately remains to be seen. The current abundance of food truck newcomers all ride on the taillights of such legends, and pull out at all the gimmicky stops—from pizzas in cones, to burgers dripping in mac ‘n’ cheese and doused with truffle aroma oil, ice cream pummelled into submission by spatulas, and diabetes-inducing refreshments that bubble and produce cloudy vapours. Nevermind the stray chunk of dry ice attaching itself to a child’s throat, it’s all in the name of Instagram.
Last year also saw an overwhelming array of foodie events with every man and his gourmet hot-dog participating in farmers’ markets or some such kooky-glasses affair.This brought on an onslaught of food inventions emerging from children’s cartoons and bad acid trips. It was also a fine opportunity for budding food artisans to come out of the woodwork to dabble, test, and trade their edible masterpieces. Thanks to discerning consumers, this opened a niche market for socially responsible, all-natural—dare I say, “organic”—quality local products. 2016 witnessed local producers Sloane’s, Conkey’s Bakery and My Job is Pâté appearing on supermarket displays or Bangkok’s best restaurant tables. If you’re ever looking for ways to support farmers’ markets without (many) real farmers in the city, this is as good as any. Still the most popular farmers’ market in Bangkok (and longest running) is at K-Village every second weekend of the month.
Which brings me to the farm-to-table phenomenon. This term was thrashed about unscrupulously three years ago, hence its absence from menus today. Yet the philosophy lives on as the key element of Bangkok’s trendiest new-age bistros. Seed uses Royal Project produce, Cocotte uses free-range farmed chicken, Broccoli Revolution (a 100 percent vegan restaurant) uses only organic and locally-grown fruit and vegetable for their juices.
Another restaurant highly adept at using fruit and vegetables in the most exquisite manner would have to be Upstairs Mikkeller. But if it’s meat, meat and more meat you want, Arno’s Butchery & Eatery, Le Boeuf and Indigo are at the affordable forefront, while on the high-end spectrum, there’s El Gaucho, District Grill, Il Fumo and Meatilicious (the latter are doing extraordinary things without a volt of electricity used in the cooking process). Then there’s Quince Eatery which serves up a toe-tingling marrow dish—best consumed when gurgling on the remains with a shot of port down the hollow bone. In the livestock department, the most abused item of late would have to be the Tomahawk steak and ribs—or any meat really—that’s been given a few hours in the sous-vide. A sight which can make a foodie groan every time they appear on the Instagram/Facebook feed.
However, what was “hot” in 2016 (and remains so) is making healthy choices and letting everyone know about it, particularly while eating an acai bowl in the lotus position, or being spoon fed performing a handstand on a remote beach. I jest, although I did hear Siwilai Cafe at Central Embassy does some exceedingly pretty ones (and tasty too). The whole vegan and organic scene which exploded in
2015-2016 has bred some equally hardcore skeptics. Those foodies who cringe at the “O” word, yet concur that the movement, overall is a positive one. What doesn’t sit well, is the hippy hype and in turn the extortionate pricing. Not to mention the lack of regulation and flippant labelling which drives foodies closer to denouncing the high and mighty vegan lifestyle for a bloodthirsty, hedonistic one.
Location also has a lot to do with what is hot or not in Bangkok. Sathorn Sois 10 and 12 become the anti-climax of the year. In 2016 it was pitched to be the sexiest drink and dine district, with institutions like Rocket and newcomers like Marcel, but the successions of closures such as Moko (now Kumi), U.N.C.L.E, and the much anticipated Daisy Matthews (which never happened—we got Bunker instead) hindered this distinction. Funnily, the buzz headed further south (of Sathorn) to the Yen Akart area, where you’ll find Sühring and La Casa Nostra.
Meanwhile, the Ari neighbourhood chugs along with the not so bold but beautiful (though clearly not as exciting as in its heyday). By contrast Phrakhanong and On Nut are the rising stars of Upper Sukhumvit, with the popular W District becoming the ‘Khao San’ of the BTS line—a convivial drinking trough for the new gen and frugal expats looking for flash-in-the-pan meals, cheap beers, and forgettable nights. There are a few decent Thai and Western snacky food huts, but not a name one would recall.
As for restaurants in plush hotels in Bangkok, they’re making a decided comeback. Those of exceptional quality are Tables Grill at Grand Hyatt Erawan, Scarlett Wine Bar at Pullman Bangkok Hotel G, The District Grill at the Bangkok Marriott, Theo Mio and the Fireplace Grill at Intercontinental Bangkok, and J’Aime at U Sathorn.
Shopping malls in 2016 did graciously bring us Jamie’s Italian, at Siam Discovery, which arrived with plenty of ruckus (that died away when people actually tried the food). But there is the one mall that did break the mold in 2016, and that would be The Commons, with their millennial appropriate mix. They’ve attempted to hit all the foodie spots with pizza from Peppina, ribs from Meat & Bones, and the Californian-style Banh Mi of Eastbound. The funky communal space-sharing concept gives the mall its unique edge, and the weekends heave with hopelessly cool kids. Finally, The Helix at EmQuartier is one overzealous and dizzying project that’s overloaded with choice, yet still managed to offer the odd gem—particularly Man Fu Yuan, and everyone’s favourite, lobster and seafood odyssey, Crab & Claw.
2016 was also the year that spawned the battle of the hotels buffets, which have only got bigger and more extravagant. Hotel giants nowadays are covering all bases, from free-flow prosecco and detox smoothies, even daring to match fine-dining with high quality local ingredients and top imported produce. Attico at Radisson Blu, Red Oven
of SO Sofitel, Atelier at Pullman Sukhumvit, and the (now closed) ISO of Swissotel, were ahead of the bunch. We foodies are very much enjoying sitting back and having our hungry little hearts won over. Starting with unlimited freshly shucked Fine de Claire oysters, fresh sushi stations commandeered by faux-sushi chefs, Raclette and Grana Padano wheel pasta—I’m not done yet—whole suckling pig, and even homemade dim sum. The ongoing promotions are also scandalous. Feels slightly unfair for the stand-alone restaurants, but does explain the sudden death of restaurant brunching in 2016, with the exception of the invincible Chu in Asoke, and Roast at The Commons.
This new year hasn’t changed the fact that we’re still suckers for Top 10, or 50 Best lists, but the tendency so far is shifting focus away from accolades, and more towards originality of dishes and unique ambient spaces. We’ve floated around the grounds of the majestic House of Sathorn, and been crammed into the Parisian interior of Smalls (slurping on Phuong’s Pho recipe and sipping pastis until the velvet curtain opens), but one thing is for certain—we no longer want pendant lighting dangling in our faces, dead poet quotes on walls, and twisted copper and metal impaling our derrieres. Modern-industrial is dead… like all the rock stars and actors we mourned in 2016 with acute melodrama. Rest in peace!
Something foodies can be grateful for in 2016 was the increase of unique, independent restaurants, and the decline of celebrity-powered restaurant chains. These cutesy and theme-riddled branch outlets—with eternally fixed menus—will never completely diminish in Thailand, but are definitely more sparse, now that the general public are getting a clue and acquiring actual taste. Still, there’s always a market for shaved-ice tea in a unicorn cup, and “Japanese” cheese tarts at B80 a pop.
In the “exotic” category of our round-up, Mexican took a bit of a slump. We found it more talked about than frequented. New restaurants opened with the vision of expats grasping on fat Tex-Mex burritos whilst donning novelty sombreros, or Thonglor Thais nibbling on foie gras tacos while sipping Tom Yum margaritas. The charm just kind of wore off. But Mexican has one saving grace, that the demand comes back in waves. Those who continue to ride it with aplomb are La Monita, Barrio Bonito and the newly opened Missing Burro. But the new wave predicted to hit Bangkok (often confused with Mexican by locals) is Spanish cuisine. Not street paella at markets stirred by burly, sweaty dancing men, or novelty-sized churros, stuffed with soft serve and sprinkled with Grandma’s icing sugar. I’m talking dishes that reach deep down to your flamenco-ed heels with a renewed foodie passion burning in your soul… you’ll feel like dancing.
Our next food fad victim is Japanese. Was it only me they evaded in 2016? The only recommendation I can offer is the new and fantastic Morimoto in the MahaNakhon Cube. The sushi here is excellent, if not up to the Michelin standard we expected, and the highly innovative fusion dishes, fabulous cocktails, killer restaurant design—teamed with modest pricing—will give this place a longer lease on life. I also missed out on any significant Indian uprisings, although Punjab Grill is still on the hit list, and Charcoal remains a go-to. Of course, I’m sure to be schooled soon enough by ferocious foodies ready to throw their comprehensive “best of” lists at me.
So what did we learn in 2016? Well, even though we’re still banging down Gaggan’s door, and flooding his Facebook review feed, we’ve discovered a newfound love and respect for the underdogs—for originality and the element of surprise. I would say Sühring, Paste, Freebird, Sfizio, and the demure yet delicious Chef Bar, pretty much fall under at least one, if not more, of these categories. As for what to look for in 2017, I say try more Thai food in Thailand. BaaGaDin, Bo.Lan, 80/20BKK, Somtum Der, Klang Soi and Bangkok Bold Cooking School, I’m looking at you!