This master of Mexican cuisine talks about her passion for innovation
The fun and funky Revolucion Cocktail bar on Sathorn Soi 10 is a lively late night neighbourhood hot spot, but many may not know that upstairs the recently opened Clandestino Cantina is whipping up deliciously innovative variations on classic Mexican and Latin American cuisine. And helming the kitchen here is chef Gaby Espinosa Real, a native of Mexico City who has only been in Bangkok for a brief few months. However in that short time she has conjured up a wonderfully creative dinner menu that definitely pushes the envelope—alarming purists but captivating open-minded gourmands (her rather boggling Tortilla Royal, a deconstructed tortilla served in a mason jar, is a perfect example).
At the tender age of 26 Gaby may appear at first a bit young to be a head chef, but she points out that she began quite early on—“I started cooking when I was 13,” she says. Her career path eventually took her to Asia, where she worked at Mr. and Mrs. Bund, a well-known Shanghai restaurant, before joining Revolucion, with whom she worked for a year in China before moving with them to Thailand. And although she has amassed many influences along the way, her food focus at Clandestino is decidedly Latin leaning.
“I will say it’s Latin, in general, because we have some touches from Italy and Spain, but also from Argentina, Peru, and of course Mexico,” she explains. “But even though it’s Latin homestyle cuisine, we want to have some fresh twists for some dishes.”
Gaby has a motherly fondness for all her creations and loves to discuss the process behind each one. As she explains the concept behind her divine and delectable Tartara de Pescado—a dual tartare of salmon and sea bass combined with ginger, lemongrass, kaffir lime and topped with coconut foam and a chiffonade of corn tortillas—she tells me, “You have to respect the fish. That’s why we cut it a little bit bigger. We don’t make it a minced fish. You need to feel the textures.”
As we move on to the Aguachile Salad, Gaby does a bit of reminiscing. “This dish we used to eat every Sunday back in Mexico City,” she says fondly. “We marinate the shrimp in the lime and chilies, and there’s a lot of cilantro too, so it’s really green.” And to make it more of a meal we add a salad on the side, with vanilla and coconut dressing.”
We also sample her hearty Paella del Mar, with fresh clams, calamari, prawns and even some chunks of chorizo hiding in the rice, before moving on to her exquisitely tender Chicken Sous Vide.
“We cook the vacuum-sealed chicken in a water bath—at 60°— with cilantro, chili, and honey,” Gaby explains. “Then we serve it with a white and red quinoa salad, with baby corn from Thailand, and a spicy chipotle sauce.”
The chicken is a scene-stealer, as is the Churrasco en Chimichurri—wood-fire grilled Australian beef striploin served with homemade chimichurri sauce and roasted veggies—but the don’t-miss dish here may very well be the Grilled Snowfish, in which a moist and meaty portion of succulent snow fish sits atop a bed of refried bean ratatouille, garnished with a pop-art display of dabs of yellow, red and green bell pepper puree.
“[Snow fish] is a fish we don’t have in Mexico, but I’m glad I met him because we now have such a good relationship,” Gaby jokes as she discusses the dish. “We cook it in our Josper-style oven, using charcoal. The refried beans we make from scratch, and we add eggplant, garlic, and a mix of raw and spicy chorizo. But I originally didn’t plan on using here. Then I thought, ‘why not with the fish? It goes well.’”
For a light dessert the Pina Colada Tart combines rum infused pineapple slices with coconut ice cream and cookie crumble, however the slightly heavier Churros involves a “special presentation”, as Gaby herself pours a “cold chocolate soup” over several oven-warm sugary churros. She explains that this topping of hers is a mix of 70 percent chocolate, milk, cardamom, and Cuarenta Y Tres Liquer (an aromatic Spanish liqueur which is reputed to have a total of 43 different ingredients). All I can say is, “Bravo!”