Discussing Thailand’s constantly evolving coffee culture
Despite having a coffee cart at every pak soi in downtown Bangkok, finding a good cup that isn’t burnt or diluted in syrup is quite difficult. Fortunately, the last few years have seen this city’s coffee culture gaining momentum and going niche market. Specialty coffee joints headed by world champion baristas and roasters are fast becoming the trend. And making its imprint on this movement is D’ARK, a café brand with two outlets in Bangkok, and whose coffee beans are supplied by award-winning Australian roaster Phillip Di Bella.
We find ourselves at the D’ARK flagship store in EmQuartier where it’s not only hard to find a spot to sit, but also get the café’s general manager Philippe Rusin to sit still for a moment. It’s a busy Saturday afternoon at the restaurant, and all hands are on deck for the brunchers pouring in.
The interior here is minimalistic and stylish, with a coffee-coloured palette and furnishings, abstract artwork, and exposed vintage lighting. The floor-to-ceiling glass windows provide soothing views of the mall’s famous indoor waterfall—complementing the casual ambience of the place. In case you want to people-watch, there’s plenty of seating available outside, with room even for pets.
Philippe finally joins us over a bottle of Vouvray and our first course of a spicy Maine lobster ceviche. “The basic idea to start a coffee cart in Asia came when three entrepreneurs, Di Bella, J.S. Gill (of the Singaporean-based Gill Capital), and Philippe Lassaux all met in Brisbane,” he starts off by explaining. As we dig into the refreshing combination of lobster, red onion, avocado, and a secret dressing, Philippe tells us that their first destination of choice, Singapore, didn’t quite pan out and hence they decided to break ground in Bangkok. “Our first outlet in Piman 49, which opened in July of 2015, helped us show what we were able to do and deliver in terms of quality of coffee and technique, taste and food.”
We are soon on to our next offering of Snow pea—done al dente—with pecorino cheese shavings, and Guanciale cured pork cheek that just melts on our palates. But don’t let the simplicity of the dish fool you, the nutty and flavourful pork and mild cheese totally wins you over. Simultaneously we try the Pan-seared tuna salad comprising organic eggs, lettuce, olives, red onion, vinegar and wine-infused cherry tomatoes and dressing. Philippe pairs these dishes with one of their single origin coffees. We try the Peruvian, which is his best seller. The drink is smooth and goes very well with our entrees. “Each single origin has its own ID, much like wine, and comes with a card that educates you about the country of origin, region, estate, and sometimes the farmer too,” he points out. For each cup, this coffee crusader informs me, they use 20-22 grams of coffee, which is more than the usual 10 grams served everywhere else.
“The demand for coffee is growing in Thailand, but they mainly grow Robusta in the north, which is low-grade coffee,” he grimaces. “They also grow Arabica single origin in Chiang Mai, but the production is still quite limited. Di Bella sources for D’ARK a much wider offer of single origins from small farmers all over the world,” he adds.
On this note, we dive into our main dish, a medium rare Flank steak with beurre maître d’hotel sauce comprised of shallots, French butter, and parsley with a side of fries and salad. The dish is not only dangerously delicious but extremely rich, all thanks to the sauce (a classic French recipe). To this dish, Philippe recommends the Kenyan—a medium-bodied Arabica with a sweet and floral aroma. It’s light and goes well with our main.
So is it hard converting the masses? “It’s challenging,” Philippe admits. “The market here is 90 percent full of instant coffee, and iced lattes sweetened with condensed milk. The coffee chains dominating the market offer crazy frappucinos with a whole lot of toppings. But that’s not real coffee. All of our coffee is rated over 80 in the market, that is why we are different.”
Philippe manages every aspect of this outlet, from the coffee bar out front to the kitchen at the back. But this forty-something workaholic admits he can’t do everything, which is where he puts all faith in his Executive Chef Sorapol ‘Tangmo’ Sukpanich—a graduate from Le Cordon Bleu Australia—and his head barista Sirichai ‘Bank’ Saebee.
“It’s about teamwork and I have a great team here,” he continues, “perfection and consistency is the most difficult thing to achieve, but we strive to do it and the results are rewarding.”