I’ve nipped down the back alley and up the narrow stairs, past a sign reading, “Home Cooked Comfort Food”. The wedge-shaped room at the top has a mere nine tables and the ambiance of a works’ canteen, complete with corrugated iron and ‘chandeliers’ made of mechanics’ lamps. The doors have just opened for the night’s service.
I grab a seat at the counter top of reclaimed wood, overlooking the tiny open kitchen where chef Jess Barnes is about to prepare a salad of crab, ajo blanco, cucumber, grapes and chorizo oil. His tattooed arms hang beneath a T-shirt and stripy butcher’s apron.
“Ajo blanco is a Spanish bread soup,” he says. “With roasted almonds, garlic, milk and sherry vinegar. In this version, we make it less soupy by adding more bread, then blend everything together.”
It goes on the plate with blue swimmer crab from the Gulf of Thailand, fresh cucumber, pickled shallots and pickled grapes. “Traditionally, ajo blanco would be served with fresh grapes,” Jess says.
Nothing dominates the varied flavours, and there’s a lot happening texturally. The crab is luscious and sweet, which pairs well with the creamy ajo blanco and fresh cucumber. The pickled grapes offer a good firm bite and a gush of sweet juice that fills the mouth as they pop, and there’s a gentle spice and smokiness that comes from the chorizo oil. “We add chorizo to olive oil, together with garlic and smoked paprika and leave it to infuse for a day or so,” Jess says. “Then we add tabasco.”
As he talks, chefs move a parade of pots from hobs and ovens. They’re filled with things like pork neck with paprika; and veal shin with carrots in a rich dark stock. Another has a clutch of whole ducks in a state of semi-confit in fat and duck stock. The sort of cooking that has seen Jess Barnes become one of Bangkok’s most iconic chefs.
And he has plans to expand. “Around the middle of this year,” he says, “I’ll be opening a new place on Sathorn Soi 12 with Tim Butler [of Eat Me], a more refined, dedicated restaurant space.”
Right now, he’s putting together another salad, this one with sliced figs, feta cheese, toasted pistachios and lardo (white sheets of salted and dried pork fat). “Everything is local except the pistachios,” he says.
The juicy sweet figs work very well with the saltiness of the lardo. The feta has been whipped, so it’s light and liquid, the nut crumbles add crunch, and there’s the merest hint of chilli that wakens the palate.
“It’s common to have figs with Parma ham, so using lardo is not too far away from that,” Jess says. “I’ve learned more to work with what I have.” It’s another example of his deftness for giving attractive tweaks to conventional ideas.
Opposite Mess Hall
27/1 Sukhumvit Soi 51 | 0 2662 6330 | oppositebangkok.com
Open Sun noon-2.30pm, Tues-Sun 6.30pm-late (last food orders 10.30pm)