Never one to shy away from controversy, Gaggan Anand may just have pulled off his most ambitious project yet. The revolutionary chef, known for his boundary-pushing creations – Yogurt Explosion, Sea Bass Gunpowder, White Chocolate Panipuri – has made a career out of cross-pollinating cuisines, fuelled in part, by his travels and the influences he encounters along the way
One of the most recent influences for Gaggan has been Japan and his relationship with Takeshi ‘Goh’ Fukuyama of La Maison de La Nature Goh. Together, the chefs have collaborated on various pop-ups around the world, touring under the epithet ‘GohGan’. Add to this; news of their plans to open a 12-seater restaurant together in Fukuoka in 2020, and Gaggan’s decision to leave Bangkok and relocate to Japan. First, though, he has unfinished business in the city.
Along with ‘Goh’ and the help of Mihara Tofuten owner, Miharahiroki, Gaggan’s long-awaited, much-advertised Bangkok tofu restaurant opens on the 28th March, introducing Thailand to “authentic tofu.” I was given a sneak peek of the restaurant and menu last week and here, layout my review of this bold, brave and outrageously ballsy ‘Goh’ + ‘Gan’ collaboration, pondering the question: is Bangkok ready for tofu?
My own tofu experiences are limited, always avoiding it when dining out and with only a passing liaison with Otokomae Tofu during a visit to Kyoto in 2016. Otherwise, I am unschooled in the ways of bean curd, a seemingly flexible and malleable ingredient that’s prevalent throughout Eastern Asian cuisines.
Now, I could tell you a lot about the courses, run through all of the recipes in exquisite detail, but there’s been quite enough written about tofu already. Instead, I’ll highlight my immediate thoughts and some standout plates. And, I’ll add this, the quality of the ingredients and their combinations, with the skill, focus and imagination on show, floored me. I couldn’t stop smiling, oohing and aahing with each mouthful.
The restaurant is located in Sathorn, near Bangkok City Tower, halfway up a traffic-choked soi and a gauntlet run between zig-zagging mopeds. If you make it out alive, you’ll just about see the restaurant’s entrance on the right. It’s an unassuming facade for somewhere new, low-lit and low-key, with bold lettering in Japanese, underneath which reads MIHARA TOFUTEN BANGKOK. The advertising is minimal, self-effacing and respectable – very Japanese.
Inside, a stone pathway leads you away from the city hustle and through a glass door. The design is stark with only the essentials installed – think MUJI meets canteen minimalism. I take a seat at the counter, the very first customer to do so. The chairs are all still shrink-wrapped, but the kitchen is up-and-running, busy with meditative chefs (Japanese and Thai), meticulously fiddling with chopsticks, tweezers, and knobbly wasabi roots.
A 16-course menu dips and dives between soft and firm, smooth and sweet, semi and fully-curdled (intentional and desirable in the making of tofu); rolling around the little cubes of curd with fresh outcomes. Some examples are sweet like a crème caramel, other flavours are more conventional, accompanied by a dressing of chilli and “Special” soy, the rich umami flavours sucked-up inside of the soft white blocks, bursting in the mouth on the first bite.
First of all, a chilled glass of soy milk with yuzu jam is a welcome relief given outside’s sticky temperature, and with just enough candied-sweetness from the yuzu as not to overpower. Then, it’s a varied expedition through the subtle diversity of tofu, the chefs approaching each course with expertise and successfully advertising the versatility of this often underutilised food.
A white meat crab claw soup is topped with two deep-fried cubes of tofu. Shavings of Japanese mitsuba is added. Then, a piquant tomato jelly topped with meaty shrimp is served with finely diced okra in a tofu sauce with dashes of lemon oil offering a sweet sucker-punch. I’m told that, as well as Japanese micro-tomatoes, the more extensive Momotaro variety are also imported for their satisfyingly sweet flavour.
Two self-assembly nori rolls arrive, accompanied by semi-soft tofu with the white, creamy consistency of near-coagulant mozzarella. I add to this a liberal helping of plump uni and a thumbnail size of freshly-grated wasabi, then finish with a dash of soy before rolling-up and popping in my mouth. It’s a salty crunch, and a soft wash of melting tofu followed by a lump of hot, bitter green explosive.
A delicately plated fillet of Akamutsu is marinated in salt koji and served with a light, soya milk espuma with beetroot powder – supposedly reflecting the red on white of the Japanese flag. It’s a pairing of high proficiency, demonstrating mastery of the elements, after which local bread from Conkey’s Bakery is offered to mop-up any remaining sweet soy milk gravy. And there’s a beef and onion broth with ‘dancing’ maitake mushrooms, that’s heated table-side, gently cooking A5-grade wagyu wrapped around thinly-sliced tofu that when warmed, has the melt-in-the-mouth texture of a hot marshmallow.
Best of all of the silken tofu is dessert. A tongue-whipping soya ice cream is served with four chilled mini tofu bites: white and dark chocolate, matcha and pistachio. Nothing else added, just whipped tofu and chocolate, simple – a revelation. A dessert I’ll return to again and again. The meal I’ll request on my deathbed.
The entire experience stunned me. Who’d have thought that tofu could stretch so far? This is a place where taste, sensation, and theatre all come together perfectly. A myriad of tofus presented almost ritualistically, to which any Japanese connoisseur would bow in appreciation. Bangkok, listen up; get on the phone now and don’t hang up until they’ve granted you a seat.
Mihara Tofuten Bangkok
5 Khwaeng Thung Maha Mek, Khet Sathon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10120
Tel: 083 655 4245
Dinner: Mon-Sat, 6pm and 9pm
16 course set menu costs B3900++
Sake and organic wine pairings available upon request.
All photographs, © David J Constable, 2018