This month’s column is a misleading misnomer, false advertising through no fault of our own. There is no way to get insider’s access to the kitchen at Aston, because the centrepiece of the entire place is one open kitchen that in itself must be twice or more the prime Sukhumvit square footage than the seating area itself. In fact, patrons will feel almost like they’ve entered a TV studio for the filming of some cooking show or “Iron Chef” competition. Set in a second-floor glassed-in cube that’s dimly lit and starkly utilitarian, diners are offered two long wooden bars and eat directly facing the gleaming prep areas, so as to be served and pampered directly by Chef Zra Jirarath. With a sophistication belying his years, a concentrated devotion to cooking that makes his Thai smile slow to develop, and the cocky, diminutive style and air more befitting a pro motorcycle racer than a gourmand, this locally-trained yet surprisingly worldly young creator is in full control of Aston—the classy English handle for the place, but a play on his Thai nickname of “Ton.” That’s enough of a draw, and a thrill, in a town that has yet to spawn enough truly chef-driven, one-man establishments. But what’s even better is that the real star of the nightly show at Aston isn’t the ubiquitous, laser-focused Zra-man himself, but his conspicuously meticulous Franco-Euro-Japan-esque fare—the food, the whole food, and nothing but the food.
As in the best restaurants of both Europe and Japan, there’s no choice here, nothing a la carte—it’s an undemocratic pris fixe dinner pre-planned and pre-selected by the resident kitchen tyrant, and never was dictatorship made so easy to digest. A cavalcade of mini-plates appears, each more beautifully composed and succulently perfect than the last, reminiscent of Sydney’s Tetsuya and other modern greats.
At B3500, more with wine pairings, Chef Zra’s handiwork may seem expensive, though not by the time you plough through all a stuffing replete with subtle touches. Because of the price, the Chef rues, “I still don’t get enough locals—but an awful lot of what you’d call serious food tourists, from Hong Kong and places like that.”
If there’s one criticism to be made, it’s more in the area of backhanded compliment. So highly organized are the various ovens, chillers, and hidden pantries of the Aston kitchen, with each night’s cooking plotted out like some army invasion or lesson in logistics, that there isn’t much of a show to watch. No flaring-up flames, no last-minute screw-ups, none of the bipolar freneticism of the usual dinner “rush.” Says Chef Zra of his philosophy, “When you stress out, the dishes will never come out good.” Have we entered a lab, or a library, as much as anything else? The chef admits that much of his off-duty time is spent getting inspired by “a collection of cookbooks that reaches to the ceiling.”
But all that disorder is neatly out of sight, and with Ton doing the serving, you hear not only about his creative process—or share in his evident pride—but also how the direct approach of kitchen-to-counter “eliminates travel time” and keeps the dishes that much warmer and fresher. It seems that nothing has been left to chance here, from the unusual home-baked egg-twist challah bread to a dessert selection of rare and intensely fragrant French cheeses. Facing this kitchen, there’s nothing much to see beyond the artwork that is the next plate, not much to do but submit and open one’s mouth.
No pretentious titling here, each dish is called by its prime ingredient. One razor clam, bathed in galangal and a unique shell brother, is enough of a starter to cause a stir of anticipation among all the sense. A nest of cold capellini is topped with a vinegary seaweed pesto that’s so much tastier than it sounds. The ceviche is Nobu-level, informed with wild flowers and basil oil. How many other eateries in Thailand would go out of their way to source Mediterranean monkfish or handle it with such care? And the single slab of French Anjou pigeon, perhaps unappealing to some, comes up to the satisfying level of a filet mignon. The obligatory foie gras with tamarind almost seems an afterthought. And the “black rice” and passion fruit comes as a parting homage to the realities of Chef Zra’s homeland, and actually outdoes any and all street dessert variations.
Aston Dining Room&Bar
68 Sukhumvit 31 | 08 4551 5559, 0 2102 2323 | astonbkk.com | Mon-Sat 6.30pm-1am
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