Why there’s never been a more exciting time to eat Thai in Bangkok
A wave of chefs are reinterpreting regional Thai cuisine in Bangkok, ushering in a new golden era of fine dining.
For a long time, Thai fine dining in Bangkok was synonymous with lavish multi-course menus drawing on recipes from the royal court.
Long regarded as the pinnacle of the country’s cuisine, these meals featured intricately carved vegetables and the choicest cuts of deboned fish and meat. The meticulously balanced flavours were neither too spicy nor overly heavy on funky inflections such as pla ra (fermented fish paste).
Restaurants specialising in Royal Thai cooking mostly catered to tourists; locals splurged on fine French or Japanese cuisine. Around the mid-2010s, something changed.
Inspired by the locavore movement sweeping through restaurants worldwide, a new crop of ambitious young Thais shifted focus to recipes and little-known ingredients from beyond the regal kitchens.
Chef Napol Jantraget championed seasonal produce when he opened his casual fine diner 80/20 in 2015, and Chalee Kader highlighted northeastern Thai nose-to-tail cooking at 100 Mahaseth which launched in Bangkok’s old town in 2017.
They introduced Bangkok’s cash-flush diners to locally raised meat, tribal food-preservation techniques and herbs from the country’s rural corners that even most Thais had never heard of.
These trailblazers laid the groundwork for a new era in Thai fine dining. They showed that oft-unsung street food dishes and regional recipes could be melded into multi-course tasting menus that didn’t rely on imported uni or truffles to command a premium price tag.
Chefs found inspiration at farmers markets and in historic cookbooks. They went foraging in Thailand’s deep jungles, mined their ancestors’ culinary heritage and embedded themselves in marginalised communities in the rural Isan region.
“These chefs are discovering Thai produce with the same excitement and curiosity as they would with imported ingredients,” says Paveenaorn Duangoen, a Bangkok-based restaurant consultant and culinary tour guide.
“Instead of the royal cuisine that’s often regarded as exclusive, they draw on their skills and travel experiences to elevate more approachable dishes and ingredients. The current Thai fine dining scene is so multifaceted, it’s impossible to define.”
For chef Geravich “Mew” Mesaengnilverakul, who trained under Australian chef David Thompson at Bangkok’s widely celebrated Thai restaurant Nahm, strict adherence to royal recipes often felt archaic and imperious.
“I don’t believe in such things as ‘traditional’ Thai food,” he says, explaining that even chilis, now a Thai staple ingredient, were introduced by Portuguese traders.
“I also found mentions of foreign ingredients such as salmon, butter and yoghurt in cookbooks from the royal court,” he adds. “But they came with instructions to swap them or leave them out if that was preferred.”
For Mesaengnilverakul, it’s a hall pass to keep experimenting. “Our food is a constant adaptation from both diners and chefs,” he says. “We change the food not to destroy it but merely to develop it further.”
Below are some of the most exciting additions to Bangkok’s dining scene, from firewood-focused fine dining rooms to places run by young chefs who are redefining dishes from their ancestors’ cookbooks.
Every dish, down to the pandan-infused clay pot rice, is prepared over wood fire at Choen, a concrete-clad, 10-seat restaurant on the fringe of Chinatown that opened in December.
From the flame-licked open kitchen, chef-patron Mesaengnilverakul and his young team manage a variety of grills, smokers and tao (bucket-like burners made of clay) to create tasting menus served family style.
The dishes feature Thai-tinged dishes such as smoked beef cheek with ginger-like galangal and pickled lotus root; curried river prawn with burnt coconut embryo (the fruit’s spongy inside after sprouting); and grilled local catfish.
Mesaengnilverakul uses five different types of wood, including eucalyptus, longan and lychee, to bring out the best of each ingredient. Even his desserts get a fiery treatment: For his latest menu, he added a log of burning longan wood to coconut ice cream to add its signature smoky flavour.
From khao ka moo (slow-braised pork leg with rice) to guay jub (peppery rice noodles), many Thai street food staples originated in Chinese cooking – especially those found around the serpentine alleys of Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Chef Pichaya “Pam” Utharntharm, who grew up in the district, gives these Thai-Chinese flavours a fine dining spin at Potong, set in the refurbished remains of her family’s former herbal medicine dispensary.
The 20-course menus reinterpret local classics, such as oyster omelette and roast duck, into intricately plated creations made exclusively from Thai produce.
Utharntharm does not shy away from using unconventional ingredients such as duck gizzard and fish offal to reduce waste. Her daring has paid off: Michelin named Potong “Opening of the Year” and awarded it a star in the 2023 Thailand guide, making hers among the most sought-after tables in town.
Small Dinner Club
Bangkok-born chef Sareen Rojanametin left his Melbourne restaurant Nora in 2017 for stints at Benu in San Francisco and Magnus Nilsson’s Fäviken in remote Sweden. Then he spent 2 1/2 years at a forest monastery in Thailand's northeast before reemerging with Small Dinner Club.
Hidden behind a brutalist facade along Charoenkrung Road, the 12 seats curve around a dimly lit kitchen where Thai cuisine is, says Rojanametin, “pulled apart, questioned and reimagined.”
His playful 12-course degustation menu has cryptically named dishes like Daft Punk is Playing at my Mouth and Looking at Tom Yum Prawn from Far Away.
Revealing the dishes’ ingredients would spoil the fun, but items from the previous menu, such as a pickled mackerel under a fiery tom yum (hot and sour) granita and “spaghetti” from green papaya hint at Rojanametin’s culinary antics.
Samrub Samrub Thai
The affable Lampang-born chef Prin Polsuk is revered for his encyclopaedic knowledge of regional Thai cuisine and his no-fuss approach to cooking it. After taking over at Nahm following David Thompson's departure, he started Samrub Samrub Thai, an impossible-to-book chef's table behind an unassuming garage in Charoenkrung.
In October he moved and expanded it to a full-fledged restaurant on the ground floor of his family home in the Saladaeng area. His ever-changing menu of curries, stir-fries and chilli relishes are inspired by heirloom recipes sourced from as far away as the deep south and tribal communities in the mountainous north.
Polsuk is also behind Vilas, a collaboration with Valencia-born chef Pepe Dasi Jimenez that draws inspiration from King Chulalongkorn trip to Europe in 1897 and the resulting Western influences that appeared in royal recipe books.
The 12-course tasting menu, served in a Scandi-chic dining room swathed in blonde wood, fuses distinctive Thai flavours with international cooking techniques and ingredients.
Japan inspired the first menu, with appetisers like miang kham-like (betel leaf wrap) with Hokkaido sea urchin and seepweed (a saline coastal herb) from the Samut Songkhram province, and grilled sticky rice with karasumi, a salted mullet roe.
The current menu pays tribute to the Chinese and Muslim communities in the south of Thailand and to the Portuguese influences in their cuisine; standouts include salted tuna, with crispy beef jerky and pickled melon, and scarlet prawns in Southern Thai curry.
While charcoal smoke wafts from curbside satay and grilled chicken stands throughout the country, the fuel is rarely celebrated the way Taahra does it.
At this new restaurant just off Charoenkrung Road, chef Pat-In “Knock” Promsawadi puts charcoal grilling front and centre, both in the black-swathed open kitchen and on the 13-course fine dining menu that melds local produce with premium imports.
Highlights include grill-kissed Normandy oysters dressed with guava, green chilli and coconut milk and charred pigeon leg served – claw and all – with som tum (Thai papaya salad) toppings.
This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here
Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Why there’s never been a more exciting time to eat Thai in Bangkok