Chaos. That is my enduring memory of my one and only previous visit as a backpacker to Bangkok, a heaving city of eight million people. Frenetic tuk tuk rides, condensed milk pancakes, and dodging… well, dodging everything on Khao San Road.
Eight years later, my backpack is long gone, and my footwear has graduated beyond sandals with velcro straps, and I am landing at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport for a three-day city break.
My current work and living situation means my daily dining options are limited, so there is only one thing on my mind – fabulous Thai food!
And this is where I have lucked out. Bangkok is having a bit of a foodie moment. While it has long been known for its fabulous street food, three months ago Michelin launched its first-ever Michelin Guide Bangkok.
Stars were awarded to 17 restaurants, including one star for 70-year-old street food vendor Raan Jay Fai and her famed crab omelette, and two stars for San Pellegrino’s current number one restaurant in Asia, and their seventh best in the world, Gaggan. Chef Gaggan Anand delivers groundbreaking and wildly inventive Indian cuisine in a 25-course tasting menu written entirely in emojis.
While I am enticed by both options, I make bookings at two of Bangkok’s one-Michelin-star restaurants: David Thompson’s traditional and refined Nahm; and the young and trendy Bo.lan, run by husband-and-wife team Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava and Dylan ‘Lan’ Jones who met while shaking woks at Thompson’s Nahm outpost in London.
Best for a business lunch: Nahm
Eight-course lunch set menu: THB1600 (approx. US$51)
Located in the COMO Metropolitan hotel in central Bangkok, the first thing I notice as I step into the dark interior is the coolness of the space. Dimly lit, with brick pillars and a black, brown and grey decor, here is a welcome oasis from the humidity outside. The restaurant sits alongside the pool, which I can see glimpses of through wooden screens, though neither space intrudes upon the other.
The staff, dressed in black, are all smiling, and immediately put you at ease with their efficient and attentive service. My pre-lunch cocktail, the C3 martini, is like Thailand in a glass – creamy, spicy and refreshing.
But I am here for the main event, and after a delicious duo of canapés – egg nets with prawns, wild almonds and kaffir lime, and pork and lobster with shredded ginger and Thai citron – I am served my next four courses, all at once, as is the custom in Thailand.
Thompson doesn’t hold back when it comes to the pinnacle of Thai cuisine – spice – and I’ll admit that the chicken curry did have me knocking back water by the gallon. But I am helpfully advised that I am to eat my curry between bites and sips of my stir-fry, soup and salad, which goes a long way to counterbalancing the heat of the curry and allowing other complex flavours to shine through.
The standout for me was the clear soup of roast pigeon, crab and tapioca. Having only had roast pigeon once before and loved it, here its buttery flavour works with the other ingredients to create a rich, sweet and earthy broth that was delectable.
The meal is exactly as advertised – robust and refined, if a little restrained. I was waiting for some creative flourishes to shine through, but if you are looking for a traditional and exceptional Thai meal in a sophisticated setting, then Nahm is the place.
Best for a romantic date: Bo.lan
Ten-course dinner degustation, Bo.lan Balance: THB2680 (approx. US$85)
Walking down a Bangkok back alley, and then up a dimly lit driveway that opens on to a low wooden house situated in a garden oasis, I am unsure of where to enter. But, I am quickly greeted and escorted to my seat in the bar area of Bo.lan.
I am in a dimly lit space, surrounded by wooden furniture accented with light blue and grey furnishings, and above me is a ceiling decorated with circular bamboo mats. Staff are wearing what looks like hessian brown tops, and loose khaki green pants, and the overall effect is that I have entered an organic fairy woodland inhabited by sprightly nymphs.
A lemongrass drink refreshes me and tasty snacks are served in mason jars on wooden boards; a homely and welcoming introduction to the restaurant. I am asked to pick my first drink, and my preferred degustation (I opt for the smaller one already knowing, from leather-bound menus, that I will feel stuffed by the fourth course).
What follows is a unique journey. A waitress kneels next to me with a candle and asks me to follow her, and I find myself in the kitchen greeted by a chef with my first two amuse-bouche. I am then led to the brightly lit main dining room for course after course of organic, locally sourced Thai food. The noodles with chicken, prawn and local greens presented in a striking black volcanic bowl are creamy and tart, while the squid curry is wonderfully juicy.
The final course, my third dessert, is a board of 10 different petit fours served back in the bar area. It is the most elaborate end to a meal I have ever experienced, especially when a jasmine candle is lit under glass to flavour the peanut rice. The flavours are maybe not as polished as Nahm, but that is precisely the point – this is about the richness of local Thai cuisine and an experience meant to be shared with loved ones.
The scent of jasmine lingers in the air on my way out.