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Bangkok Revisited


Bo.lan's seafood salad with local fern.

I just returned from my annual visit to Bangkok and am happy to report that the city is as exciting as ever. Much felt familiar, which I like. But this trip also was full of new discoveries. From restaurants serving traditional cuisine created with an eye to ethical practices to unearthing what might be my new favorite restaurant in the city to finally seeing a huge influx of women running prominent kitchens, this visit was exceptional and shows, yet again, that Bangkok is a must for any traveler to Southeast Asia.

I fell in love immediately with Baan. The restaurant’s name is Thai for “home,” and it’s a fitting title. Think Thai grandmother food served with superb control and finesse thanks to the aesthetic of its millennial owners. It’s Instagram food for sure, but it’s neither inauthentic nor hipster. Chef/owner Thitid Tassanakajohn (who trained in New York City with both Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Daniel Humm) designs the menu, while his younger brother Chaisiri Tassanakajohn runs the front of the house, serving guests variations of the dishes enjoyed by their family for generations. Everything is sourced locally and ethically: the beef and lamb, the eggs, the fish, even the jasmine rice. The cuisine is inexpensive and unfussy, but it packs tons of flavor. Try the tom kha gai, a coconut curry soup found all over Thailand, as well as Thitid’s take on stir-fried beef with holy basil.

Another new Bangkok favorite is Soei. This casual, open-air restaurant doesn’t look like anything special— especially considering that it’s located at the Samsen Railway Station—but the meal blew me away. Nearly every single thing I ordered was the best version of that dish I’ve ever experienced. The scale, precision and techniques are unreal, largely because every dish passes through the hands of chef/owner P’Soei, a former rugby, football and basketball player. Legend has it that he started hosting epic postgame dinners for his teammates. Years later, a restaurant was born.

When you’re feeding athletes, providing filling dishes packed with flavor is nonnegotiable. That vibe carries over to everything served at Soei. Start with an order of the signature kaem pla too tod, light and airy deep-fried mackerel heads. It sounds weird, but it’s addictively snackable—like the Thai version of popcorn or tortilla chips. Other stunners are the neau boo pad pongari, crab stewed in Thai yellow egg curry, and pla goong pao, a roasted freshwater shrimp salad bursting with lemongrass and basil. A meal here is best shared with a few people—even if they’re not technically teammates.

For ages, Thailand has functioned as a largely patriarchal system. On my most recent trip, it was refreshing to see so many women running incredible kitchens.

There’s Atchara Burarak, who catapulted onto the scene with her impressive dessert café Iberry and Kub Kao Kub Pla, a restaurant serving Western and Thai comfort food. Purida Theeraphong heads the kitchen at Osha, the first international location of the San Francisco-based restaurant collection. Though certainly Thai in genre, the dishes have a modernist slant, meaning you’ll get lots of smoke, foam and interactive service. For example, Theeraphong’s version of tom yum kung, a spicy curry soup, is served tableside using a siphon coffeemaker. The food, while clever, never sacrifices quality and substance. I loved it.

You can’t talk about women on the Bangkok food scene without mentioning my friend Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava. The Bangkok native studied in Australia, earning a degree in restaurant and catering management followed by a master’s in gastronomy. After graduation, she landed a job at the Metropolitan Hotel Bangkok under chef Amanda Gale and then went to London to work at David Thompson’s Thai restaurant, Nahm. It was there that she met and fell in love with Aussie-born chef Dylan Jones. After time in London, the couple hatched a plan to open their own place in Bangkok. In 2009, they launched Bo.lan.

Songvisava and Jones offer an unparalleled Bangkok dining experience, cooking dishes deeply rooted in Thai tradition. Ingredients are organic and sourced from local farms when possible, and everything from curry pastes to coconut cream is made in-house. For the ultimate experience, order the Bo.lan Balance tasting menu. You’ll start off with a few small dishes, followed by five or six main dishes that, true to Thai tradition, arrive simultaneously and are served family style. Menus change regularly, but expect a playful mix of temperatures, textures and flavors: a salad made with local lake crayfish or pork rib soup with pineapple and Andaman shrimp paste, one of Songvisava’s favorite ingredients.

San Pellegrino named Bo.lan one of the 50 best restaurants in Asia, and it deserves that title based on the service, ambiance and cuisine alone. But what truly makes Bo.lan important goes beyond food. Songvisava and Jones understand that education is the key to growing a sustainable, healthy food culture. They’ve committed themselves to making Bo.lan a zero-carbon-footprint restaurant by 2018. Songvisava also hosts a weekly cooking show on Thailand’s public broadcasting channel, teaching the importance of cooking with well-sourced ingredients. It’s people like Songvisava and Jones who will ensure that Thailand’s cuisine lives on as one of the most exciting regional cuisines in the world. Bangkok is a place you have to see to believe, and once you’ve been, you’ll start planning your return just like I do—every year.

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