March 2, 2016

Return to Thailand day 3: the Best Restaurant in Asia

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So this was it.  My most anticipated meal on this trip.  The Best Restaurant in Thailand, and the Best Restaurant in Asia - that is, according to Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna and announced just 2 nights ago.

I became a big fan of Gaggan Anand when I went to his pop-up in Hong Kong.  He was doing something that was unique and very appealing to me - using modern cooking techniques to present traditional flavors... in this case Indian cuisine.  To me, he's the Indian counterpart to Alvin Leung of Bo Innovation... only better.  Because of my self-imposed exile from Thailand for the last few years, I was never able to come to Gaggan, his eponymous flagship restaurant in Bangkok - until now.

I pinged Gaggan and told him I was finally making my way to Bangkok, and we made arrangements for me to come to dinner tonight - since he would be busy with his obligations with Asia's 50 Best Restaurants for the previous few days.  I scheduled my trip to accommodate tonight's dinner, because there was no way I was leaving town without dining here!

Since both the Great One and HaoKouFu had already dined here a few days ago, I was faced with the prospect of dining alone - which isn't ideal, but I'm a big boy and I've done it plenty of times.  So when the Jet Setter pinged me last night and told me he was in town, I was only too happy to invite him to join me for dinner tonight.

I showed up at the restaurant before doors opened at 6 p.m., and got a warm welcome from Gaggan himself.  He very kindly seated us at one of the chef's tables with a view of the kitchen, and gave word to the restaurant manager - who goes by the simple nickname of 'A' - to take care of us.  This was gonna be fun!

Even though I normally don't drink wine with spicy food, I decided to take the sommelier up on his offer of a few glasses.

2014 Willi Schaefer Graacher Riesling feinherb - acidity was pretty high here.  Dry on the palate but there is ripeness on the finish.

Dinner starts with a series of snacks, which we are asked to pick up with our hands... as no cutlery is provided.  No fork use, but no problem!

Dewdrop - I had seen pictures of this posted over the last couple of days, and was really looking forward to this beautiful dish.  Made with grape juice, aloe vera, and (sansho? 山椒) flowers.  I rolled it into my mouth just like a giant dewdrop, then popped the membrane with some pressure.  Incredibly refreshing and clean flavors.  What a great way to kick off dinner!

Edible plastic spiced nuts - something I had at the Hong Kong pop-up.  Yup, still tasted like those wasabi-coated peanuts.  Of course the bag wasn't plastic... but made of rice paper.

Yogurt explosion - another signature nibble that I had in Hong Kong.  Spherification of yogurt with black cumin seeds.  Yum.

Chocolate chilly bomb - my favorite snack from the pop-up.  Gaggan's version of pani puri, with coriander water, cumin, ginger, chili, and other spices injected into the hollow white chocolate sphere, then sealed with silver foil.  This was delicious, as the richness and the sweetness of white chocolate helped coat the tongue and tempered the spices.

Salli boti - Gaggan's take on the popular Parsi dish of meat curry with potato sticks.  The base was a deep-fried medallion of finely shredded potato, topped with another spherification with spices like black cumin seeds.  A little spicy, and somehow reminds me of eating certain dry, uncooked instant noodles straight from the packet.  This was delicious, but a little tough to eat in one bite due to its size.  One needed to open one's mouth wide both horizontally and vertically for this to clear...

Uncooked curry cookie - a disc of compacted curry-flavored powder... probably came out of a dehydrator.  Kinda like eating tasty flour.

Papadum uni - I've never seen a papadum made with rice crispies, but I'm happy to try one!  Hidden beneath the Hokkaido sea urchin and the strawberry was a little bit of avocado mash.  This one was pretty tasty, too.

2010 Les Arums de Lagrange - good acidity, a little bit of oak, with some minerality.  Initially flinty on the nose, then showed a little ripeness.

Idly sambhar - yet another new take, this time on a popular south Indian dish.  Idly now comes as a fluffy sponge cake, topped with a sambhar-flavored foam and curry leaf.  Very light and airy.

Indian tamago - this Japanese-looking egg custard actually contains no eggs, and contains onions, ginger, green chili, and other tasty bits.  Definitely tasted Indian.

Foie gras sundae - foie gras mousse with mango cream in a mango cone.  There is a sprinkle of some type of sugary powder on top.

Then came the plates:

Charcoal - this came covered in a glass dome, with plenty of smoke inside.  They don't tell you what it's made of, and one is supposed to blind-taste and guess.

The Jet Setter was trying to think of the (non-English) name for this, but I knew (almost) exactly what this was.  I checked with Gaggan, and was told that I was one of the very few people who got it right... except for the the use of a different source of regional protein.  I'm not sure if he was blowing sunshine up my ass, but it's a relief to know that I'm not completely clueless...

Magic mushroom - mushrooms with white and black truffle oil, with edible soil made with mushrooms, sprinkled with green chili powder on top.  Nice umami, and of course lovely fragrance from the truffle oil.

Red matcha - the bowl starts out with tomato, star fruit, and grape sitting in some coriander oil and black salt.  This was to be consumed first.

The teapot contains hot tomato consommé, which is then mixed with freeze-dried tomato powder with a bamboo whisk as we eat the contents of the bowl - like the Japanese tea ceremony.

The "tea" is then poured into the bowl so that it mixes with the coriander oil.  This was inspired by tamatar dhaniya shorba - the Indian tomato soup with coriander.

Story of fish called kin-medai - kinmedai (金目鯛) is the Japanese word for golden alfonsino, but here they've done a play on the phonetics, and translated it to Thai as kin (กิน, "eat") and medai (ไม่ได้, "cannot").  The dish comes in four parts, and is presented in a stacked bowl.

Act 1 : oil poached with gunpowder - the filet is sprinkled with gunpowder, a south Indian blend of spices.  The fish marinade tasted a little sweet here.

Act 2 : fish head with rice kedigree - this take on the khichri was slightly mushy, but certainly tasty.

Act 3: eggplant smoked with fish smoke - delish with smoked fish skin, with lots of cumin here.

Act 4: fish bone jelly with orange segments - the taste of the jelly was surprisingly familiar, with some green spices here.  I liked this better than I thought I would.

2009 Jaboulet Vacqueyras Les Cyprès - a bit smoky, with some burnt rubber.  A little ripe on the palate and still some tannins.

Rangoli - rangoli is the Indian art of creating colorful patterns on the floor with ingredients such as flowers, flour, colored rice, or colored sand during festivities.  Here they've used purple sweet potatoes and beetroot.  Interesting that the sweet potato was more savory.

The New Zealand lamb chop was marinated and cooked sous vide for a few hours in Indian spices, then finished by spending 3 minutes in the tandoor.  Sooo tender.  Sooo delicious.

I want my curry!!! - I had seen a picture of Gaggan playing dabbawalla, bringing tiffins to the table, and here it was in front of me!

OK, so chicken tikka masala isn't exactly "traditional" Indian food, but it's something that many of us are familiar with and can recognize.  It's got some nice tangy flavors.  And the naan... just looove the crunch I felt when I bit into it.  Can I take two tiffins to go, please?

Mithai ki maki - date sugar ice cream inside pistachio rolls, with sesame and almond crunch on the outside.  This tasted a little like a colder, denser version of Japanese castella (カステラ).

#Gohgan - created with Chef Fukuyama Takeshi (福山剛) of La Maison de la Nature Goh in Fukuoka (福岡市).  Underneath the miso and caramel Canadian "maple leaf" was a quenelle of sake and vanilla ice cream, grape snow to provide some acidity, and finally cape gooseberries on the side for some serious tartness.  Very good.

Roots of love - supposedly two of the chefs in the kitchen fell in love and created this.

At the end of the coriander root was a chunk of dark chocolate, which was buried in the chocolate soil and covered with rose mousse.  While the story is nice, I didn't find this very special...

Photo courtesy of the Jet Setter
Cold-dripped Ethiopian mocha - grown at altitudes of over 2,000m. Served with coffee poured over dry ice to release coffee aromas.  Not bitter on the palate.  Mild but this thing's got layers, with a slight hint of acidity and just the tiniest hint of bitterness.

The Jet Setter and I were STUFFED.  This was simply too much food for us, although I enjoyed just about every single course we had.  I keep saying to people that with these multi-course meals - especially ones that run into the teens - it is really fucking hard not to have a failed dish.  There were definitely no fails tonight, and the only one that didn't strike my fancy was the very last one.  Looking back at my experience during Gaggan's pop-up in Hong Kong, I know that he's only gotten better since then.

The Jet Setter was pretty happy that I saved him from having to eat hotel room service, so he insisted on paying for dinner.  When he came back to the table, A discreetly motioned for me to follow him to a quiet part of the restaurant.  Apparently, Gaggan had left word with him to comp our dinners.  Now, this isn't standard practice for me.  I seldom accept free meals from restaurants and I'm always happy to pay my own way.  The last time Chef Richard Ekkebus - who I have the honor of calling a friend - decided to comp me for a lunch that he made specifically at my request, I spent a good 10 minutes arguing with Amber's restaurant manager about it.

Except Gaggan had already left the restaurant earlier to attend to his PR and media duties.  He wasn't responding to my messages asking him to let us pay, and I didn't want to make life difficult for A.  So we graciously accepted this treat and thanked them.

On our way out, we saw these freshly minted awards from 2 days ago prominently displayed at the restaurant entrance...

Many, many thanks to Gaggan and the team for such a fantastic meal.  This was definitely my best meal during my short trip to Bangkok, and I will be back.  With Gaggan announcing that he will close his restaurant in 2020, I'll be back sooner rather than later...

P.S. Earlier in the day, the Great One was looking for the tiffins that Gaggan used in the restaurant, so I suggested that she ask Gaggan directly about them.  While we were able to find some after our lunch, Gaggan decided to send her one... and asked me to bring it to her.  And since I'm playing courier, Gaggan generously decided to give me one, too.  It's good to have friends in high places, innit?!  Yay!

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