September 5, 2023

Bangkok incognito day 5: being assalted

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For my last dinner in Bangkok on this trip, I decided to check out a restaurant I had been hearing about for quite a few years. I have been a big fan of Gaggan Anand for a number of years, and I've had the privilege of watching his cuisine evolve. But a few years ago, a certain friend suggested that I should pay Haoma a visit. I wasn't able to do it during the long absence over the last few years, but tonight I finally got the chance.

The restaurant is also on Soi 31, just up the road from our hotel but the walk is a little longer compared to two nights ago. I was a little more sweaty by the time we got to our destination, but we were asked to wait outside the air conditioned dining room to start our experience...

We were shown a box of some of the ingredients to be used for our meal. This seems to be pretty common these days...

Garden bites:

Mushroom tart - "zero waste bite" with white chocolate, peanuts, and some Indian chutney.

Dry aged fish - there was a slice of cured tilapia on top of the cracker, with dots of four different sauces.

Our welcome drink was this home-brewed mango ginger beer.

The staff started to show us the exhibits in the courtyard garden, which was all about sustainability. I am all for sustainability and my friends have some idea of the lengths I go to in terms of waste reduction and recycling. But the speech was clearly hurried and sounded very contrived. I'm here to have dinner, and that comes first.

I'm glad they are serving Nordaq filtered water, which they made a point to tell us. But there are also many places I patronize who do the same without making a show of it.

The restaurant manager came over to our table, and it was quickly apparent that he was somewhat "blur blur". I asked for the wine list, which seemed to be well-curated with many producers whose offerings I would be happy to drink on any given day. I just wasn't interested in paying their pricing, and returned the wine list without ordering any. We never saw the manager again for the rest of our dinner.

My friend and I chose the Meat and Seafood Experience, while Foursheets chose to Vegetarian Experience. We already had two of the 22 "expressions" before being seated, so let's see what else we get.

Prarambha: the next four expressions.

Pani puri - a pomegranate center surrounded by mint chutney, yogurt, and tamarind. More salted than expected, with stronger flavors. There's some acidity as well as a little heat.

Vada pav - vada pav (वड़ापाव) originated from Mumbai, and this version came as a brioche stuffed with sweet potato fritter. OK lah...

Dahi kebab - dahi ke kebab (दही के कबाब) comes from northern parts of India, and this was made with cheese and yogurt and came with some peanut chutney on top, tasted like a creamy croqueta with some spice.

Raw mango panna - aam panna (आम पन्ना) was salty, acidic, and spicy. For some reason it tasted similar to the green chutney often used as a dip for papadam.

Samudra: समुद्र, two dishes from the ocean.

Squid xacuti - xacuti (शागोती) is a "curry" from Goa. This was very salty. The cheese filling was fairly grainy.

Vegetarian version uses paneer instead of squid.

Local sea urchin, Moily curry - Moily (মৌলি) from Kerala. This came presented with sea urchin shells.

The sea urchin came with coconut milk, and "seaweed? caviar". This was even more salty

The vegetarian version swaps out the sea urchin for avocado.

Benaras ki chaat: shorba puff, Chiang Mai tomato granita, pickles - the shorba (शोरबा) is a tomato soup that shares its roots with the shurpa (шурпа) I had in Uzbekistan years ago. The "rice ball" in the middle was seemingly made with a dehydrated powder. It was a little hard at first, but eventually melted in the mouth.

The pickles included radish and not beetroot (thankfully), cucumber, a granita made with the (unused) skin and seeds of the tomatoes from Chiang Mai. The paste here definitely got a good amount of heat.

Lobster two ways: Phuket lobster, ghee roast, idli - this was actually pretty tasty.

Lobster two ways: pulissery - a style of soup from Kerala, and this version was made with butternut squash and lobster. Rosewater was poured "to enhanced the smell of the soup", but unfortunately I couldn't get any of that thanks to the smoky scent coming from the ghee roast. There was something crunchy here.

The vegetarian version comes with butternut squash in place of lobster.

Chicken or the egg: well, which is better?

Chicken kakori - the kakori kebab (काकोरी कबाब) from Kakori near Lucknow is now minced chicken with what seemed to be mustard or coriander seeds, wrapped in a crispy tube made of potato, with mint chutney on the ends. There was a hint of smokiness, but lots of heavy spices. The heat comes but gradually.

Saya(?) chaat for the vegetarian version.

Keema ghotala, cured egg yolk - minced chicken with Indian spices and cured egg yolk. Salty with some acidity.

The ridiculous thing about this part was that we were given a pretty spoon shaped like flower petals, but the damn thing barely fits into the opening of the "egg shell"... so it required some effort to jiggle the utensil in and out of the serving vessel. That's just dumb.

Vegetable makhani (ਮੱਖਣੀ) for the vegetarian version.

Bangkok to Biscay: Banana shrimp, prawn crackers, "Balchao" bao - the broth came with some interesting chili flavors along with some acidity.

The banana prawns came with some smoked trout roe on top.

The vegetarian version replaced the prawns with sweet potatoes, topped with "vegan caviar" made from seaweed.

Balchão curry jam made with (black mint oil?) from the restaurant's garden. The flavor of cloves was very strong. Meant to be spread on the pao.

The vegetarian version had (fermented whey?) and spices from the garden.

Goan pao - these were made with potato.

The shrimp heads were stuffed with balchão curry, too.

Go Madras!: crab, madras curry, ponni rice - the red crab-shaped cracker was made with chickpeas.

Instead of "Jay Fai size" crab meat, the vegetarian option comes with sunchoke.

The curry was pretty creamy and nutty. The Ponni rice - which, interestingly, is a hybrid where one side is a Taiwanese cultivar - was a little chewy. The heat was a slow burn at first, but eventually came out pretty strong and lasted a long time on the tongue. The unfortunate reality here was that, like so many other dishes so far, this was also salty and made us thirsty.

Aamras, chaas aur caviar: Totapuri mango, buttermilk, "Royal Project" caviar - sitting on Totapuri mango (तोतापरी आम) was a quennelle of buttermilk sorbet, topped with oscietra caviar from the Royal Project Foundation in Hua Hin (หัวหิน). The sorbet was like spiced yogurt and lassi, so this was basically mango lassi with some caviar... The decorative black ring was made with cumin - whose flavors were very faint so I had to really concentrate to pick it out - and meant to evoke the jali patterns of jharokha.

Allahabadi dawat: a feast from the chef's hometown at the end.

Fish musallam - the tarte pastry mackerel was so, sooo greasy! Same with the mackerel skin. The "curry" was OK, I guess.

Goat nihari - the nihari (निहारी) from Lucknow was cooked in "indigenous spices". Again, this was on the salty side.

The vegetarian gets jackfruit instead of goat.

Mughal breads - the bakarkhani (باقرخانی) was served with the nihari.

Haleem - the goat haleem (हलीम) saw minced goat meat, lentils, and caramelized onions presented on sheermal (शीरमाल) bread. The bread itself was sweet, and I really loved the goat.

The first of the dessert courses came, and this looked pretty familiar... In fact, it looks a lot like this.

Rasmalai: Chiang Mai honey, citrus sorbet, saffron and pistachio milk - the ras malai (रस-मलाई) was made with poached cottage cheese, honey from Chiang Mai, citrus sorbet, honeycomb, along with a pistachio and saffron milk.

Melody: cashew-nut nougat, dried mousse, sea salt ice-cream - aaaaaand the second desert - inspired by a popular candy called Melody - also looks very familiar. That lattice dome made of chocolate looks a lot like the one I've been seeing here.

We have caramel espuma here in addition to what had been listed.

And that all-important maraschino cherry for nostalgia.

Petit four:

Mango bon bon - liquid center.

Strawberry bon bon - ditto.

White chocolate bon bon - with rose petal jam inside. Really, really sweet.

Dark chocolate - with lots of dessicated coconut and saffron chutney.

Well... this was pretty disappointing. While I liked the fact that the chef tried to present updated versions of his favorite dishes from different regions around the Indian subcontinent, the reality was that we found most of the dishes to be over-seasoned. I was shocked to see how many times I had written down "salty", and all three of us felt the same way. The amount of water we ended up drinking throughout dinner was testament to that. And I don't think it's because I have a gora palate.

An interesting comment from Foursheets regarding her vegetarian menu was that the seasoning had managed to kill the original flavors of the ingredients, and she felt that the chef did not show any basic respect for so-called "farm-to-table" vegetables and fruits.

And I don't care for the hard sell on "sustainability". It's a trendy buzzword that some people like to throw around to get attention and become darlings of the media. At the end of the day, a restaurant provides people with a dining experience that, hopefully, is a tasty and memorable one. If it fails in that basic mission, then all the hoopla around "sustainability" is meaningless to me. I have no reason to return.

P.S. What irks me is, at the end of the meal, a "sustainable" restaurant hands out paper boxes to guests as a farewell gift... containing two little glass jars of chutney. There can't be more than 3 teaspoons' worth of chutney in each jar, and it would seem like a good portion of the guests are tourists like ourselves. What do you think happens to those little jars? How many of them get recycled? Is that really "best practice" for a "sustainable" restaurant?

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