Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Marquee Meal

By all accounts dining at Gaggan is the marquee event of our Bangkok weekend trip – to the extent the rest of our itinerary was planned around it. Barring a few Michelin stars (which was widely tipped to be forthcoming when the first Michelin Guide Bangkok releases later this year), Chef Gaggan Anand's namesake restaurant has all the accolades that other restauranteurs can only dream of - Asia's Best for 3 years in a row (2015-2017 and counting), number 7 on this year's World's Best Restaurant list, and being featured in the famous Chef's Table series by Netflix, just to name a few. So we were super excited to score a table at Gaggan with rather short notice and came to the restaurant with very high expectation.

The restaurant is only a quick 10 minutes away by cab from where we stayed – probably even faster if we were willing to walk under the tropical heat. Just off the main road at the end of a narrow alley stood a posh colonial style townhouse with the “Gaggan” sign hanging by the entrance. Upon checking in, we were then led to the dining area upstairs in a small room next to the kitchen studio and the counter seating (which was not exactly the working kitchen but their lab during the day). The tables were close to one another but not to the point of being super uncomfortable.

Only one menu was served every evening – the 25-course “Gaggan Experience” with the clue for each course given to us in the form of 25 different emoji symbols printed on a piece of paper placed on our table. (๐Ÿƒ๐Ÿ’ฅ๐Ÿฆ๐Ÿ†๐ŸŒถ๐ŸŒฏ๐Ÿš๐ŸŒด๐Ÿ”๐ŸŒฎ๐ŸŠ๐Ÿ ๐Ÿธ๐Ÿฃ๐Ÿต๐Ÿ–๐Ÿฅ˜๐Ÿฅ๐Ÿ”ฅ⚫️๐Ÿฅž๐ŸŒน๐Ÿซ๐Ÿ’๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ณ)Occasionally more details were provided by the waiter when he brought in our dishes, but most of the time, we were encouraged to taste before asking any question about each of the dish. Most of the courses were served in quick-fire fashion sequentially, while a few were served at the same time, and most of them were in bite-sized portion, to be eaten with fingers rather than proper cutlery.

I would describe the experience of our next 3-hour at the dinner table as fun and eye-opening. The emoji for each course did lead to some suspense of what’s coming next, though with social media these days, it’s hard to keep things in the dark completely. I felt I have seen the yogurt explosion (Course #2) - a dish described as the restaurant’s signature dish by the chef himself - a million times on TV or on someone else’s Instagram feeds. It’s somewhat cool to look at (and taste) with the cumin-infused yogurt filling inside the sphere, but then it has become clichรฉ of sort with everyone able to get hold of those chemicals and started doing the same. Chicken liver might be exotic to westerners but then it’s not that hard to guess when it’s presented as a “secret ingredient” in a chocolate truffle-like form covered in coconut flakes (Course #8) It was decent but nothing special, to be honest. And it will also be hard-pressed to call the Lobster Dosai (Course #21) any better than how it would have been served in any other decent Indian restaurant – to me I felt like it’s just filling in to complete the menu.

Yet there were plenty of bright spots as well – make no mistake I did enjoy the meal and thought it was overall excellent. But to me, I was more impressed with the extraordinary combination of ingredients and flavors in some of the courses rather than the over-the-top avant garde techniques in the others. The burst of flavor from the chili bonbon (Course #5) was amazing, from the chili sauce encapsulated inside a white chocolate bonbon with just the right kick of spiciness then immediately balanced out by the white chocolate sweetness all happening in a single bite. I definitely preferred that to the eggplant cookie (Course #4) - it even had nothing to do with the fact I don't like eggplant.

The uni (Course #13) was my favorite dish of the evening. What appeared to be an uni temaki (sea urchin hand sushi roll) wasn’t exactly what I originally thought it was. Well, the uni was still uni (and it was delicious even on its own), but the “nori” wrapper was made of dill instead of being dried seaweed, and inside was horseradish icecream, cucumber brunoise infused with gin and tonic and a slight hint of pickled ginger (?). All went well with the relatively mild but creamy Japanese sea urchin on top. Chef did another sushi imitation right after our uni course, this time with a piece of chu-toro (medium fatty tuna) served on top of a savory meringue that looked like a piece of nigiri sushi (Course #14)

The scallop (Course #17) was another outstanding creation, with thin slices of scallops served sashimi style, with a quenelle of “cold curry” served on top with crispy onions, for a Japanese-Thai-Indian style fusion. I enjoyed the contrasting flavors with everything contributed a part in. The Japanese inspiration continued with a course reminiscent of the traditional matcha ceremony, with powder spooned into a deep bowl by the waiter with liquid poured on from a teapot, then stirred rigorously with the specialty bamboo whisk until foam was formed on top. The powder even smelled like matcha but turned out it’s freeze-dried asparagus and the liquid was a gazpacho-like cold broth with green vegetables (cucumber, celery, apple and more) with a sharp austerity. It was a refreshing summer course (rightly named Summer Matcha – Course #15)

The restaurant carried a by-line of “Progressive Indian” but most of the time the dish didn’t feel Indian at all, though a few courses did remind us of Chef Gaggan’s culinary and ethnic root, with playful twists of course. I thought the Pork Vindaloo (Course #16) was great, combining the stew filled with distinct Indian spiciness with Japanese tonkatsu with panko coated on top and deep-fried. I just thought the dab of strong mustard underneath was a bit of a distraction to the overall flavor. The course described as “Cedar Wood Paturi” (Course #19) was presented with theatrical effect with the cedar wood still burning as it’s placed at our table on a wooden board. Underneath and inside the banana leaf was a sea bass fillet covered with the pesto-like green masala sauce. The Quail Chettinad (Course #18) was served with a bamboo birdcage, with a pair of quail legs kept inside. The quail leg was coated with a spicy rub with smoky flavor – and just when we were debating what the dipping sauce was (between apricot or plum), turned out it’s pineapple and mango. Oops.

All the dishes were presented in a fun way, using a wide variety of serving ware made of glass, ceramics, pewter, etc etc. in all shapes and forms (or lack of any shape). They were great just to look at and matched well with the food. And the presentation of many courses were just fabulous and uniquely beautiful. The Fish Cake (Course #12) was plated just like a slice of mini New York cheesecake, except it’s too early as our dessert. Instead it’s cream cheese paired with sweet chili jam on top and dried seabass as crumbs at the bottom. Who would have thought? The asparagus charcoal dish (Course #20) was served with a dark metallic dome-shaped dish with the food like a piece of rock. Outside it tasted like the Cantonese deep-fried batter (้…ฅ็‚ธ) and inside it has a mochi-like texture. Later it was explained to us it was made with arrowroot starch mixed with white asparagus juice.

The last four courses were our desserts. First was the dried beetroot pretending to be rose petals with rose and tonka bean cookies underneath (Course #22). Then it was the mango icecream sandwich (Course #23) with the curry/turmeric-infused mango icecream sandwiched between thin pieces of white chocolate. That’s the dessert course I loved most. Mango then made a second appearance in our last course (Course #25), in the form of a new interpretation of Ghewar, a traditional Indian breakfast food.

Like the previous day at Suhring, we went with white wine to go with our meal, this time a good old Riesling from Mosel by Egon Muller. Stone-fruits and mineral on the palate and the acidity made this working well with the slightly spicy dishes. I thought it worked well for an everyday kind of bottle. And at the end of the meal we were given another menu with more description, so we could remember our meal by.

Guess everyone who dined at the restaurant couldn’t get away from asking themselves the same question after the meal – is this Asia’s Best? To me personally, I would say it’s definitely worthwhile to try this at least once. With Asia being so wide and diverse geographically and culturally it's almost impossible to have a consensus what constitutes the absolute best, but I definitely would rate Gaggan among the great ones in the region.

The dining experience was truly one of its kind and memorable – one I definitely didn’t regret trekking all the way over. As I said earlier, the techniques used might sometimes be a bit too over the top for me, but you really couldn’t blame him trying to push the limit of what one could do twisting and turning to create new dishes whether that be playing with his kitchen toys, or combining seemingly random ingredients together. Chef Gaggan opened this restaurant with a simple vision of introducing to the world a whole new way of serving Indian food, but at the end it’s much more than that. While you might find it baffling if you come with the expectation of getting the best taste of Asian cuisine as some might do, but for someone who is into culinary adventures and came to Gaggan for it, this is heaven.

More photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157683214106032

When? July 16 2017
Where? Gaggan, 68/1 Soi Langsuan Ploenchit Road Lumpini Bangkok
Menu Highlights? Everything!
Drink? 2014 Egon Muller "Scharzhof" Riesling, Mosel
Web: eatatgaggan.com

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