Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reality check.

I can’t help but notice a disturbing trend when it comes to new restaurants opening in Bangkok lately.

It doesn’t seem to be enough to offer good food in pleasant surroundings. Instead, almost every new place these days has to have some sort of theme. Recently opened offerings include a Wild West theme; an Imperial China theme; a Mexican theme; and of course an Irish theme.

These places are worthy, and I have nothing against people trying to differentiate their business offerings. And I’m the first to accept that every place needs to fit into some sort of category. However, most of them, it could be argued, push their themes a little too much. Mexican sombreros on the walls and cowboy hats on the waitresses. Jangly ‘arriba arriba’ guitar music on permanent rotation. Ming Dynasty uniforms and wintry tree branches dividing the tables. A green-clad would-be Paddy O’Murphy in the corner singing Republican folk songs. Meanwhile, the real connection to the theme is dubious at best; no Mexicans to be seen in the Mexican restaurant’s kitchen; no portly Irishmen pulling pints in the Irish place. Instead, shifty-looking ‘investors’ hang around, trying to look casual while counting heads. It all feels a bit plasticky, a bit Disneyland.

Lest we forget, there are some places in Bangkok that are the real thing. German restaurants where the ‘concept’ is actually about serving authentic German food. Vietnamese places where the waitresses don’t wear conical hats, but where you can get proper Vietnamese food, cooked by someone who actually does possess a Vietnamese passport.

Here, then, is a list of twelve places in Bangkok that are the real thing: places where they do things properly. (It should have been ten, but I didn’t want to leave anything out.)

The Great American Rib Company, Sukhmumvit Soi 36. The ovens are from America. The meat is from America. Even the owners are from America. The frozen margaritas are heavenly, the ribs are superb, and I would request the pulled pork sandwiches as my last meal if ever I was to be executed.

Vivi Coffee. Down a little lane, overlooking the river near Tha Tien, Bangkok’s best cappuccinos are being served. In big cups, froth piled high with slightly burnt edges, just like they serve it in Roma. The view of Wat Arun and the elegant Royal Thai Navy headquarters across the river is nice too.

Limoncello, Sukhumvit Soi 11. There are a few decent pizza places in Bangkok – but this one scores highest on the reality meter because of the constant presence of the Italian chef overseeing proceedings. Granted, he’s often drunk, but as far as I know, there’s nothing in the Pizza Rulebook that demands permanent sobriety.

Korean place, Ratchada Soi 14. In this most unexpected of places, about 150 metres down a narrow soi full of low-rent apartment blocks, is this Korean restaurant whose name I never quite got around to remembering. Run by a formidable-looking Korean woman who obviously maintains impeccable standards by striking the fear of God into her staff, you can be assured that this is the authentic experience. On the right, across from Family Mart.

Le Bouchon, Patpong. Judging by how long this place has been around, my theory is that the French owner stuck it out in post-colonial Vietnam for a few years, then escaped when he decided things were getting too hot as a result of Mr Ho Chi Minh’s shenanigans. A little slice of Lyon in the heart of I-Love-You-Long-Time territory.

Uomasa, Thonglor Soi 13. Japanese, as authentic as they come. The live lobster heads served with the sashimi – decapitated so recently that the pincers are still rattling – are, if anything, a little too authentic for my tastes: but others might not be so squeamish.

Jools, Soi Nana. Past Nana Plaza, this sleaze-free horseshoe bar has been pulling in regulars for decades. The sign promises the best British food in Bangkok, and after nearly eating myself to death with the jumbo-sized Toad In The Hole, I’m in no position to argue.

Bei Otto. The best German food in Bangkok, no questions asked, cooked by Otto himself: and the only place serving this range of authentic German beers. Sukhumvit Soi 20.

Nefertiti. In truth, almost every Middle Eastern restaurant in Soi Arab is authentic. This one scores a mention because of its great outdoor area, its range of shisha flavours, and the Egyptian MTV blaring out of the huge TV set. Sukhumvit Soi 3/1.

On the subject of Middle Eastern food, but rating a separate mention because it’s not in Soi Arab, Beirut is the real thing when it comes to Lebanese food; both of the Arabic and more Western varieties. Silom and Mahatun Plaza.

The history of the Vietnamese woman running Xuan Mai is too interesting to even begin to relate with the limited space I have. Go there and listen to her story yourself: and enjoy what is without doubt the best Vietnamese food in the Thai capital by a country mile. The difference between this place and others in Bangkok is so great that you’ll never be able to eat Vietnamese food anywhere else again. Sukhumvit Soi 13.

Tapas Bar in Sukhumvit Soi 11 is a great example of a place that does what it is supposed to do, without descending into ‘theme’ territory. No bullfighting posters on the walls, no waiters in matador outfits: just a modern space serving great tapas.

Finally, Enoteca: a quirky little outfit run by three Italian chaps, this place scores 100% in the reality stakes. Great wine selection, and the best antipasti in the city. Sukhumvit Soi 29.

No comments: