8 Bangkok Restaurants Redefining a Genre

Feb 28, 2019

Remember Nahm? If you came to Bangkok five years ago for authentic and fiery but fancy-plated Thai food, you called in favors for a table there. The dining scene has steadily expanded since, but the arrival of Michelin in 2017 shifted the focus on nouveau-Thai fare to high gear. On the following pages, in no particular order, are some fantastic next-gen chefs more deeply flexing their creative muscles. From haute to hip, whether reviving old recipes, ginning up new fusions, smoking, fermenting or sustainably sourcing, one thing is sure: you’ll find joy in every locavore bite. 

Spinning Straw Into Gold: 80/20

Chefs Joe Jantraget and Saki Hoshino, with a new 80/20 mural by a royal palace painter. Photo by Leigh Griffiths

With a fresh revamp and a reorientation to tasting menus, one of the city’s secret faves is stepping out of the shadows.

IF YOU WANT TO SEE how the sausage gets made, visit 80/20. Executive chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget and pastry chef Saki Hoshino source their ingredients locally and seasonally, in ways that elevate their suppliers, and employ pickling and fermenting to create experimental Thai fare that looks fancy but isn’t daunting, in a relaxed wrought-iron space where you can hang out and watch the chill chefs joshing around in the open kitchen. Quickly after opening in late 2015, they became a darling of Bangkok’s creative trend-set who were remaking the riverlands around old Chinatown. You couldn’t get a walk-in table even on Monday night. Michelin gave them a Plate. Just before shutting down for renovations last year, Joe and Saki popped off to Japan to get married. Eighty-twenty 2.0, with its expanded kitchen, dining room and staff, represents new unions. A partnership with Choti Leenutaphong and Debby Tang, the couple behind several popular Bangkok restaurants and Vesper, which is on the Asia’s 50 Best Bars list, brings a ramped-up cocktail menu, and a wine list heavy on artisanal, biodynamic bottles. (The soft, pear-tinged Christoph Hoch pét-nat Kalkspritz will transport you to a gauzy afternoon garden.)

A bouquet of seasonal herbs and greens. Photo by Leigh Griffiths

The other big change is that they’ve gone tasting-menu-only. Standouts on the 10-course menu they just relaunched with include the goat tartare, and the dry-aged smoked duck breast with duck-offal sausage. Textures are a priority; witness the single-clove garlic sliced razor-thin and fermented in honey for two months, or the “edible sand” made from the dried insides of tiger-prawn heads. I mention surprise at the small size of the grilled oysters in seepweed butter (this is a slightly nutty, crunchy bowl of delight), and Joe says it’s because they’re local, of course. “They might have less intrinsic flavor,” he says. “You just need to find a way to use it.”

This is their overarching philosophy. “I had a guest who said the beef seemed a little tough. I said, ‘Yes, that’s Thai beef,’ and he looked at me like, Oh, I feel sorry for you. But he missed the point. That’s just what it is. It’s my job to learn to enhance it. You can’t expect Thai beef to be Japanese beef.” Lingering at the counter after dinner, I note the line chefs gathering, laughing and rolling what turns out to be the duck sausage; hilarious—it’s a sausage party. “Before we were just playing,” Saki says. “Now it’s working together to build something solid.” Happily, though, they’re also still playing. 8020bkk.com; tasting menu Bt3,000.

Legends of Yore: Sorn

Head chef Yod U-pumpruk (left) and executive chef Ice Jongsiri. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

Following the trail of history to old village recipes from soldiers and subsistence farmers made these southern boys an instant hit.

NAKHON SI THAMMARAT faces the Gulf of Thailand, with its back to the hills, making the city militarily defensible, and bequeathing on the region a cuisine that blends seafood, wild animals and herbs. Put another way, says Supaksorn “Ice” Jongsiri, who comes from there: “It’s soldier food. A lot of rice, and small portions, and intense in flavor partly because it needed to be preserved with lots of salt or sugar to be carried for duty.”

The Forest Meets the Sea combines southern herbs with toasted rice and fish innards dressing. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

It’s rare that an haute Thai eatery can get the society set in a tizzy, but Sorn Fine Southern Cuisine has been booked out months in advance, Noma-style, practically since it opened last June. Exactly no one was surprised when they, serving hyperlocal common-folk food from villages in 14 southern provinces, won a Michelin star just five months in. Executive chef Ice, head chef Yodkwan “Yod” U-Prumpruk who hails from Surat Thani, and their mostly southern-born team take diners on a spicy, smoky, layered tour through the country’s hottest region. Pop some deep-fried, garlic-and-chili-powdered Phuket sand crabs in your mouth and listen up, because the stories that accompany each dish are worth the price of admission.

“When I was young and my grandma made beef curry, she’d tell me to go to the Muslim village. Halal beef is really good,” Ice says. Sorn buys eight-year-old former milking cows from a Muslim community in Pattalung. “It’s not grass-fed or grain-fed. It’s whatever-they-had-fed. But when the cow is old its beef has more flavor and a soft texture with a milk taste left over. It’s very Thai, the breed is very mixed, but it sure tastes good, right?” Beyond right. The milk marinated strips grilled in a date-sweetened curry sauce make for the best meat-on-a-stick I’ve ever eaten.

This dish is, on my visit, the last of a parade of majority-seafood small plates (lobster claw and head with coconut cream, turmeric and lemongrass on a rice cracker, for example) that precedes a table-takeover of shared dishes—curries and soups and rich meats galore. It’s a pleasant process, moving from the omakase-like individual portions to an avalanche of a family-style feast. You get to ooh and ahh for a bit, then sit back, discuss the flavors, and admire the stunning renovation of this Edenic villa, where there are handcrafted dishware created for each course, clay pot stoves in the garden, and Art Deco light fixtures overhead.

It’s a far cry from the backstory of southern staple khua kling, which recurs on the menu. Soldiers packed fermented shrimp paste with them when they went to camp in the forest, Ice says, and stir-fried it with stinky beans they foraged from the woods. Last month the restaurant shut for 10 days (despite the waiting list) for its own foraging trip: the entire staff went south to source ingredients. “Everyone takes part in crafting the menu,” Ice says, “with me as a leader.” Or, should we say, general?  instagram.com/sornfinesouthern; tasting menu Bt2,700.

Asian Vision: Karmakamet Conveyance

Chef Som Theantae. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

A country-hopping, wine-fueled reverie.

CULT SCENT PURVEYOR Karmakamet knows pretty. Having built their “diner” in a sun-dappled industrial-chic greenhouse, they’ve opened their second eatery in a white-washed shophouse down Sukhumvit Soi 49 that is simultaneously dystopian () and elegant () . But it isn’t just the romantic location of Karmakamet Conveyance that’s transportive; the fine dining restaurant is a journey throughout Asia via the memories of chef Jutaman “Som” Theantae.

Hainan braised chicken thigh with tao si lime dip, and a three days’ boiled bone-broth chaser. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

The Thai dishes come in hot, whether it’s the sashimiesque, emotionally titled Humid Morning by Prachuab Khiri Khan Bay that leads off, or the hunka-meaty spiced coconut crab claw with curried corn patty and yellow rice. Her take on Hainanese chicken rice is a salve for the soul, a rich broth that will cure any hangover, and that is paired with a shot of an even richer broth made of three days’ boiled bones and herbs—a delicious update of my Cantonese grandmother’s nose-repelling tonics.

A private dining room at Karmakamet Conveyance. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

Indeed, Som admits to taking inspiration from some foods she didn’t even like in their original form, making for culinary acrobatics that back up the restaurant’s theme, “allow things to happen the way they are”—an adage you’ll find all the easier to follow powered by the smart wine pairing from small-producer specialist-importer Fin. The progression from bubbles to white to red and back to white is a path surely less taken on tasting menus, but one deeply appreciated by the end of a long meal. Who wants a soporific tannins denouement when you can have an uplifting Galician Godello? karmakametconveyance.com; tasting menu Bt2,500

Star Turn: Le Du

Chef Ton Tassanakajohn. Photo by Leigh Griffiths

Delicately engineered plates starring local, seasonal produce are dreamed up by a celebrity chef who traffics less in “twists” than whiffs—call it, the edge of Thai.

IT’S HARD TO DREAM up a more model brand ambassador for Thai food than a baby-faced, aw-shucks nice guy with an enviably thick mop of tousled hair. Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn—a natural of a judge on Top Chef Thailand—went to Culinary Institute of America and worked in such top New York kitchens as Jean-Georges before bringing that Michelin precision back to Bangkok.

For a while after Le Du (“season” in Thai) opened in 2013, it was frankly a bit polarizing. Many loved it; others didn’t quite get it. Turned out, Ton was just on the vanguard with his mod, reimagined-Thai innovations. The rest of the city would quickly catch up. Le Du landed on Asia’s 50 Best list a couple of years ago.

And Ton had just launched a new menu (with a divine boutique-vineyard-heavy wine pairing) about 15 minutes before he was awarded his first Michelin star last November, so when I eat there the day after the ceremony, the kitchen is buoyant. As is the menu. It somehow stays light all the way through. I’m usually borderline begging for mercy by the meat course, but Le Du is all about subtlety. Example: Chances are you’ve had miang kam—betel leaves filled with coconut, dried shrimp, nuts, lime, garlic, ginger, chili, shallots and fish-sauce palm syrup. They are a rich mouthful. When presented here with what looks like a piece of charred sashimi in a cream sauce, it’s hard to see the resemblance to that common Thai snack that Ton says inspired him. But this cradle of pickled sea bass, coconut-and-ginger foam and betel leaves has enough key ingredients to evoke a distant echo of miang kam. Like a hint of a memory. Inception-style.

Local wild mushrooms and smoked pumpkin in a fish broth. Photo by Leigh Griffiths

The hands-down champ on this no-misses menu is the local, free-range pork jowl, sous vided for 24 hours then grilled, served with pickled choy sum, a soft-boiled quail egg and five-spice-infused barley. Ton says he was inspired by the omnipresent street food khao ka moo, or stewed pork leg with rice—but ignore that. You won’t care about its origin story. The flavors on the plate are so complementary and the meat so buttery that, well, this pig stands alone. ledubkk.com; tasting menus from Bt2,290.

The Grand Tour: Saawaan

Chef Aom Pongmorn. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

Take a hearty trip through Thailand via a tasting menu brimming with delicious dishes we’d like to see a la carte. (The duo of female chefs at the helm is a fab added bonus.)

Koi pla, a ceviche-like blend of raw amberjack fish with rice powder and kaffir lime. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

SOME PEOPLE LIKE TO SNACK on chips and salsa. In an ideal world, I’d keep a bowl of chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn’s rice-paddy crab dip in my fridge. She takes adorable little crustaceans from Sing Buri province, renders their fat with Thai herbs, returns the mix to their tiny shells and roasts it on the grill. The result, which you eat with sticky-rice balls, is a complex cream that kind of defines the beauty of Saawaan: it’s fine dining down-to-earth, creative but still decidedly Thai. The Michelin star it garnered last autumn, in its opening year, was heartily earned.

I meet friendly Aom tableside (the whole place is small enough that you’ll get plenty of face time) when she comes by to whip up her koi pla, a raw-fish salad made of local amberjack, Thai herbs, kaffir lime, and roasted sticky rice powder that enhances with a satisfying crunch. Aom has worked under classic- European chefs and nouveau-Thai inventors, but she grew up on Bangkok’s historic Charoen Krung Road amid a family of traditional cooks, and learned to use a charcoal firepot at age six. So don’t look for any fluff or foam or barely-there bites on this woman’s menu. She has concocted substantial fare for a 10-course tasting menu, any five of which would satisfy your hunger (I’m looking at you, squid noodles with holy basil, squid ink, king oyster mushrooms and seven-day-cured organic–egg yolk).

A dessert made of pumpkin from Thong Ampai with Chonburi coconut. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

You might be tempted to try to get away with the melty, marinated, grilled Iberico Secreto—it’s all you could want in a meal—for dessert, but do save room for pastry chef Arisara “Paper” Chongphanitkul’s concoctions; they include a pumpkin coconut number that tastes like Thanksgiving.  saawaan.com; tasting menu Bt2,450.

Reign of Fire: Funky Lam Kitchen

Saya Na Champasak and Sanya Souvannaphouma. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

Two princes fulfill their culinary destiny with a hipper-than-thou, hotter-than-many, hill-country restaurant that gives old Laotian and Northern Thai recipes a decidedly modern update.

SOME 300 YEARS ago, Laos was partitioned into the competing Kingdoms of Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Champasak. They were all ruled by descendants of the same king, and through eras of war, annexation, encroachment and colonization by the Siamese, Vietnamese, Chinese and French, their lines endured such that in the two stormy decades after the country’s 1953 independence, the heir to one house, Prince Souvanna Phouma, held the title Prime Minister frequently, trading for a time with the heir to another, his cousin Prince Boun Oum. The chairman of the Pathet Lao, Prince Souphanouvong, was Phouma’s half-brother, and, in a way, thank goodness for that because when the communists took over and he became president, he ensured safe passage out of the country for many of his royal relatives… And that, class, is an important reason why today the Bangkok nightlife scene is so awesome.

Mixing drinks at Funky Lam. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

Sanya Souvannaphouma, Phouma’s grandson, is one of the city’s winningest impresarios (see: Maggie Choo’s, Sing Sing Theater) and last year, he and his cousin Saya Na Champasak, grandson of Boun Oum (you knew where this was going, right?), opened an homage to their shared heritage, Funky Lam Kitchen, a Laotian- and Isan-cuisine specialist that’s heavy on the heat, the spices, and the attitude. In what is a motorcycle-themed café by day, they serve a menu that reflects Sanya’s father’s insistence that “Laotian food has its own integrity. In fact, Thai food is based on it.”

Those might be fighting words, but my hit list will prove uncontroversial to any fire-addicted carnivore. Get the spiral of house-made Isan sausage that comes with a doll-sized mini-cleaver; the spicy, lemongrass-y clam broth with meatballs and charred tomatoes that I wish someone would deliver me every Sunday afternoon; and the magical, herbacious fishcake made of trout and pounded prawns.

Roast chicken, clams and meatballs, sai oua sausage, duck larb. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

These delights were derived from the cookbook of court chef and master of ceremonies Phia Sing, who is credited with being the first to write down Laotian recipes. “All food comes from Phia Sing,” says Sanya. The creative cocktails and the old- and new-world wine list turned out by the sultry, crimson-hued bar, however, are more the work of him and Saya. Royals have to keep relevant, after all. fb.com/funkylamkitchen; mains Bt350–980

Fearless: 100 Mahaseth

Chef Chalee Kader. Photo courtesy of 100 Mahaseth

This über-sustainable nose-to-tail proves just how many tasty ways you can skin a cow.

I CONSIDERED making this section just two words: goat ribs. Because I will cross town regularly (which is saying a lot in Bangkok) for chef Chalee Kader’s umami-filled, char-grilled, tender, tasty goat ribs. Sourced from a halal butcher in Ratchaburi, they are lollipops of perfection. But giving all the love to the goat ribs wouldn’t be fair to his and co-chef

Randy Noprapa’s circus parade of excellent animals that troop into 100 Mahaseth from all over the Kingdom. Their Thai-raised Wagyu comes from Surin, Sakon Nakhon and Korat (get the flank steak). In fact, every item in this meat-eater’s dream, from the plates to the palm sugar, comes with its D.O.P., making this Michelin Bib Gourmand spot the most accountable locavore, least annoying nose-to-tail eatery I know.

Bone marrow amid a carnivore’s dream. Photo courtesy of 100 Mahaseth

The more adventurous will appreciate “drops of bile” and “pig’s heart and aorta;” your Instagram will adore the bone marrow and the cutie Isan sausages in hot dog buns and boxes. But somehow this funky, deconstructed shophouse with a sexy dry-aging case in front of the kitchen manages to feel less trendy than oldschool barbecue joint-y. Which is probably why the cool kids love it so much. fb.com/100mahaseth; mains Bt260–2,800, tasting menus from Bt800.

Northern Lights: Front Room

Chef Fae Chummohengkhon finishes a dish on the line. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

For this fresh Thai fare with a Danish accent, little is lost in translation.

In the new Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, past an orderly open kitchen, is an airy atrium whose floor-to-high-ceiling windows face fairy-lit greenery. It is a most apropos place to go on a continent-hopping culinary perambulation with spritely and spirited chef Rungthiwa “Fae” Chummongkhon.

Eggplant sorbet with mulberries and caramel. Photo by Aaron Joel Santos

Don’t let the “Nordic-Thai” theme throw you. It merely means she applies Scandinavian cooking methods—smoking, curing, fermenting—to mostly Thai ingredients. The upshot is that, despite the rarefied setting, Fae is super on-trend now. The plating is as bright as her personality, the flavors as clean as a fjord, the evocations as melting-pot as the influences from her mom’s Thai home-cooking to her dozen years’ training in Denmark.

On her launch menu, paper-thin slices of sea bass are smoked and jigsawed together like a terrine, with coconut, broccoli, guava, green apple, kaffir lime and rosemary. I swoon. Raised in Chiang Rai is a chicken wing reconstituted as a sausage then reconstructed into a wing; with its black rice puree, it feels like a homey Sunday roast. This being Scandi-fusion, salmon is required, and the Atlantic Laks, with carrot, bitter orange and rice mayo, is a springtime sojourn in Europe, without the flight. waldorfastoria3.hilton.com; mains Bt650 –1,200, set menus from 2,700.

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