Mar 7, 2022
TRADITIONS DIE HARD IN Bangkok’s oldest enclaves.
In the bustling streets and long-established Thai Chinese communities that feed down towards the Chao Phraya River, it feels as though the breakneck pace of change that defines Thailand’s capital is slower.
Here, garish gold shops sit cheek by jowl with stores specializing in Chinese medicine, wizened aunties tend sizzling woks, and market holders ply pirated Cantonese blue movies and Peoples Republic ephemera on the pavements.
Closer inspection reveals pockets of evolution that balance progress with preservation. This juxtaposition is evident at Potong, where acclaimed celebrity chef Pitchaya “Chef Pam” Utarntham is flying the flag for progressive Thai Chinese cuisine in her family’s former residence.
A Le Cordon Bleu graduate and former chef at three-Michelin starred Jean-Georges in New York, Chef Pam is also a judge on Top Chef Thailand and has her cooking show. At Potong, she mines inspiration that has been with her since early childhood.
“All Thais know about Thai-Chinese food,” Pam says. “Some of the most famous street food in the country — like pad Thai and khao man gai (Hainanese-style chicken rice) — has Chinese origins. I grew up eating these dishes, and I love them as much as anyone. What I want to do at Potong is to use my experience as a professional chef to elevate the cuisine.”
FROM LEFT: Potong before construction, courtesy of Potong; the 5-story building today, with Opium Bar up top, photo by @dofskyground
Located near the entrance to Sampeng Market — one of the oldest mercantile hubs in Bangkok — the handsome 120-year-old building that houses the restaurant is a prime example of Sino-Portuguese architecture. Constructed by Chef Pam’s great-great-grandparents, the five-story structure was once the highest in Chinatown. It served as a residence and as nerve-center of the family’s successful Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) business before falling into a state of disrepair.
With Potong, Chef Pam is mining her family’s past to convey the rich hoard of tales that the building has amassed. Her storytelling flair is on display in the glass jars used for fermenting soy sauces and vinegar that evoke the building’s history as a pharmacy. There’s plenty of history, too, at the venue’s new rooftop Opium bar: a speakeasy-style den inspired by her ancestors’ penchant for a pipe or two.
She also intends the venue to be a love letter to Chinatown. Ingredients are sourced from sellers in the neighborhood and dishes draw inspiration from the area’s legendary array of delicious street eats.
In the process of doing so, she’s attempting to break new culinary ground by marrying modern techniques to precious traditions to create inventive dishes unlike anything witnessed before on Bangkok’s fine-dining circuit.
“You travel back in time as soon as you enter,” she says. “It’s the same with me. I’ve been around the world and seen and experienced many things. But when I am here, I feel a sense of belonging. This project connects me to how I grew up. It’s in my blood.”
The renovation process took almost two and a half years. “It was a challenge,” Chef Pam says with a wry grin that suggests a degree of understatement. But the venue has proven worthy of the painstaking effort. And the result is a stirring homage to the building’s past.
The design concept — Juxtaposition — was geared towards letting old and new co-exist in harmony. And most of the building’s historic structures remain intact. Interior highlights include a wooden elevator that fits only two people that Chef Pam’s family once used to transfer medicine ingredients between floors.
The venue extends over a generous five floors. The ground floor bar of Potong is a judicious mix of the rustic and the contemporary. At the top of the staircase, you’ll find a livelier experience in a dining room for large groups, while the third floor offers a more private gathering space.
The top two floors house moody, mixology-forward Opium with the building’s rooftop and a balcony providing a prime perch for observing the activity on Soi Wanit below. The back side of the roof might allow for slightly rowdier gatherings. In any case, book ahead and if the extensive menu doesn’t have what you’re looking for, ask the bartender to surprise you. Delights will ensue.
While it’s going to be hard to surpass such a spectacular setting, Chef Pam is confident that her progressive dishes will at least share the social media spotlight. There’s plenty of culinary flair on display across her 20-course dinner menu.
Noteworthy items include an amuse-bouche inspired by the Thai Chinese tradition of greeting friends, families, and guests with an orange. What appears to be a plump orange is white chocolate encapsulating citrus kombucha. Other standouts, meanwhile, include 13-day hay-aged duck breast, Angus beef ribs and rice bowls presented on a lazy Susan: a feature of every self-respecting Thai Chinese dining room set-up.
Nods to classic Chinatown street-eats are myriad. A one-bite morsel shaped like a salapao (steamed bun) and filled with lamb char siu accompanies the welcome orange. Also familiar to anyone in thrall to Yaowarat traditions is Chef Pam’s take on Chinese corn soup, which is nudged towards indulgent new heights by a truffle vinaigrette and a crisp brown butter tuille topping. At the end of the meal, ice cream infused with six-month fermented black soy sauce and served with a chili shaped candy is a decadent treat. Equally on point is congee subtly flavored with Chinese almond and crowned with patonggo (Chinese fried wheat flour doughnut) filled with wild strawberry compote.
Photo by @tar311photo (4)
“I asked myself when I set about putting this menu together: How do I create an exceptional and extraordinary experience?” Chef Pam tells me. “Can I draw upon my childhood to evoke something for my guests?”
With Potong booked solid for the foreseeable future, it seems as though this chef’s excursion down memory lane is going to be a fruitful one.
restaurantpotong.com; 20-course menu Bt4,500.