If there’s one ‘national’ cuisine that you may not have thought of trying in Bangkok, it’s perhaps that of Taiwan.
But there is a restaurant here serving up authentic Taiwanese food that’s definitely worth checking out. Samphan Assawakittiwanich, manager of Water 1999, says he believes the restaurant is the only one of its kind in Bangkok. “There are some fast food places to get Taiwanese food, but this is the only proper restaurant,” he says.
What’s distinctive about food from this area of the world? If you’re in Taiwan itself, the range of cuisines available from the various regions of China is supposed to be phenomenal, but real ‘Taiwanese’ food is said to resemble that of Fujian province, where most of the island’s inhabitants come from. There’s also a distinctive influence from Japan – which occupied Taiwan from 1895 to 1945 – on the islanders’ eating habits.
But although Taiwanese food may be heavily influenced by the mainland, don’t think Chinese when it comes to this Taiwanese restaurant’s stylish décor. This is a 50-seat restaurant with contemporary panache that looks like it should be serving up trendy fusion food – not authentic Taiwanese cuisine.
The Japanese architect-owner designed the place herself, with sweeping white walls, and huge windows overlooking a moat of gurgling water surrounding the main area of the restaurant and a large area of trees, grass and fairy lights at night. This area is used for outdoor dining in the dry season, and for Taiwanese barbecues from October to December.
The furniture is sleekly-lined and modern Asian, and the soft lighting is enhanced by the candles spread around the room. The place was buzzing with the soft hum of conversation, surprising for a Wednesday night when many similar restaurants might be struggling to fill more than a few tables.
The ‘Water’ part of the name is the English translation of ‘that which gives life’ in Mandarin. And 1999 – well, in August of that year the restaurant first opened its doors to a surprised but very pleased Taiwanese expatriate community.
We left ourselves in the Taiwanese chef’s hands when it came to choosing our dinner. After a delicate, appetite wetting shark fin soup, we were served two of the most popular dishes in the house.
The Three-Cup Chicken, pieces of chicken cooked with whole cloves of garlic and sweet basil in a sauce blended from Chinese wine, sesame oil and a special Japanese sauce, is Water 1999’s signature dish. It was full-flavoured and just slightly sweet. The whole cloves of garlic were absolutely delectable. The Beef Sauteed With Pepper Sauce was piquant and satisfying. The pepper wasn’t shy, and the sauce went well with the finely grated bed of cabbage it was served on.
Of course, the dishes were served with rice along with a bowl of salted, slightly spicy vegetables, and a selection of condiments. There’s a good wine list and a selection of beers and spirits, but we drank tea, as is traditional with proper Taiwanese food.
We finished off with deep-fried dumplings rolled in sesame seeds with a red bean paste inside. They’re not on the menu, but are served to those who are in the know and ask for them. Otherwise there’s a selection of ice creams, including Green Tea flavour.
Although the menu features prices, these can vary according to the number of people you wish to order the dishes for. For two, expect to pay up to around Bt180 per dish, and for four, up to around Bt350. Other menu items that grabbed our attention included the Baked Chicken With Taro, Five-Spice Boiled Fresh Squid, Steamed Salmon With Bean Curd and Baked Eggplant With Chilli Sauce.
At the moment, Water 1999 attracts many Taiwanese expatriates and tourists, as well as Japanese, Chinese and Thais (for whom the chef can increase spiciness if required!), but only the occasional westerner. Given the quality of the food and the contemporary feel of the place, the reason must simply be the lack of publicity about it in the English-language press.
And as we left, my companion noted that the table behind us were speaking the ‘real’ Taiwanese dialect. So rest assured: Bangkok is indeed fortunate that its sole Taiwanese restaurant is not only a place to be seen, it’s authentic as well.
Water 1999 is at 22 Sukhumvit Soi 39, Wattana. Ph. 258 8308. Open 11.30am-2.30pm and 5.30pm-10.30pm daily. Am, V, MC accepted.