East-west fusion

When the chef has tried some 600 combinations of ingredients to make the best possible Indian naan bread – with a Western twist – you know the restaurant under their charge has got to be special.
Willment Leong, chef at the lavish Merchant Court Hotel’s Doc Cheng’s, says he may have even tried 700 combinations to get his soft roll-like naan just right. Light and crispy, but with enough dough to give it some substance, it’s served with a yoghurt and dill mix on the day that we settle in for a meal at the restaurant that likes to think it has brought a new concept of dining to Bangkok.

‘Trans-ethnic’ cuisine is the label being bandied around, and Willment explains that this is Western food served with an Asian twist. “It’s about using Asian cooking techniques and very fresh produce to create Western dishes. It’s not too fancy, but colours are important. Thais like to look at beautiful things, so I think this sort of food will do well here.”

But there’s more to the naan, as Willment enthusiastically tells us that the charcoal used to cook it is hollow. “It’s not like normal charcoal, which can’t maintain its heat as well.” He even waxes lyrical about the special oven they’ve found to make it in. And explains that on other days, the naan is served flavoured with either garlic and onion, sun-dried tomatoes, mustard or chilli paste. Here’s a chef with passion.

The interior designer of Doc Cheng’s clearly has passion too. Quietly tasteful while still being bold, the emphasis is on medium-toned woods, some off-beat art, plush carpet, soft lighting and an airy high-ceiling. A good place to take clients you wish to impress, but intimate enough for a romantic occasion as well.

We start with the Asian Sampler (Bt250 for one, Bt350 for two) and the Oriental Crabmeat Soup (Bt200). The sampler consists of a selection of three dishes: Dungeoness Crab Cakes, served with a delicate papaya basil salsa featuring salmon roe; Furikake Blue Shrimps with an oriental vegetable salad; and Nori Yellow Fin Tuna, accompanied by a seaweed salad. The presentation is superb, right down to the triangular-shaped plate and the elegant elongated cutlery inspired clearly by chopsticks – indeed there are chopstick rests provided to rest knives, forks and spoons on. And, most importantly, the flavours do mesh together very well.

The crabmeat soup is billed as being “an ancient oriental remedy for everything from lumbago to a broken heart”. There’s nothing wrong with our health so we can’t test this claim, but it does appear to be a perfectly comforting proportion of crab meat, spinach, coconut milk and lime juice.

If we weren’t heading to mains, I might be tempted to try one of the most popular entrees, the Lobster Summer Roll (Bt290). It’s a mix of lobster chunks, wrapped with crispy vegetables in soft rice paper, and served with glass noodles and spicy lime chilli sauce. We may just have to go back.

While we wait for mains, Willment tells us he’s been with the Raffles Hotel group – which manages the Thai-owned Merchant Court Hotel in Bangkok – since 1991. He came to Bangkok in 1999 to prepare Doc Cheng’s for its December opening. “The menu is basically what customers will find at the other Doc Cheng’s in Singapore and Hamburg,” he explains. “But I developed three of four dishes especially for Bangkok.”

His own dishes include the Szechuan Smoked Salmon With Oscrieta Caviar (this is Raffles’ own brand of Iranian caviar) (Bt750) and the Tandoor Turkey Confit, cooked in a special sauce for four hours before being served on a bed of spiced long tong rice with baby kai lan (Bt280).

Although Willment concedes that dishes need to be tweaked slightly to cater to local tastes, he expresses some exasperation over customers who request fish sauce and chillis to go with their meal. “I’ll actually come out onto the restaurant floor and try to explain the nature of the food we’re serving. There’s a delicate balance of flavours that fish sauce and chillis will upset. In eighty per cent of the cases, the customer will change their mind when I’ve spoken to them.”

We have Willment already on the floor with us as our mains are delivered. I tuck into the Crisp Sea Bass Fillet (Bt320). Two fillets of moist sea bass flesh lie tantalisingly beneath a lightly-seasoned crisp shell. While the fish is more than passable, it’s really the superb sweet pepper compote and the soy ginger beurre blanc that make this dish special.

My partner has opted for the Tamarind Charcoal Beef Short Ribs (Bt 420), which are marinated and braised for up to six hours, then served on a bed of abalone mushrooms and a peppered pinot noir sauce. The dish is apparently so delicious that we have to wait for the entire plate to be finished before extracting any analysis from the diner. And even then it’s a shell- shocked “Mmmm. Mmmmm.”

There’s a good range of wines to choose from, with a New World emphasis. A 1998 Jacob’s Creek chardonnay (Australia) goes for Bt1,900, as does a 1997 Sutter Home cabernet sauvignon. But better still, there’s an exceptional choice of wines by the glass, and very reasonably priced at Bt180 to Bt260 (up to Bt1,000 for sparkling). There’s even a dessert wine by the glass (Bt550).

Dessert is of course a must. The Composition of Crème Brulees (Bt170), Willment explains, is challenging to present as the tops of the five different flavoured brulees are caramelised after they are removed from their ramekins, meaning it’s tricky to get them to keep their shape. He’s done a fine job with making the sago, coconut, banana, red bean and pandan custards distinctly flavoured, too.

The Banana Strudel (Bt150) is as popular with customers as the crème brulees, and goes well with the coffee to end the meal.

As we envision a long future involving return visits, Willment expresses some fear about staying in Bangkok for too many years. “I don’t want to catch Bangkok Disease,” he says seriously. This, he asserts with authority, is a well-recognised disease among chefs across the world. It involves falling in love with the strong flavours of Thai cuisine so drastically that a chef’s tastebuds are distorted.

“Then if you go back to making, for example, fine French food in Europe, people will think the flavours you use are very strange.”

But there’s nothing strange – quirky perhaps, and innovative to the point of being surpising – about Willment’s current creations. So go ahead and battle the traffic and the dauntingly huge Merchant Court Hotel lobby to get to Doc Cheng’s. If it were somewhere more central, it would already be one of Bangkok’s favourites. It may take a little longer to catch on out in Huay Khwang, but Doc Cheng’s is destined to become a Bangkok dining institution.

Doc Cheng’s at the Merchant Court Hotel, Le Concorde
12-2.30pm, 6-10.30pm, daily
202 Ratchadapisek Rd, Huay Khwang
Bangkok 10320
Ph. 694 2222

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