Bangkok cooking schools

Whether you’re an accomplished chef or you admit that you’re a failure in the kitchen, taking a cooking class is a good way to learn how to whip up something new and delicious in the kitchen. And once you enjoy cooking instead of finding it a chore, chances are you’ll save money by dining in more frequently.

Bangkok features loads of cooking schools, most of which are focused on Thai cuisine. If you’d like to start this close to home, you could check out the Thai House Cooking School, which offers one, two or three day courses. Located on 12 rai of land in Nonthaburi, the location of the teakwood Thai House lets you take a break and learn at the same time – homestays are offered for those participating in the two or three day course.

Courses include an introduction to the kitchen and utensils (both modern and traditional), Thai cooking techniques and a rundown on selecting ingredients. Lessons are conducted in English, with a maximum class size of 10. Dishes taught include larb moo (spicy thai pork salad), kaeng ka-ri kai (yellow chicken curry), paneang neua (coconut beef curry), tom khaa kai (coconut and galangal soup) and kaeng kai sai normai (chicken in red curry with bamboo shoots).

Still in the region, brush up on your Chinese cooking skills by heading to the UFM Food Centre for one of their regular Chinese cooking classes. The next one kicks off on April 23 and runs for ten three-hour afternoon sessions. Two dishes are taught per session, and will include deep-fried pomfret fish in red wine, simmered chicken legs in Chinese herbs and bean curd soup. The English-language course will have a maximum of 20 participants, cooking together in groups of four.

The Peninsula also holds Chinese cooking classes via its in-house Chinese restaurant Mei Jiang twice a year, but its next upcoming class is through its Pacific Rim restaurant Jesters, which also runs classes twice a year. The half-day class on this cutting-edge cuisine will run on May 24, 25 and 26, and be conducted by Chef de Cuisine, Dan Ivarie. The half-day begins with breakfast served in the kitchen, continues with the three-hour demonstration and discussion, and will be followed by a lunch incorporating some of the dishes cooked. The menu to be taught is sesame duck pancakes with mustard vinaigrette and bitter greens; steamed sea bass on mashed potatoes with seared pea shoots; shiitake mushroom broth topped with goats cheese cream and black truffle essence; and wasabi ice cream. The class will cover product knowledge, tips on purchasing, preparation and cooking.

If you’d like to hone your Western cooking skills, the Dusit Thani College offers two types of Western programmes in Thai. Try their one-day "You Can Do It in 360 Minutes" Western food cooking programme, offered once a month. The next course is on May 19, and on the menu is corn cream soup, Italian-style pork piccata, and blueberry muffins. The longer two-month course is half Thai-food and half Western, with the latter composed of an introduction to cooking and basic cooking methods (basic cuts, stocks, sauces, soups and egg dishes). A sample menu for a day is salad Ni?oise, pork tenderloin medallions with pepper sauce, bouquetiere of vegetables and creme caramel.

The Modern Woman Cooking School also runs a Western cuisine class called the "Coffee Shop Course". Their three half-day course is conducted in Thai and has a maximum of ten participants. The course features lessons in soups, salads, steaks, stews, and pastas among other Western standards. The next course starts on April 18, but it’s run every month.

Thai House
32/4 Moo 8
Bangmaung, Bangyai
Nontaburi 11140
Tel: 9039611, 9975161
One-day course: Bt3,500
Two-day course, including accommodation: Bt8,950 (Bt600 single supplement)
Three-day course, including accommodation: Bt16,650 (Bt1,800 single supplement)

UFM Food Centre
593/29-39 Soi Sukhumvit 33/1
North Klongton
Tel: 259 0620
Ten half-day course: Bt7,800

The Peninsula
333 Charoennakorn Rd
Klongsan
Tel: 861 2888 ext. 6402
Half-day course: Bt2,900

Dusit Thani College
Training and Development Centre
902 Srinakharin Rd, Nongbon
Tel: 361 7805
One-day course: Bt1,100
Two-month course: Bt23,640

Modern Woman Cooking School
45/6-7 Setsiri Rd
Samsennai, Phaya Thai
Tel: 279 2831
Three half-day course: Bt3,900

Uncorking value for money

"To take wine into our mouths is to savour a droplet of the river of human history," wrote Clifton Fadiman. If that’s the case, to partake in human history is an expensive endeavour for those living in Thailand. The problem is certainly not that you can’t buy some excellent wines here – you can. But by the time you add together excise, customs, interior and value-added taxes, you’re looking at a whopping 335 per cent tax on an item that many health experts now agree can be beneficial in moderate amounts.

What makes a "good value" wine in such a hostile economic environment? Bangkok Fine Wines’ Jonathan Glonek says, "If we can provide well-made chardonnays and shirazes for 600 to 800 baht, then people are willing to pay for it. If you can get the wine right, that’s considered good value."

At the moment, Glonek says the small family estate vineyards in Australia represent reasonable value. In particular, he suggests Brokenhills Estate’s 1999 Colombard Chardonnay and Shiraz Cabernet, each priced at Bt370+ per bottle. "These wines came in strongly during a blind tasting of wines in the Bt200 to 900 range."

Tom Westbury of PTK Management & Marketing, suppliers to the corporate market, says he can’t single out any particular wines as being of good value, but he does edge towards those coming from the Hunter Valley and Margaret River regions of Australia, Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, and recommends wineries such as Rosemount Estate, Tyrells and CJ Pask. "The market is better educated than it was a couple of years ago," he says. "Five to six years ago, French wines would have made up 45 per cent of the market, but now they’ve lost a lot of that market share. You can pay Bt300 to 400 a bottle for French wines – which is expensive – but you don’t get wines of good quality compared to wines from Australia and other ‘new world’ countries."

French wines are now on the outer

Vichai Kanchanasevee from distributors Vanichwathana has also found that consumers are buying more new world wines as they are reasonably priced and represent reasonable quality. "Wines which are losing popularity are complex and elegant wines such as Burgundy, Rhone and other premium quality wines." Vichai suggests trying wines from Chile, South Africa and Argentina, and for those still keen on French wines, he recommends Bordeaux petit Chateau and Languedoc-Roussillon.

Education is important

Managing director of Wine Cellar, Uthorn Budhijalananda, advises those who wish to develop an understanding of the value of wine to educate themselves. "Study by tasting," he says. "Get guidelines from as many sources as possible, such as Robert Parker Jr’s notes, and read the Wine Spectator and other magazines. Use those as a guide, but trust your own tongue and mouth. Compare what you think to what others have written. In two to three years, you’ll know a lot more than when you started out."

His cellar mainly sells wine in the "exclusive" bracket, from Bt2000 upwards, and his mostly Thai clientele buys almost exclusively red wine. His picks are Australian Fox Creek’s 1999 JSM Cabernet Sauvignon at Bt2,000, Maxwell Limecave’s 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon, also priced at Bt2,000, or Californian Modavi’s 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon at Bt1,800. Moving higher up the price scale still, Uthorn suggests the Mondavi 1991 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, but warns that at Bt5,400 it will run out soon. "Keep it or drink it – you can buy this wine as an investment."

If these prices are out of your league, he suggests developing your taste by trying the wines available at places like Villa and Foodland. "The quality is not quite the same, but they are quite cheap. But if you want to find a bottle for a special occasion, head to a wine shop – one that can tell you all about the wine, its vintages and its taste."

A meal fit for a warrior

"This is not like any other Japanese restaurant," claims the Pathumwan Princess’s general manager, Stanley Pao, of the hotel’s new Nabe-Ya. "This is a trendy, contemporary restaurant, where you can have the fun experience of cooking by yourself."

I can see straight away that Nabe-Ya is a beautifully-designed and elegant restaurant, all sleek curves and innovative divisions of space that allow this 160-seat restaurant an unusual degree of intimacy.

But to cook myself? Isn’t that defeating the purpose of going to a restaurant in the first place? I’m sceptical, but then the waiter brings out a huge plate of fresh colourful vegetables and mixed seafood and sets out a pot of fish stock on the table’s in-built electric hot plate. As the stock starts to simmer and I catch a whiff of just the stock, I prepare to perhaps be convinced.

It turns out that "cooking by yourself" is a fairly loose term. At Nabe-Ya, your waiter will actually cook the house speciality chanko-nabe – a special kind of hot-pot – for you as you watch. We’re served the Takarabune, which includes Alaskan king crab, mud crab, prawns, scallops, clams, bream, chicken, pork and a good mix of vegetables, followed by udon noodles just in case you aren’t already full by the end of all that. And it’s delicious.

In older times, junior sumo warriors would prepare the hearty chanko-nabe every day for their masters. But you won’t be transformed into the size of a sumo by this sort of food – although the servings are huge, this is a truly healthy dish where the flavours of the food are allowed to speak for themselves. Individual dipping sauces – one sour with radish and shallots, one sweet made from white sesame, and one spicy, specially developed for Thai palettes using a pineapple base – add extra taste if you wish.

For this top-of-the-range dish, market prices are charged, but on average, expect to pay around Bt500 per head for a meal, perhaps more if you’re drinking. There’s a selection of sake starting from Bt250++, or try the sweet Japanese plum wine for 230++. If you’re teetotalling, there’s also a good range of teas.

Nabe means pot or pan, so unsurprisingly Nabe-Ya serves a variety of Japanese hot-pot dishes, including shabu-shabu (from Bt350++/portion), sukiyaki (from Bt320++) and a selection of kama-meshi, or rice hot pots. We tried the Sakeoyako-Kamameshi (Bt200++), which comes with salmon and ikura – and it’s a meal on its own.

There’s also a standard a la carte menu featuring typical specialties such as sashimi, sushi, yakimono and agemono. We started our meal with an exception mixed sashimi (from Bt280++).

Desserts start at Bt60, but if you’d like something special, call in advance and order the baked Fujiyama, a spectacular Japanese version of the French bombe glacee, ignited with a flourish at the table.

Pao believes that the Japanese food scene is here to stay. "First we had the fast food outlets and they did a good job by introducing a lot of people to Japanese food," he says. "Now we’d like to take it from there by offering a little bit of culture and tradition, dishes that are more tedious to prepare so that people will appreciate Japanese food a bit more."

We certainly left knowing more about Japanese food, and eager to return for a second lesson.

Nabe-Ya
2nd Fl, Pathumwan Princess Hotel, MBK Centre
444 Phayathai Rd, Pathumwan
216 3700
Open daily, 11-14.30 and 18.00-23.30
All credit cards

The rhythm’s gonna getcha

"We are authentic," says Vicente Lerro Fong, director of Cubanos, the latest Latin venue to hit Bangkok. "We have authentic Cuban food, Cuban cocktails, Cuban cigars, a Cuban band …"

We’re sitting on the mezzanine level of the two-level Cuban restaurant and pub, watching the staff prepare for the evening behind the long bar that curls below. "But to really be Latin, you have to have the Latin feeling inside. We don’t compete with the other Latin restaurants because only we are authentic. Of course, what they are doing can be very good, but it’s not the same."

Fong should know – the Cuban-born guitarist has spent most of the past three-and-a-half years in Bangkok playing in a Latin band at various venues, including Senor Picos, the Pathumwan Princess and the Siam Novotel. When the band’s last gig ended, everyone went back to Cuba except for Fong, who decided to give his own venture a go, along with several partners.

"See," he says in a bewitching accent, as he waves his hands around at the white stuccoed and arched walls. "This is like a real Cuban house. We worked for eight months to get the design just right."

Since their November opening, Fong has been playing in the resident band, Mambo Asi. "This is what’s fun. It would be boring to just be an owner. I’m not in this to make money, I’m here to have fun. If I make money, though, that’s okay."

My cocktail arrives – I’ve gone for the very refreshing mojito, a mixed cocktail made of Havana Club rum, lemon, sugar, fresh mint and soda water (Bt160) – and after ensuring I’m happy with it, Fong makes a few menu recommendations.

We start with the Tamales en Hoja a la Criolla (Bt100), finely minced corn and chicken triangles wrapped in fresh corn leaves. They come with three delicately spiced sauces on the side which complement the meat very well.

Soups are next; I dig in to the Ajiaco "Gransopa de Cuba", a typical Creole vegetable soup (Bt100), while my partner goes for the hearty black bean soup known as Frijoles Negros (Bt100). We’re both impressed by the robust flavours that are simple and uninhibited.

Is it difficult to get the ingredients that go into Cuban dishes here in Thailand? "Look, Cuba is here," Fong says, drawing a straight line through the air. "And Thailand is here." In other words, the countries are located on similar latitudes, sharing the same climate, so the basic ingredients of Thai and Cuban cooking grow equally well in either place.

But there are some things that are uniquely produced in Cuba: like Cuban beer. "We hope to have Cuban beer here in a few months." The appalled look on Fong’s face when I ask him whether Cuban beer is any good is enough of an answer.

For mains, I tackle a serving of Aporreado de Pescado, a fish stew (Bt 200). It’s a tad on the salty side, but that just makes me hanker for another cocktail. Is this a tactic to loosen me up for the dance floor? My partner heads for the Papa Rellena Con Pollo, chicken stuffed in potato balls (Bt 200) and is suitably satisfied. The innovative rice servings are worth noting: they’re shaped mounds, a diagonal half of which is plain rice, with the other a more colourful black-bean rice.

This is well-priced, unembellished Cuban food. I suspect that its aim – beyond making you believe you really could be in Cuba – is to sustain you for a full night’s dancing.

Fong envisions a lively restaurant where locals can come and let the rhythm of Latin music infect them. "People can try something different here. Thai people are soft, Cuban people are very energetic. You can come here and be loud, learn how to dance Cuban-style."

Cubanos, 19 Sukhumvit Soi 19, Sukhumvit Rd, Klong Toey Neua, Bangkok 10110. Tel: 255 5800-1/01 840 6426. Call to find out more about Latin dancing classes, which happen from 10am to 10pm above the restaurant.

An authentic taste of Thailand

With its soft opening on November 1, the Hotel Plaza Athenee has put Wireless Rd back into focus for those with their fingers on the pulse of the hotel scene. And with the new hotel, of course, comes several additions to the Bangkok wining and dining scene – in fact no less than five new restaurants and four bars have thrown open their doors.

According to my trusty Oxford Companion to Food, Thailand’s cuisine has spread across the globe these past three decades at a speed unprecedented by any other nation’s. Perhaps then, there’s no greater test of a hotel’s commitment to its dining patrons than its ability to provide Thai food worthy of travelling to Thailand to eat.

And so it is we find ourselves at Smooth Curry, which prides itself on creating truly authentic Thai dishes from around the country, and the days of old. Seating only sixty, the restaurant is certainly intimate enough for a romantic meal; there are two private rooms, however, which would be a good choice for more sizeable groups or for entertaining clients.

The furniture is sleek and stylish, the d?cor quietly sophisticated; inimitable Thai style has infected everything down to the silver cutlery and dark brown stoneware set on the table and simply shown off on crisp white tablecloths.

As we browsed the menu to the soft strains of traditional Thai music, we were served a welcome ginger drink. Sweet and cool, it was an omen of the good things to come.

We started with Paper Moons (Bt140), deep-fried rice shells filled with minced pork, shrimps, vermicelli, onions, salted egg yolk and mushrooms. The rice shells had an unusual texture and good flavour just on their own; but once broken open they released a small button of other well-balanced flavours. Just a few of these were the perfect appetiser, making at least my taste buds scream for more, but there are plenty of other more traditional dishes to try too – Tod Man Pla (fish cakes with a light curry flavour, Bt140) or Gai Hor Bai Toey (marinated chicken breast in pandanus leaf, Bt120), were some of the alternatives.

We dined just a few days after the hotel’s soft opening, so the wine list was still being printed. I edged towards a lemongrass juice anyway, while my partner stuck to his regular beer.

Next we tried a traditional twist on the ubiquitous Tom Yam Goong (which is also, of course, on the menu at Bt 200). The Tom Som Goong Nang (traditional Thai soup with prawns, ginger and spring onions, Bt220) had an almost citrus-like refreshing tang that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. That was until knowledgeable restaurant manager Oravee Thongsong came to the rescue – it was tamarind, of course. This is a dish definitely worth trying – even the prawns were noticeably tasty.

We had to give my favourite Thai dish a go, and it more than came up to scratch. The Yam Som O (spicy pomelo salad with prawns and chicken, Bt150) was quite rich, with a generous serving of the "spicy" part commanding attention.

Of course, we had to try a smooth curry as well. We went for the Panaeng Pla Salmon (salmon in red curry paste, Bt280), a single thick and juicy salmon steak smothered in a curry paste with real bite. Salmon-lovers might worry about the flavour of the salmon being lost under the curry; it’s certainly not as pronounced as a plain old salmon steak, but the dish gives a new appreciation of the marvellous texture of salmon itself.

We were tempted by the Ped Ob Bai Tamlueng (baked duck with vine leaves, Bt190) and edged towards the Hor Mok Talay (steamed curried seafood, Bt 220) – but decided take a rest instead.

There are no dazzling views to be had from this restaurant, but the food will hold your attention anyway. And in between dishes you can just soak up the tranquil atmosphere you’re in.

As we did prior to dessert. I sampled the Gluay Buard Chee Herng (banana in coconut cream, Bt80) while my partner went for the Khao Neaw Mamuang (sticky rice and mango, Bt130). Both were elegant ways to end out meal – we thought!

Khun Oravee decided that we should also try Thaong Yhib, Thaong Yawd, Med Kanhun, and Foy Thong (Thai egg sweet meats, Bt100) with our coffees. It was a wise move on her part, as they concluded the meal perfectly.

Smooth Curry stands its own in the sea of Thai restaurants in Bangkok hotels. It’s not breaking any culinary boundaries, but it’s doing what it sets out to do with admirable panache.

The taste of Takumi

Takumi: it means skilful and clever in Japanese. And it’s an apt name for this stylish restaurant, tucked away on the second floor of the vast Merchant Court Hotel.

First impressions are important, and Takumi’s doesn’t let diners down here. The restaurant seats a total of 90, but there are eight elegant tatami rooms – which should be booked in advance, and contain some beautiful vases, of all things – lending an intimacy even to the main dining area. Takumi opened in August, and as such it still has a very ‘new’ feel to it, with pale woods and simple but elegant furniture sitting spotless beneath the soft overhead lights.

The Japanese sushi chef works on a black granite bench in front of four luminous tanks containing fish and other sea creatures – they’re for display, our charming and friendly waiter told us – not your dinner. They certainly inspire thoughts of freshness.

It’s possible, if you haven’t eaten much Japanese food before, to be rather overwhelmed merely by the menu in a Japanese restaurant. That could happen at Takumi, as well, with its extensive lists of kaiseki, shojin ryori, yakimono, nabe mono, udon and so on – but not if one of the waiters gets to you first.

Ours doesn’t hesitate to recommend a selection of dishes with confidence, despite the restaurant’s tender age. We start with a selection of very fresh sashimi (local, Bt280++, or imported 1,480++) and wash it down with some fiery warm sake.

Next comes soup. I try the tai shiru shoga zitate, a clear ginger-flavoured red snapper soup (Bt90++), which comes with chunks of soft white leeks, very tender fillets of snapper, and a delicate, well-balanced flavour. My partner tries the miso shiru, a soy bean paste soup with seaweed and egg (Bt70++), which also rates a good report.

You’ll need to be adept at using chopsticks to move the larger pieces safely from your soup bowl to your mouth (otherwise you sip directly from the bowl): the black-slated wooden placemats look too gorgeous to even think about spilling anything on. You could always place one of the sleek, earth- toned plates beneath your bowl if you’re nervous. (Be warned: my partner’s concluding words to the evening were “You’re not very good with chopsticks, are you?”)

Takumi prides itself on creating cuisine with roots in Kyoto, the city that served as Japan’s imperial capital for more than a thousand years. Kyo-ryori, or Kyoto cuisine, evolved slowly, and was influenced by its landlocked location, as well the customs of the royal court its townspeople served.

Kyoto was also the birthplace of shojin ryori, the delicate vegetarian cuisine of Zen temples, and kaiseki, a style of cooking originating from dishes served at ancient banquets.

So it’s only appropriate that our waiter has selected three types of shojin ryori for us to try: goma dofu, a steamed sesame paste tofu with wasabi sauce (Bt80++), taro imo age yaki, taro which has been boiled, grilled and then deep-fried (Bt80++) and hirosu ankake, deep fried bean curd with vegetables and sesame paste (Bt180++). The goma dofu is quite gluggy for western palates – while it’s more an acquired taste, the taro is an immediate winner. Putting the humble tuber through these various cooking processes turns it into something exquisite and even remarkable. The hirosu ankake, too, is outstanding, with a spurt of flavourful juice bursting forth from each piece of curd as it’s bitten into.

Various other appetizers, again selected by our waiter, arrive. Kamo rosu mustard, which turns out to be very tender roasted duck, steamed in soy sauce with just a delicate dab of yellow mustard on the side (Bt100++), is a favourite, while the hiyashi wakame, boiled seaweed in a fragrant sesame sauce (Bt200+), retains a satisfying crunch, and harbours the flavour of the sauce very well. The gyuniku tataki, grilled beef with a citron-orange reduction (Bt190++), is served chilled. Its succulence is matched by the sharp, clear flavour of the sauce.

Our party tries two types of tempura: yasai tempura, a standard mixed vegetable tempura (Bt120++), and a much more unusual dish, ebi taroimo koreander no kakiage, a shrimp, taro and coriander tempura that consists of diced shrimp and taro rolled in coriander and batter, and deep-fried into larger irregular-shaped chunks (Bt120++). At the table, we simply break off pieces to eat.

Yakimono, if you’re still wondering, is the term used for grilled dishes. The servings are small, and are usually served towards the end of a meal. Here we tried tori teriyaki, a deceptively simple but delicious dish of grilled chicken with teriyaki sauce (a mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin) (Bt200++), and one of the highlights of our meal, kamo teriyaki negi hasami yaki, tender grilled duck wrapped around white leeks and served in a teriyaki sauce (Bt200++).

There are plenty of other paths your meal here could take: we don’t try any of the nabe mono – the one-pot dishes, typically made in earthenware pots called donabe which are glazed on the inside only, nor the udon (noodles). Takumi also offers special dishes based on foods that are in season: steamed sea bream rolled in buckwheat noodles (Bt150) and grilled cod with sweet sauce (Bt110) are just two of the dishes we have no more room for.

But we do leave just enough room for dessert. Our waiter warns me about my choice of Green Tea Mochi (Bt70++): “It’s not really something that westerners like…”, while she recommends the much less Japanese sounding Milk and Mascarpone Cheese Pudding (Bt60) to my partner, who happily nods his head. Others opt for good old-fashioned ice cream.

Mochi is a steamed vegetable cake, and this one comes with a generous dusting of fine soy bean and green tea powder (quite like tira simu, you have to watch your breathing as you eat it). The green tea flavour is strong, and the consistency is very thick and perfectly smooth. It was unusual; another acquired taste, shall we say.

Then I tasted the cheese pudding. If you get to Takumi, you must try this astounding, delicious dish. It was like fresh, no, very fresh milk turned into a delicate, creamy custard…

You don’t have to go far to find a competent Japanese restaurant in Bangkok these days, but you do need to make a little bit of a trip to find a Japanese restaurant as outstanding – in quality, foremost, but also in very reasonable prices – as Takumi. Do make the effort.

Open Midday-2.30pm, 6pm-10.30pm daily
Merchant Court Hotel
Le Concorde
202 Ratchadapisek Rd, 10320 Bangkok
Ph. 694 2222

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

Water works

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.

Secluded rendezvous

You can choose the restaurant, but you can’t choose who sits at the table next to you. We were squeezed between a table with a blonde Australian woman in pink, who announced to the restaurant – and her subdued companions – her reasons for becoming a vegetarian, and a table of Americans who were screeching less loudly but no less obtrusively about shows in New York. A few Thais chatted in hushed tones in a corner, hopefully unaware of their dining cohorts’ bad manners.

The great art beaming down at us from the walls – it’s a mixed-media exhibition entitled ‘The World According to Kongpat’ by Thai artist Kongpat Sakdapitak – took on another quality: silence.

This was my second visit to Eat Me. The first was made late last year, when candles were dotted up the wooden staircase leading to the second floor restaurant which looks out into a small green courtyard.

The intimacy of the small restaurant was then a positive attribute; there were just a few tables of softly-spoken people enjoying the ambience enhanced by the great jazz playing over the soundsystem. I had a duck dish that was so fabulous I did something I had never done before: I asked for a doggie bag to take the portion I couldn’t finish home.

This time, the candles are gone, but the jazz is still creating an urbane mood which is further extended by the chatty staff who seat us. The tables are a little high, making us feel a bit like kids in kindergarten: the butcher paper covering the tables and accompanied by a glass of well-sharpened colour pencils only further made us want to indulge in being demanding kids once again.

The drinks menu isn’t extensive but covers good ground: try the tangerine juice (Bt 60) for a change, or the iced lemon and cinnamon tea (Bt 60) which comes with free refills if you’re off the hard stuff, or maybe a frozen blue daiquiry if you’re not. The wine list offers a reasonable choice, with house wine at 95 baht a glass.

I was actually most impressed by the presentation of the water, which is served in translucent glass bottles with a sprig of vibrant green mint inside.

While waiting for our second round of drinks we got an inkling of the standard of service to come. There was confusion over what we asked for, wine glasses were unnecessarily brought to the table and a bottle of beer arrived without a glass.

The service was not so much poor as confused; the staff were very obliging but there actually seemed to be too many waiters dealing with us. If this is not already done, assigning waiters to particular tables might be a good way to improve things on busier evenings.

Drinks in hand again, we perused the menu, which changes weekly. When we visited it offered a great international selection, leaning towards but not dominated by Italian-influenced dishes.

Eat Me wins big points for its complementary bread, brought to the table warm and doughy (twice) with accompaniments. The whole cloves in the bulb of roasted garlic are sweet and creamy and extinguish all thoughts about the scent of one’s breath tomorrow. I would seriously return for more of this garlic alone, and it’s not even on the menu. Olive oil with a dollop of balsamic vinegar, tangy horseradish and a capsicum mixture are also good offerings.

Our gang ordered each of the three soups on offer (Bt 70 each), bypassing the five other starter choices which included a bocconcini, basil and tomato salad (Bt 180) and a warm spicy chicken salad with almond flakes and champagne vinegar dressing (Bt 180).

The tomato and basil soup was delicate and struck a good acidity. The potato and leek was smooth and satisfying while the sturdy minestrone also drew favourable comments. I confess that I was intrigued by the side order of fat potato chips (Bt 80) and tried these too. They were, indeed, chunky and fat.

A dozen choices were carefully weighed up for mains. Vegetarians could try the pumpkin ravioli with tomato sauce (Bt 180) or the grilled eggplant bocconcini stack (Bt 250), while seafood lovers could go for the fried fish with chips and tartar sauce (Bt 230) or the grilled trevally filet with spinach and seafood sauce (Bt 250).

One of our party tried the smoked salmon and vegetable lasagna (Bt 220). A bit heavy with the cream, this diner was furthermore disappointed by the size of his side five-lettuce salad (Bt 50) which arrived towards the end of the meal.

Two ordered the slow pan-fried duck breast with dijon sauce (gruyere cheese is a second sauce option) (Bt 290). Both complained that the generous serving of duck was slightly dry; but the two who demanded a taste declared it to be rather delicious.

I was very pleased with my choice: the lamb chops with rosemary, vegetable stew and a red wine sauce. It was full-flavoured and perfect comfort food after being soaked by Songkran revellers on the way to the restaurant. The three chops were meaty and streaked with a nice amount of fat.

We placed a dessert order for two sticky date puddings with hot butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream (Bt 110) which we spent some time waiting for. When we tried to cancel, one pudding quickly appeared with the complements of the restaurant. We enjoyed it, finally, in the calm that descended on the restaurant as the loudest table left.

There’s a good range of coffee and tea if you choose to linger: good to see decafe and soy milk on the menu.

Eat Me was a great restaurant when I last visited, and this visit indicated that it still has the makings of a classy contemporary restaurant. It was unfortunate that our dining cohorts didn’t enjoy the atmosphere as much as we were trying to, and a shame that the service wasn’t up to scratch, but a third visit will certainly be due in another few months.

Eat Me, Soi Phipat 2. Prices quoted above do not include a 10 per cent service charge. Reservations can be made by phoning 238 0931. Open 6 pm to 1 am daily.

The latin connection

I have a theory about why the Latino craze originally kicked off in Thailand: it was the Ricky Martin-World Cup connection. With literally millions of Thais glued to their screens for the biggest soccer event on earth way back in 1998, it was perhaps inevitable that they would be seduced by the Puerto Rican’s rhythmic rumblings.

Two years later, the seed that Ricky planted in many a-mind has grown into a Thai love affair with all things Latino. Rainbow-coloured clubs and restaurants with bands pumping out sambas, cha chas and boleros have sprung up like cacti after a desert storm; dancing classes are de rigueur among the mobile-phone set and now there are even Latino food and cocktail-making classes for the truly dedicated Latinophile.

I have a second theory that although the craze may be here for a while, it will eventually fade. But it will have had an important effect on the Bangkok culinary scene via its introduction of Latino food to the discerning Thai palette. And it is the food, perhaps, that will be here to stay.

The Salsa Club and Restaurant, underneath the Pathumwan Princess, is currently one of the most sophisticated spots to practise those Ricky or Jennifer moves. Vividly-painted and decorated with some stylish artworks designed by Silpakorn University students, the space sets the appropriate mood although it doesn’t quite manage to shake off the feeling of being part of a large hotel.

However, as is so often the case with Bangkok hotels, the food is exceptional, and popular consensus seems to place American chef Bryant Oxman at the forefront of the current Latino culinary assault.

We checked out the Club on a Wednesday night when the crowd was relatively thin but the resident Columbian seven-piece band, Kalamary, was still delivering crowd-pleasing tunes.

There’s really only one appropriate cocktail to kick off a Latino-themed evening with, and that’s the Mojito (Bt200), a blend of Havana Club rum, fresh mint, lemonade and lime juice over ice. Here they come in a massive saxophone-shaped ceramic mug that almost seems bottomless – a generous if ostentatious cousin to the humbler style served at places like The Havana Club (on Sukhumvit Soi 22).

A sturdy snack of Guacamole de Sergio (Bt140) accompanied the cocktails while we pondered the enticing menu, best characterised by the term “nouvelle Latino”. Chef Oxman, who we chatted with later in the evening, says he shys away from the “fusion” label that is being popularised, saying emphatically that the food he cooks “resembles food in the southern part of America, and of Mexico. It’s not in the process of changing.”

We settled on entrees of Nopales Ensalada (Bt110), a “fiery salad of cactus, white corns and shredded pork with Tequila Habenero vinaigrette”, along with the Latino Caesar Salad (Bt140) and Seafood Empanadas (Bt130) which were an interesting twist on everyday Thai curry puffs. The cactus salad had me completely entranced, and Oxman expressed surprise that I had never tried cactus before.

“Cactus flowers? Never eaten them? I grew up in Colorado, in the southwestern part of the United States and we eat them there. In Mexico they eat them, too,” he explains. “The young cactus buds are tender, real tender. You just take the spines off them, then most people would grill them, then make a salad.”

He imports them from Mexico already pickled, but says that they are familiar to Thai cooking. “So I’m trying to get fresh ones here. I know what they’re called, but I can’t find them in any market.”

For mains my partner settled on a good ol’ hearty paella, which came with shellfish, Chorizo, pork and chicken, while I made a superb choice: Barbados Rum & Pepper Painted Grouper, which came with a black bean fennel stew, grilled banana and a vanilla-scented mango-haberero mojo. It could not be faulted and I wondered how anybody could ever make it to the dessert menu – which features such tempters as Flan de Coco y Ron (coconut rum flan, Bt 100) and Triple Chocolate Torta (Bt120).

Oxman began cooking in South Florida about 15 years ago. “That’s where a lot of the Caribbean, the Cuban and the South American influence came. It was kind of second nature from there,” he says, adding that he prefers to work with spicy food.

He came to Thailand nearly a year ago for a holiday and hasn’t left since. It’s possible that he was seduced to stay by som tam. “You know that’s the first thing I ate when I got here. I ate it out on the street, and that’s when I really, you know…,” he said, smiling the smile of a som tam lover. “The fermented fish they put in – the stink – it was beautiful! The heat wasn’t masking anything, but it was an impressive heat. It was heat like I had never experienced.” It certainly would be if you added 15 chillis the way Oxman does.

Despite his love of Thai cuisine there’s not a heavy Thai influence in Oxman’s dishes, although he points out that the dishes are created using very similar ingredients. He does, however, create dishes aimed more to the Thai palette. “I bring the heat up a little bit, make it a little more acidic,” he says.

As to whether the fad will transform into a permanent feature on the Bangkok scene, Oxman’s not sure: “I ask myself that everyday: what’s going to happen in Bangkok? We have to educate people (about Latino cuisine).” But Oxman is hopeful that Thais will come around to savour Latino food. “The Thais have very good palettes. They’re accustomed to eating strong food and aren’t into the real fancy frilly food that lacks flavour. They appreciate taste.”

As my partner and I settle back into our chairs and rethink dessert, we watch people take to the floor to show off the latest steps they’ve mastered, while others enthusiastically shake the maracas the band’s passed around to get things happening. And we agree that it would be a very good thing if this Latino craze was to last for a while to come.

The Salsa Club Restaurant is located underneath the Pathumwan Princess Hotel, MBK Centre, 444 Phayathai Rd, Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330. Open nightly 6 pm to 11 pm, with snacks and drinks served until 2 am. Phone 216 3700 for reservations. Prices quoted above do not include VAT or 10% service charge. Latino food classes are now running at The Salsa Club on Saturdays.

Phone for details.