Brandon Huisman at The Bale

Chef Brandon Huisman is hungry. He wants to know whether I like pizza, and do I eat pork? I do, and I do.

“The chorizo flatbread, please,” he orders as the final dish for our lunch. We’ve a table at sleek-lined Faces, the in-house eatery at The Bale in Bali’s tranquil Nusa Dua. All wood and stainless steel and gleaming glass, airy Faces is the kind of restaurant that makes you want to eat food for the soul.

Indeed it’s a “Wellness Corner” menu that Brandon has most recently introduced, and his passion for organically-grown and locally-sourced food is what he’s known for.

“We always had a spa menu but it was only for the spa and in-room dining, so it was the one thing I hadn’t put my stamp on,” says the accomplished chef of the menu.

“I wanted to do something special so I spent quite a bit of time researching it, and I’ve incorporated it on the lunch and dinner menu as well,” he explains, noting that the complete nutritional value of each dish is listed on the menu, something people who are carefully watching their cholesterol, for instance, will welcome.

“It was a little painstaking to get that information,” he confesses.

The light, summery dishes – think rice paper ravioli, think golden gazpacho — are a complete departure from the cream-laden cuisine Brandon was trained classically to produce in Paris.

“Pretty much anyone who goes to school, you get a foundation in that. You don’t really go to culinary school and learn how to do vegan cuisine. So I took it upon myself and just researched it.”

So first up we split two dishes from the Wellness Corner menu.

The organic quinoa salad with nashi pear, papaya relish, toasted almonds and curry vinaigrette (95,000 rupiah++) is light, yet flavoursome, the curry flavour a startling but delicious collision with the crispy greens from the mountains of Bedugal. The dish is subtly sweetened by the pear and given substance by the delicate spirals of quinoa. Orange edible flowers flecked with black lift the presentation well beyond the ordinary.

“I guess my philosophy would be to look at what’s in season, what’s organic, what’s grown by the local farmers and then form my menu and recipes from that,” Brandon says, adding that only when he can’t find an ingredient at the quality he demands will he then use an imported product.

Beef, for instance, is sourced from abroad, but all the fish is locally sourced, including the spiced rare tuna, our second selected dish. Served with enoki mushrooms, pea shoots, citrus vinaigrette and carmelized pomelo gastrique (115,000 rupiah++), it’s a riot of freshness, and the tuna is melt-in-the-mouth. Red radish sprouts from Australia garnish the plate, adding more colour to an already vibrant presentation.

These concoctions are also set to feature at a second restaurant The Bale will manage from August. Bamboo, at the Amala in Seminyak, will be just four or five tables with a similar health-inspired theme.

“The focus is on the wellness and holistic, so we’re going to basically take what we have here, shrink it and put it over there,” Brandon enthuses.

He looks forward to shuttling between the two properties. He and his wife, a pastry chef, spent time in Bhutan managing the food in four lodges, so he’s used to being on the prowl. “When you’re in the same place for a few weeks at a time you kind of get in a rut. But when you can go to a new property, you see things again with fresh eyes. It stops it becoming stale.” Our health kick is over.

Next up from the standard Faces menu comes our chorizo flatbread (175,000 rupiah++), its heady aroma heralding its arrival. It’s a meat-lover’s nirvana, slathered in sliced chorizo, chunks of pork belly, salty bacon, arugula, dabs of blue cheese and a sprinkling of chilli flakes.

“Kind of like going to McDonalds and getting your Big Mac and Diet Coke,” Brandon quips.

It seems doubtable that this American would be frequenting fast food joints very often and he admits that he eats well at home. (“You’d be surprised! I offset it with the Bintang,” he says with remorse, patting some very negligible padding.)

He cooks four or five times a week at home, dining with his wife and their 13-month-old son. The couple met at culinary school in France. Brandon was following a passion for food he developed while working in the industry to support himself at college, where he studied business management. His wife, who has a degree in environmental engineering and had been working for GE for a few years, had decided she wanted to open a pastry shop, so she dropped everything to follow her dream. And they’ve worked together ever since.

While he’s cautious about eating out – there aren’t too many places in Nusa Dua to begin with and he’s wary of hygiene, MSG and the amount and kind of oil restaurants use – Brandon admits to enjoying regular Sunday forays to the Nusa Dua Beach Grill, a local warung and a local Japanese restaurant. And now he’s spending more time in Seminyak, he’s tried more restaurants there, with Warung Italia and Mannekepis getting his stamp of approval.

I’m curious as to whether the meat-eater has tried Ibu Oka’s legendary babi guling (suckling pig) in Ubud. He has – but a take-out version his manager brought to him.

“I can’t go to Ubud without going past Naughty Nuri’s.” He confesses that he has to have a plate of their famed succulent barbecue ribs when he’s nearby. And while he’s sussed out that the sauce is based on Indonesia’s kecap manis, there’s a mystery ingredient he hasn’t been able to put his finger on, he says with some disappointment.

Guests invited round to the Huismans’ for meals are typically treated to a joint effort, a grill with maybe some steaks, barbecue ribs and chicken wings, along with home-made pizzas and salad. A wood-fired pizza oven is in fact currently under construction at their house, along with a home-made barbecue grill made with a 50-gallon drum.

What would he whip up for a vegetarian popping over? “Ah, they wouldn’t be invited!” he laughs, before conceding that, if he had to, he’d probably do a platter of grilled vegetables, particularly of local asparagus if it was in season. And if he really wanted to impress, I imagine he could probably pull a few strings and get some Faces take out.

Best lightly fried, Cambodians can’t get enough crickets

PHUM THUN MONG, Cambodia – By day, the expanse of emerald rice fields look like ordinary, peaceful paddies. But when dusk falls, sheets of plastic unfurl from bamboo frames, electric blue neon tubes flicker on, and hordes of Cambodian crickets are lured to untimely, watery deaths.

The humble chirping cricket became a part of Cambodians diet during the famine years of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and has remained a part of Cambodia’s cuisine since.

But this year, huge numbers of Cambodians in central Kampong Thom province have jumped in on the business as demand has spiked, leading to innovative ways of catching the critters and sparking interest from the agricultural ministry.

Roadside at the village of Thun Mong, 40-year-old Soun Sang smokes a cigarette in the violet light cast by some of his lamps, awaiting the night’s haul with some trepidation as an unusual drizzle sets in.

"Some nights only a few come, so it’s really not reliable. But when there are a lot, there might be 3,000 kilograms (6,600 pounds) collected in this area," he says, gesturing to the horizon, where blue lights zig zag as far as the eye can see.

Like many in this village, Soun Sang started catching crickets this year when he noticed his neighbours setting up newfangled traps and doing well. They earn 2,000 to 5,000 riel (50 cents to 1.25 dollars) per kilogram.

The traps devised only a season or two ago consist of a rectangular bamboo frame hung with a sheet of plastic, topped by a blue fluorescent tube to attrack the insects powered by a car battery or diesel generator. A pond is dug to catch the crickets after they hit the plastic and hurtle to the ground.

They seem simple but still cost about 170,000 riel to put together, a serious investment in impoverished Cambodia, where more than a third of the population gets by on under a dollar a day.

Soun Sang recalls how he began eating crickets in desperation during the 1975-79 ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge regime, which oversaw the deaths of up to two million Cambodians, many from starvation.

"We started eating them during Pol Pot’s regime, but back then we caught the crickets by digging holes. We didn’t have these lamps," he says.

"We had to play hide and seek (to avoid capture and punishment) and at that time we toasted them over a fire. Now we can fry them up in oil and they have a better taste. And now I’m not worried at all about being caught."

The former medical officer, who treated government soldiers fighting Khmer Rouge guerillas in the 1980s as the conflict rumbled on, lost an arm and several fingers when he stepped on a landmine in 1988.

Today he keeps cows and draws a 100,000 riel per month pension.

"If the crickets come, I can make a really good profit. Some nights I collect up to 30 kilograms," the father-of-two says.

While the crickets have come for years, Soun Sang says middlemen seeking to buy them turned up only recently. He grumbles that they have the edge, with mobile phones to call each other and estimate the night’s haul before setting a price.

"We don’t have telephones so sometimes they cheat us and say a lot came elsewhere so we don’t get a good price," he complains.

A few kilometres away, middleman and catcher Nong Sovann has 42 lamps ringing his rice paddies like sapphire necklaces. This is his second year in the business and he says demand is skyrocketing.

"This year is much better than last year," he says, estimating that he netted a tonne a day last month. "If we collect a tonne, then we go to the Thai border."

At Arunras Restaurant — considered the best in Kampong Thom city — manager Nari, who declines to give her surname, demonstrates how to consume them, selecting from a tray of crickets fried with green onions, garlic and salt.

She sells about 20 kilograms a day but first offered the insects, until recently seen as unsophisticated street food in Cambodia, only a month ago as her customers started demanding them.

The 45-year-old’s ruby-polished nails pluck a dewinged and gutted carcass off the pile and she snaps off and discards two thick hind legs before biting into the head with a crunch. A plate of about 50 costs 5,000 riel.

"People eat them with beer or just about anything at all. This morning someone ordered them for the first time with rice on the side," she says, popping the rest of the insect into her lipsticked mouth.

Ou Bossphoan, director of the provincial department of agriculture, takes the upsurge in demand seriously, and says the seasons seem to run roughly from May to July and December to January but are not fully predictable.

"People need extra income and this provides Kampong Thom people with a new income," he says in his office, a stone’s throw from the market where sellers are now offloading last night’s disappointing haul.

"Our experts are going to study whether this mass catching will affect the numbers" of crickets in the wild, he says.

He says that generators to power large numbers of lamps have been used for the first time this year and that the ministry of agriculture has asked his department to investigate the source of the crickets. Even farming is an idea being tossed around, but he fears the market prefers "wild" crickets.

Numbers are difficult to estimate, but Ou Bossphoan believes about half of the insects not eaten in Kampong Thom end up in Phnom Penh, half in Thailand.

The crickets also flock to neighbouring Kampong Cham and Siem Reap provinces, but in smaller numbers, and people say the Kampong Thom crickets are the most delicious, he claims.

And the senior official confirms the cricket obsession is going upmarket.

"Our officials here in the past were not interested in crickets but this year, we are eating a lot. When I go to a restaurant, I too order crickets."

Bangkok’s French connection

“Perhaps more than anything else, it is the French chef’s willingness to question and build on the past, to innovate, to revise, that has kept French cuisine pre-eminent among western cuisines…” So says the Oxford Companion to Food under its entry for France.

In Bangkok, it’s two French-trained Thai chefs who are developing French food along a uniquely exciting trajectory. Chefs Sukvadee Tantayakorn and Sirirat Khositaphai have hit on a wonderful combination with their four-months young restaurant Mes Amis, where they serve up contemporary fine French food in stylish yet understated surroundings.

On the Thursday night we dropped by, the 60s-built house tucked away in a narrow Thong Lor soi– its renovation took four months – was humming with diners and the gentle clink of silver cutlery on white ceramic plates. We took a seat by the glass window overlooking a tiny garden area and were immediately convinced we’d made a superb find: Think sleek lines, blonde wood, taupe canvas chairs and soft downlighting, interspersed with oversized lampshades. While there’s something very contemporary Thai about the interior design, the simple short- stemmed single roses adorning each table acknowledge that subtle Gallic influences are at work here too.

After a dry martini that drew a five-star rating and a sweet house cocktail called the Mes Amis, Chef Pooky offered to take us under her wing for the evening, serving a selection of dishes from the restaurant’s new menu, due to be launched within a week or two of our visit.

First came a basket of quite perfect herbed breads, served warm and tucked under a crisp white napkin. Accompanied by individual servings of butter and piquant chicken liver pate, we were off to an impressive start. Jaunty French music – the sort that lets you imagine you just might be in France, without at all being embarassing – allowed each table an intimacy that other restaurants of this small size frequently find difficult to achieve.

Pooky sent us the tuna tartare (Bt320++), a blend of confident chunks of very fresh tuna topped with a delicate roe, and served alongside very thin triangles of crisp yet buttery toast. Next came pan-fried foie gras, topped with apple knobs and a red wine sauce (Bt820). The foie gras melted in the mouth immediately, its richness cut well with the gentle tang of the apple.

While the wine list has its emphasis on the French, it was encouraging to see there are plenty of new world wines cellared to keep oenophiles of all persuasion happy. At Pooky’s suggestion, our waiter popped the cork of a Robert Mondavi Caliterra 1998 Reserva cabernet sauvignon, just before our mains arrived.

And it was an excellent choice to accompany her veal escalope, topped with foie gras and bordelaise sauce (Bt 650++). The veal’s tenderness was countered by its crisp outer shell, then again by the delicacy of the foie gras, while the flavours performed their own little tug of war with great results. More innovative still was the charcoal-grilled lamb chops, served with home-made squid ink angel hair pasta and port jus (as yet unpriced). The Australian pink lamb was full-flavoured and juicy, but the pasta in particular was a real attention-grabber, thanks to its great bite and evocative garlic scent.

On a return visit I’ll be trying the frog legs in a brandy flambe (Bt280), perhaps with an organic mixed salad (Bt190) ,followed by a duck in red wine and prune sauce. On another I might head instead for the lobster bisque (Bt 190), before a pan-fried dover sole with lemon butter sauce (Bt450)… For there will be many return visits here.

Dessert confirmed this. A crème brulee (Bt150) with no dazzle – simply velvet and vanilla – was a classic conclusion that needed no elaboration. The lemon pie (Bt120++), on the other hand, was adorned with a criss-cross of fine meringue, a reminder perhaps, of its dowdier cousin the lemon meringue pie. But the mouth-puckering tartness of the lemon filling ensured that this pie was in a league of its own.

For smokers, the open-air terrace upstairs offers an equally pleasant dining location. Those wanting to linger over coffee and a chat can move up here for a change of scenery too. The split second level also contains a small gallery space, so daytime diners can get their fix of art on the walls along with art on their plates.

This is French food with a solid pedigree – no smoke and mirrors, no trivial diversions on the menu here – adapted for discerning Bangkokians. And with French culinary history famed for singing the praises of change, you can’t ask for more than that.

Mes Amis
102/3 Sukhumvit 53 (Thong Lor 5)
Bangkok 10110
Tel: 02 260 6445, 02 260 6446
Open daily, 11.30am to 2.30pm
Sunday to Thursday, 6pm to 11pm
Friday to Saturday, 6pm to 1am
Afternoon high tea 2.30pm to 5.30pm

A new take on tradition

It’s about polishing a traditional concept a little, bringing it line with people’s changing tastes while also subtly improving on it.

It’s easy to deduce that the Novotel’s newly-renovated Lok Wah Hin is essentially a Chinese restaurant. Lazy susans spin on tables, under which elegant tall-backed chairs snugly sit, wispy Chinese paintings adorn the walls and the decor of soft blacks, greens and golds leave no room for doubt.

But this is modern Chinese. The crisp, clean lines of both the restaurant’s design and its ostentatious flower arrangements evoke a little of Japan, while we’re told the chef has oriented the menu slightly towards the west, meaning it includes dishes that are technically "fusion" rather than strictly Chinese. Indeed there are references to Japanese, Singaporean and Hong Kong meals on the menu, but they are quite clearly nods to culinary influences rather than confusion over this restaurant’s focus. This is modern Chinese dining – the emphasis is on Schezuan and Cantonese – with some adventurous, intriguing twists.

We commence our meal with braised crab claws with XO sauce (Bt300++ each). They’re piquant to the point of spiciness and sweet, too, in typical aromatic Schezuan style. The crab flesh is tender and juicy, it’s flavour only just allowed to shine through the sauce. I’d like another really, but there’s a whole meal to get through…

The first of a succession of steaming plates is delivered to our table, braised sea cucumber with black mushrooms in a brown sauce. Having never tried its main ingredient, I’m immediately enthused. The cucumber’s texture is not something I’ve been conditioned to appreciate in the west, but after a few mouthfuls I do thoroughly enjoy it – a coinosseur might throw their hands up in horror at the comparison, but its texture is reasonably similar to jellyfish. This particular dish is not on the main menu, but it does appear on several of the set menus, which start at Bt6,200 per ten people (or fewer if an advanced booking is made).

The sauteed prawns with chicken, which arrive in a cleverly made, crisscrossed basket made of taro, are also only available on set menus. The dish itself lives up to its presentation, with tender chicken, prawns and succulent sea scallops making for an excellent combination.

We also tuck into steamed T-man fish rolls with shredded giner and spring onion (Bt300/450/750++). The flesh is moist and sweet, and complemented well by the slightly acidic, salty sauce.

My favourite dish, however, is the sauteed broccoli topped with crabmeat (Bt180/270/450++). The deep green broccoli is smothered in a creamy sauce laden with chunks of the tender meat that perfectly complement the underlying vegetable.

Other tempting items on the lengthy menu include stewed soya sauce pigeon and vegetables (Bt350++per piece), sauteed beef fillet with black pepper sauce (180/270/450++) and braised fish maw and sea conch in brown sauce (Bt600/900/1,500). But we fill the tiny hole still left in our appetites with a bowl of hearty Singapore-style fried rice noodles (Bt1180/270/450++), a positive twist on the typical final banquet dish of fried rice. The flat, wide cut noodles have a pleasurably clean cut; they’d be ideal for a quick meal on their own.

I’m reluctant to venture towards dessert, but our host insists, encouraging me to try the double-boiled Chinese ginseng with hasma, or snow frog jelly (Bt250++ per individual serving). The ginseng soup is delicate and pleasantly light after our heavy meal, while the fluffy jelly is fragrant and slightly redolent of nutty wood.

The wine list is short but competent, with an emphasis on those from new world countries, and several choices available by the glass (Bt195 to 250++). Prices range mostly from Bt1,200 to 2,500++.

Lok Wah Hin is probably more suited to larger parties than intimate dinners for couples, with six private rooms for 12 people each surrounding the main dining area. These rooms can be joined to make room for even bigger groups, but when we were there, the bulk of the diners were family-sized groups.

As we make a start to leave, the family seated next to us looks suitably impressed with the arrival of their whole Peking duck. It’s glistening in all its caramel-coloured splendour, and we can tell they can’t wait for it to be sliced and traditionally served up.

Some things might have changed for the better at Lok Wah Hin, but the best things have certainly stayed the same.

Novotel, Siam Square Soi 6
Tel: 02 2255 6888

Tasteful education

If the name Cabbages and Condoms isn’t enough to channel your imagination in the right direction, you’ll get a better idea of what’s to come as you enter this popular Thai restaurant. A small wooden fertility shrine greets visitors, complete with small sculptures of the famed monkeys who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil – only in this set there’s a fourth monkey, demurely covering his nether regions with his paws.

The humour continues inside, where tasteful Thai wooden carvings are interspersed with sets of packaged condoms from around the world, mounted on the wall in woven flat baskets. Then there are the displays of glinting instruments used for vasectomies, posters featuring unusual condoms, and a carpet emblazoned with cartoon condoms. And the menu, which boldly states: "Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy."

It’s eclectic, and educational too. As manager Nobphadol Sriruwat explains, the restaurant opened in 1987 as an offshoot of non-profit organisation, the Population and Community Development Association (PDA), which has its head office located right next door. "Some of the staff used to go out to buy their food on the street at lunch time, and then they thought it made sense to start cooking it here," he says.

They soon saw that starting a proper restaurant would be both a way of fundraising for the PDA, and also a vehicle for promoting birth control, the organisation’s driving objective when founded in 1974 by former Thai health minister and philanthropist Mechai Viravaidya. And why the name Cabbages and Condoms? "Because we want condoms to become as common as cabbages," explains Nobphadol.

We leave ourselves in his hands, and find that the first dish to arrive on our table is in tune with the restaurant’s theme. It’s the Cabbages and Condoms Salad (Bt110+), with a main ingredient of Shanghai noodles, rolled to resemble condoms – vaguely, but effectively . They’re mixed with tender shreds of chicken and salad vegetables, juicy prawns and a seriously spicy-sour dressing.

The only surprise about the other dishes is just how delicious they are for a restaurant where one might suspect food isn’t the real focus. The food’s authenticity isn’t watered down, either, for the hundreds of tourists who arrive nightly during high season from November to February. It’s not unusual for the restaurant to serve 400 people in a night, of whom around 90 per cent are visitors to Bangkok.

We’re presented with three other creations: deep-fried cotton fish, with a fresh mango sauce on the side (Bt230+), steamed prawns in whole young coconut (Bt250+) and a massaman curry, with chunks of tender New Zealand lamb (Bt350+).

The cotton fish is meaty, with the crispy batter surrounding it being perfectly thin. The mango sauce is an attention-grabbing condiment, it’s sourness rating very well on the mouthpuckering measure of success. The steamed prawns themselves are good, but it’s the generous slivers of melt-in-the-mouth young coconut that really grab my attention. The massaman curry is thick and confident, its gentle sweetness providing a good balance to the other dishes.

Other popular choices among diners are some of the dishes Thailand is renowned for: Tom Kha Gai, a chicken, galangal and coconut spicy soup (Bt110/170+) andTom Yum Kung, a spicy and sour prawn soup (Bt170/220+).

On the side, we’re served fragrant red jasmine rice, grown in the northeast region’s Buriram province. It has the enjoyable texture of wholemeal rice with a hint of scent that’s a pleasant change from the typical khao suay (steamed rice) you’ll be served in any other Thai restaurant. If you enjoy it, grab some to take home at restaurant’s gift shop on your way out, where it’s priced at Bt200 per kilogram.

You’ve heard of the Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel? Bangkok’s answer might just be the Vasectomy Bar. Order a pre-dinner cocktail (Bt150+), a local Singha beer (Bt80/130+) or a glass of the house wine (Bt120+). There’s no corkage. Teetotallers will be kept happy with a range of refreshing fruit blends (Bt90+).

For dessert, there’s a selection of traditional Thai specialities, such as Buo Loi, which are boiled flour balls with coconut syrup (Bt50), and lemon coconut jelly served with crushed ice (Bt70). Or splash out on a banana split (Bt120).

We sat in the restaurant’s newer building, similar to the original and built just three years ago, but a pleasant alternative is to sit in the outdoor courtyard area. The wisps of fairy lights hanging from the trees overhead create a festive atmosphere, and you can spot various Thai fruits looking ripe for the picking. Don’t be surprised to see mangoes growing next to durian: the fruit’s fake and is strung up for sanuk (fun) purposes only.

Dinner’s finale sees a return to the restaurant’s theme: instead of an after dinner mint you’ll be offered a condom to take home. And if you’re not planning on using it, you might want to stop off at the fertility shrine on your way out.

Next to PDA Head Office
Sukhumvit Soi 12
Tel: 02 229 4611
Open daily 11am to 10.30pm

Best buys in a shrinking market

As the baht slides against the US dollar, Californian winemakers are feeling the pinch in Thailand. ?We cannot say that Californian wine represents good value for money anymore,? says Uthorn Budhijalananda from The Wine Cellar. ?For good value you cannot compare them to Australian and Chilean wines right now. But compared to many French wines, they are still quite reasonably priced and good.?

Californian wines have been available on the market in Thailand for around twenty years. Uthorn judges that they?ve been second in popularity to French wines for the past six to eight years, but that wines from Australia, Chile and South Africa are now quickly catching up. ?Twenty years ago Thai people ? and Asians generally – preferred to drink whiskey and cognac,? says Uthorn. ?If they were going to start drinking wine, they wanted it to have a similar sort of character. It couldn?t be too smooth and easy, but needed to have lots of body and strong tannins.? Californian Cabernet Sauvignon fitted the bill well.

According to Vanichwathana?s assistant managing director Vichai Kanchanasevee, at the outset it was ?supermarket? brands such as Paul Mason and Gallo that introduced the Californian style to Thais. ?The premium and super premium range started around 1985 or 1986 when tourism started to boom in Thailand.?

Coupled with the growth in international hotels with professional food and beverage staff, Californian wines grew in popularity. ?The best years for California wine were from 1994 to 1997 when they had a 32 to 33 per cent market share and almost half of the volumes were medium to premium price products.?

Thanks to the sliding baht, California wines have a market share of only around seven to eight per cent, with most of the volume going to brands Paul Mason and Gallo. According to Jeff Cook, Robert Mondavi?s director of sales Asia Pacific, Californian winemakers successfully produce most varietals: ?Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from Napa; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Santa Maria area.?

Thais seeking a prestige wine should head for winemakers such as Robert Mondavi and Dominus. From Mondavi wines in particular, Mr Cook recommends the Napa Pinot Noirs, Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves and Byron Pinot Noir (prices vary based on vintage, but the latter is usually sold in upscale restaurants only, for approximately Bt3800). ?They drink on the same table as the top Grand Cru Bordeaux and top Domaines in Burgundy, but without the huge price.?

Dominus is the particular red wine produced from the Napanook vineyard in the Napa Valley, made from Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Vanichwathana?s prices range from Bt5890 to 6790 depending on vintage.

For Mondavi, at the economical end Vanichwathana stocks the Mondavi Woodbridge range, including their Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt825), Zinfandel (Bt720), Merlot (Bt670) and Sauvignon Blanc (Bt850). Other Mondavi wines include the Coastal Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1100), the Napa Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1670) and the Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt2780).

While Thais snap up those sturdy Cabernet Sauvignons, the most widely planted grape in California is in fact zinfandel, which has unknown origins (the current theory is that it?s a grape called plavac mali from Croatia) but was first harvested there in the 1850s. The Wine Cellar?s Uthorn describes the red wine the grape produces as being ?quite a smooth, easy drinking wine? ? he recommends the 1993 Robert Mondavi Zinfandel (Bt1,650), and says that Thais haven?t become familiar enough with this wine.

But if you?d still like to stick to what locals love best, Uthorn also suggests Mondavi and Dominus. For drinking now or cellaring he particularly recommends the Mondavi 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon (Bt1,800), the Mondavi 1992 or 1994 Cabernet Reserve (Bt4,250 and 6,950 respectively) or the Dominus 1994 (Bt6,300).

Be good to yourself … but enjoy

The garden is dotted with the deep purples and whites of Thai orchids here and there; a fountain gurgles and a cat lounges on the well-kept lawn. If health stems from a feeling of tranquility, then the Whole Earth is well on its way to keeping customers happy right from the start.

Take off your shoes at the entrance to the converted house, feel the cool smooth floor under your feet as you enter and absorb the peaceful atmosphere, enhanced by wooden furniture and khaki and pink d?cor. Downstairs there are tables and chairs, while upstairs the seating is traditional Thai-style. Altogether around 150 people can be accommodated, but the division of the rooms lends a degree of intimacy that suggests a much lower number.

Lounge on the cushions as you sip a smoothie – a blend of banana, papaya, yoghurt, orange juice and honey (Bt55) – and browse the menu, which features a great selection of both Thai and Indian vegetarian food, as well as a selection of dishes with seafood and chicken.

"Most people still like to eat a little meat," says part owner and manager Kaneungnit Jearawaropart. "But people really come here for the vegetarian food."

And it’s the vegetarian food that she’s obviously most proud of, carrying on a tradition of providing healthy food to Bangkokians that her uncle began 21 years ago at the Whole Earth’s first branch, on Soi Lang Suan.

"Everybody likes good food, and more people are wanting to eat food that’s good for their health," Kaneungnit adds. "Here the concept is all about health. And we want people to feel at home, to be able to relax. That’s why it’s shoes off at the door."

The restaurant philosophy is suggested by the text on the menus, that begins: "Every fibre of food we eat has within its total potentiality of cosmic intelligence." It might be a little inscrutable thanks to the translation, but the basic idea of "you are what you eat"is easily determined.

I tried the vegetarian samosas, served with a zesty sauce of coriander, mint, yoghurt, salt and pepper. Sturdy and stuffed solidly with tasty vegetables, a few of these would almost be a meal in themselves.

Kaneungnit’s favourite starter is the mango salad (Bt85), which she says is one of the more popular starters, along with the deep-fried vegetable cakes (Bt85) and the vegetarian satay (Bt85).

Next I tasted the vegetarian hor mok, a creamy steamed curry served in banana leaves (Bt90); it was a reminder of how readily adaptable so many Thai dishes are to being vegetarian. The sauce was spicy, but let the flavours of the finely-chopped vegetables show through.

"Everything we serve is fresh and cooked just before serving," Kaneungnit reminds me. She needn’t have – it’s obvious.

The fried rice with mixed vegetables and ghee (Bt140) comes served in a pineapple and with a generous sprinkling of cashew nuts; but my favourite dish was undoubtedly the tofu larb. Normally I find the idea of making vegetables imitate meat somewhat distasteful, but this dish demonstrated that tofu is simply a perfect ingredient in its own right to use in larb, being solidly textured and readily able to absorb the flavours of the herbs.

Prices are excellent: most dishes are in the Bt85 to Bt120 range. The pricier dishes include a deep-fried snow fish with mango sauce (Bt295), the shrimp tandoori (Bt295) and a charcoal broiled snow fish, but these are in the minority – making this a very affordable restaurant for the Sukhumvit area.

The wine list is a little brief, and most of the reds are unfortunately described as being suited to red meats. If you’re really here for your health though, perhaps you’ll settle on a glass of the house Carlorossi (Bt130). Large beer bottles are Bt130.

The focus on health strays just a little when it comes to dessert – this is reward time, after all. Ice cream sundaes available for those with a seriously sweet tooth, but a more well-balanced choice is the fresh banana or papaya topped with home made youghurt and fresh farm honey (Bt55).

If you’ve been really good, treat yourself and finish off with a liqueur coffee (Bt155). This is, after all, the sort of place to linger, relax and reenergise.

Whole Earth
71 Sukhumvti 26
Tel: 258 4900, 661 5279

93/3 Lang Suan
Tel: 252 5574, 652 0301

Time out for tea

While coffee shops are opening in Bangkok almost by the day, teahouses are quietly going about the business of what they?ve always done: serving tea, properly.

?If you compare the present situation to ten years ago when tea was only to be found in Chinatown, then there has been progress, but it remains very slow,? says Nim?s Tea House manager Yves Pintaud. ?The new coffee shops are trying to promote a stylish, yuppie way of life in a busy city. Tea, on the contrary, has long been associated with meditation, rest and healing – this is a concept far more difficult to sell in our present environment.?

So why follow the sheep? Head to a teahouse instead where you can slow down, choose a tea to suit your mood, and enjoy having it served correctly. Or choose your own to take home, invest in a good tea service, and ingest it at your leisure.

To the uninitiated, selecting from the huge array of teas available – more than 500 Chinese teas are in existence – can be daunting. There?s no standard way of classifying teas, but a common way to do so is based on the processing and appearance of the tea. This method produces six groups:
* Green teas, which are not fermented at all;
* Oolong teas, semi-fermented, lying between the green and red groups;
* White teas, which are slightly fermented and must follow a strict selection process;
* Red teas, which are fully fermented;
* Black teas, which are made from large mature leaves and takes the longest time to ferment; and
* Flower teas, composed of a green tea blended with flowers.

?Tung Ting Oolong is probably the most popular tea served tea here,? says Ong?s Tea assistant manager Woraphong Ong, referring to one of many types of Oolong tea. His family has been selling teas in Bangkok for more than one hundred years. ?But there are a lot of other popular teas, such as Te Kwan Yin and Narcissus [both Oolongs]. Thais tend to like teas that are more bitter, but we also stock special grade ginseng tea, which is sweet ? not from sugar, but from the tea itself.?

A bottomless cup in-house costs Bt100 to Bt300. Take-home teas (loose leaf) start at Bt45 for Thai lemongrass tea (120g), a mid-range price is the ginseng tea for Bt400 (120g), while their best quality tea is Tung Ting Oolong, costing Bt2,500 for 300g. ?This is a very good Oolong tea,? Woraphong says. ?Many of our customers know a lot about teas ? they always ask for grade A [the top grade].?

Tea services range from Bt450 to Bt3000, with price based on the type of clay used, and the artisan who made it.

At Nim?s, prices for in-house tea range from Bt100 to Bt380 per person, with the more popular ones being Korea fruit teas (Bt100) and Kau San Jin Hsuan Oolong (Bt150) tea. To take home, expect to pay Bt150 to Bt500 for 50g of Chinese tea, depending on the quality.

It might seem expensive to drink tea in-house, but the way tea is prepared is just as important as the quality of the tea itself ? and it?s unlikely the novice will get things right at home themselves. The type of water used, the water temperature, the quality of the teapot, the volume of tea leaves used and the steeping time all contribute towards a full appreciation of the tea?s qualities. If buying take-home tea, ask your tea seller for advice on that particular tea.

And when ordering in smaller teahouses, don?t always expect to be told exactly what you?re drinking, warns Woraphong. ?Many tea shops won?t tell you the names in the particular blend they are using. They?ll mix it themselves and use their own brand name.? If you like it, you?ll have to keep buying it from them.

Chile stakes its claim to variety in value-for-money wines

Chilean wines are readily available on the Thai market – they really boomed here about four years ago – and many still represent excellent value for money in a market where the total overall tax is now nearly 400 per cent. Bangkok Fine Wine’s Jonathan Glonek says, "For about 400 baht or under in Bangkok I always advise the following: If you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc buy Chilean; if you like rich Shiraz and buttery Chardonnay buy Australian."

Specifically, Glonek recommends trying the Luis Felipe Edwards Cabernet Sauvignon 1999 , which comes from Chile’s Cholchagua Valley, priced at Bt370 (excluding VAT) and Echeverria’s Sauvignon Blanc 1998 from Curico Valley, also well-priced at Bt385 (excluding VAT).

Despite belonging to the so-called New World group of wine producing countries, Chilean wines date back to the sixteenth century, when the Spanish brought and planted vines from Europe. Today the country produces some of the most reasonably priced, consistently good varietals in the world. In particular, the country is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

If you drank Chilean wine in the 80s and were disappointed, Glonek says that now’s the time to give it another go. "There’s definitely been a large improvement over the old rustic style. Chileans have always made big dark numbers but there were some real shockers and consistency problems in the early 80s. Diligence and modern technology can fix a lot of that – and in Chile’s case it has really helped enormously in bringing their quality up."

For something at the premium end, Glonek suggests Montes Alpha. Their Cabernet Sauvignon 1997 is available at Villa for Bt1285.

As the quality of Chilean wines has improved, so too has the Thai market’s attitude towards wine broadened. Nuree Yupensuk, managing director of new wine importer and distributor Oenocave Ltd, says that Thais have only recently started learning about Chilean wines. "Importers are bringing in new wines, people are starting to try more wines, and they’re often finding they prefer them to French."

She describes Chilean wine as being heavy and full-bodied. "So for drinking in hot countries like Thailand, they’re very good. " Her company carries the Cuatro Vientas 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon from Maule Valley for Bt625 (including tax), the Cuatro Vientas 2000 Chardonnay for Bt595, and a range of Dona Consuelo wines. "Their Merlot has a special character," she says. "It’s soft and gentlemanly." The Merlot 1999 goes for Bt695.

Vichai Kanchanasevee, assistant managing director of importer Vanichwathana, says Chilean wines should be drunk young. "Some wines can be cellared for a few years but most producers do not intend to make wine for long ageing."

Exceptions are the "super Chilean" red wines such as Almaviva from Mouton Rothschild and Sena from Robert Mondavi – joint ventures with local Chilean wineries – that can be aged similar to great Bordeaux wines "but their reputation doesn’t yet compare with long established French grand cru wines." They are currently unavailable in Thailand, but are usually priced at around FF220-250 in other countries.

For everyday drinking, Vichai recommends Santa Carolina and Tarapaca. Villa stocks Santa Carolina’s Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 from Lontue for Bt633, while the Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1998 from San Fernando retails at Bt759. The supermarket also has a range of Tarapaca wines, such as the Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 for Bt599, the Merlot 1998 for Bt857 and the Chardonnay 1998 for Bt599.

Foodland stocks an excellent range of Chilean wines under Bt600. The Santa Alicia Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, the Reserve Merlot 1998 and the Reserve Chardonnay 1998 are all priced at Bt425, while Sunrise Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 and Sunrise Chardonnay 1999 from Concha y Toro (Chile’s largest winery) are a step up at Bt569. Other popular Chilean wines include the Casa Donoso Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1998 and the Casa Donoso Reserve Merlot 1998, each priced at Bt575.

Small country, ambitious wines

The New Zealand wine industry took its first steps back in 1819, but has grown most dramatically over the past decade. Last year the New World country’s wine-makers sold NZ$168.8 million worth of wine to the world, a nearly tenfold increase on the 1990 figure of $18.4 million. And although not much of it is coming to Thailand, internationally-acclaimed New Zealand wine is definitely worth seeking out here for that special occasion.

New Zealand is most famous for its Sauvignon Blanc, widely regarded as the benchmark for the varietal across the world. It also produces world class Chardonnays, and its Pinot Noir, M?thode Traditionelle sparkling wines, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends are also gaining increased recognition. Over 350 wineries grow grapes in regions between the latitudes of 36 to 45 degrees, covering a length of 1,600km – the equivalent area in the northern hemisphere would be from Bordeaux and to southern Spain.

The country’s wines fall into the mid to premium price range in Thailand, and indeed the rest of the world. As Vichai Kanchanasevee, assistant managing director of local distributor Vanich Wathana, says, "The production of New Zealand wine is still very small when compared to worldwide demand. You will not be able to find cheap New Zealand wines on the market."

Vanich Wathana distribute wines from three wineries: Villa Maria, Nobilo and Nautilus Estate. "Villa Maria, in particular, a big family winery, has a good reputation and has won many awards in many competitions worldwide," he says. However, his company presently distributes only to hotels and restaurants, not retail outlets – so keep an eye out for these wines on your wine list when you next dine out.

Tom Westbury of PTK Management and Marketing says that the Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region is particularly worth seeking out. "When people talk about wines from New Zealand, they’ll ask for Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough or Nelson; reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – Bordeaux style wines – from Hawkes Bay; and Pinot Noir from Canterbury. New Zealand wines are very expensive but they produce very good quality wines.They don’t produce table wines."

Again, however, Westbury says New Zealand wines tend to go directly to hotels and restaurants. "CJ Pask wines are bought by the Central Group of hotels – these are one of the best-selling New Zealand wines," he says, adding that their Cabernet Merlot Reserve and Cavernet Sauvignon Reserve have received many awards.

Also worth keeping an eye out according to Westbury are wines from Lincoln Vineyards and Babich Wines. "The latter is an old winery that produces some very nice young wines."

Villa management were unable to provide a list, but a look at their shelves suggests they only stock wines from winery Matua Valley. Their Hawkes Bay 2000 Sauvignon Blanc, Settler Series 1999 Pinotage Cabernet Sauvignon and 1999 Chardonnay Semillon/Pinot Blanc are all priced at Bt710. Matua’s Shingle Peak 1999 Chardonnay, which uses grapes from the Marlborough region, is priced at Bt805.

Villa used to stock Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc but have sold out; Uthorn Budhijalananda from The Wine Cellar says that three to four years ago this wine represented excellent value, but its price has since doubled. He no longer stocks any New Zealand wines.

Foodland stocks a single Kiwi wine: a Montana Cabernet Sauvignon 1996, priced at Bt797.

The worsening tax situation – the overall rate is now just below 400 per cent – isn’t helping lovers of boutique style wines, such as those from New Zealand, either. Bangkok Fine Wine’s Jonathan Glonek says his company currently doesn’t import from that part of the world. "We hope to expand to New Zealand in 2002 but it would probably be best to wait until the tax situation resolves itself."

Vanichwattana: 221 5354
Bangkok Liquorland: 285 4850-1
Foodland Supermarkets: 530 0220