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Friday 3 January 2014

The London Foodie Goes to Thailand - Bangkok Revisited

At the end of a month-long trip in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, it was a great pleasure to finish in Bangkok. A lot can be said about this manic city, but one thing is universally agreed – love or hate it, no one leaves Bangkok feeling indifferent. I have experienced both emotions during my few visits to the Thai capital but learnt that a little research into transport and places to stay and eat will go a long way there.

Bangkok is hot, humid and polluted, and on top of that, it is not a place designed for those who love walking. My number one tip while in Bangkok is to take taxis wherever you go, they are affordable, some are air-conditioned and if you are a foreigner, they will probably be cheaper than tuk tuks (without the annoyance of haggling as they are metered). If you happen to be anywhere with a Sky Train station, that is another efficient and very inexpensive transport option. Keeping away from the intense heat and minimising the hassle of getting from A to B will make a huge difference to your experience there.

But looking beyond these issues, Bangkok has a great deal to offer to visitors that more than make up for its drawbacks. A foodie’s paradise, Bangkok has many fantastic restaurants, 4 of which are among Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list by San Pellegrino. There were not enough meal times in the 3 days I spent in Bangkok to fit in all the restaurants and street food I wanted to try before returning to the UK. I had a pretty good stab at it though as you can see in the Where to Eat section below. But still, I cannot wait to return.

Where to Stay

Without giving too much away in the first paragraph of this write-up, The Siam Hotel was one of the best hotels I have encountered – the striking décor, the collection of tasteful, original artwork and antiques and the impeccable service made for a unique experience.

Although the main hotel dates back only to 2005 when it was conceived by architect Bill Bensley, the houses at the front facing the Chao Phraya River are original Thai wooden houses, bought by the owners with Jim Thompson in the 1950s.

The owners are the Sukosol family, famous in Thailand as entrepreneurs, businessmen and theatre impresarios, also involved in music and cinema, and notable art collectors.

The hotel aims to recreate the era of King Rama V (1853-1910), and houses the Sukosol family’s vast collection of art and antiques, in a setting that could not be more striking.

Tastefully built in a black and white colour scheme, the hotel is a sanctuary of Art Deco elegance and style, with antiques some of which date back over 1000 years.

The rooms are clustered around a central courtyard with a large island water feature planted with trees and long ferns.

There is a gorgeous long swimming pool adjacent to the Chao Phraya River surrounded by lush gardens and verdant shrubbery.

Our room was one of the hotel’s spacious 100 sqm Riverview Suites. With ultra high ceilings, an enormous king size bed, and beautifully furnished with an eclectic display of artwork and antiques.

There was also a stunning bath and separate shower, internet-TV and a Swiss Jura coffee machine in the sitting room.

Entrance to our Suite at The Siam
Each room has a butler, and ours (Oat) was extremely helpful, taking care of our ironing, restaurant bookings and flight check-ins.

Oat patiently showing us around the hotel as I take a thousand photos...

He even noticed (I guess from our passports) that our last day there was Dr G's birthday and arranged a birthday cake for the room.

Thank you Oat!

The Siam Hotel has a small cinema furnished with original antique folding wood and velvet French cinema seats as well as a library, curio gift shop and art gallery, and a charming French-style café.

The Curio Shop at The Siam Hotel
The hotel’s gym is probably the most beautiful I have ever seen – decorated with Thai sporting memorabilia, it has the latest machines and gadgets, but also has a Muay Thai boxing ring with training offered, as well as a fitness, Tai Chi and yoga instructor, to complement the infinity pool by the riverside.

The Siam Hotel Spa evokes a luxurious opium den with elegant therapy rooms, steam and sauna facilities, a mixed bathhouse with hot and cold plunge pool, and a hair and nail salon. It is a stunning setting.

The Opium Spa at The Siam

Part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, the hotel has 39 rooms set in 3 acres of grounds in the historic Dusit district on the edge of the Chao Phraya River, with the Grand Palace 15 minutes away by boat.

Cafe at The Siam Hotel

Accessible by taxi or limousine, the hotel also has a complimentary river shuttle on a very stylish launch of gleaming varnished wood with white leather seats, which we used on several occasions.

The free boat shuttle service at The Siam
Breakfast is served in one of the lovely Thai wooden riverside houses, or in the garden, and was a mouth watering affair. Dishes are prepared a la carte, and were excellent.

We had freshly made waffles and a deliciously cheesy Croque Monsieur, coffee and juices overlooking the river.

The Siam Hotel is one of the most stylish, efficient and professional hotels I have ever stayed at, and I cannot think of anywhere else I would prefer to stay in Bangkok.

Where to Eat

Having dined at the magnificent Nahm restaurant a few days earlier (reviewed here), we were keen to make the most of our two nights in Bangkok. For one of the nights, we booked ourselves into Bolan, but there were a few other places, reviewed below, that I did not want to miss on this trip.

Issaya Siamese Club is owned and run by chef Ian Kittichai, and serves modern Thai cuisine in a historical 1920's Thai home in central Bangkok.

It is in a beautiful setting, decorated in shabby chic Thai style, with a private walled tropical garden. It is brightly coloured, and on the night we were there, the place was heaving with a primarily Thai clientele.

While we perused the menu, we kicked off with a couple of refreshing Issaya Mojitos (£6) and a selection of amuse bouche including aubergine with deep fried shrimp and tuna tartare which were excellent.

Having opted for the Issaya Set Menu at a very reasonable £28 per person, we enjoyed three very different but equally delicious starters:

Spiced pork baby back ribs glazed with chilli paste, served on a portable bbq pot at the table – the ribs were meaty, spicy and very tender.

Banana blossom and palm heart salad served with crispy shallots and roasted peanuts in a chilli jam dressing – this was beautifully presented, with some great fresh flavours and textures. A vegetable often eaten in Brazil, I love palm heart for its unusual flavour, something between asparagus and baby bamboo shoots. I was surprised and pleased to see that the Thais eat it too.

The grilled beef with fresh herbs and vegetables in a charred birds eye chilli vinaigrette was also really good and well presented.

To follow, we had a refreshing mulberry sorbet - rich, smooth and concentrated, and served elegantly in a champagne coupe, this heralded good things to come from a kitchen that so far had not faltered.

There were three main dishes, all served together. The first was a charcoal-grilled Sankaburee spiced chicken which was flambéed at the table - it was succulent with a wonderfully barbecued flavour.

The boneless lamb shank in Mussaman curry served with pickled cucumber was, however, the star of the evening. Amazingly tender, the lamb combined really well with the peanut and coconut-based Mussaman curry.

The tiger prawns in a peppery holy basil sauce worked very well – the licorice hints of the holy basil combined with the fresh seafood were a marriage made in heaven. It went really well with the fried multi-grain rice with Chang Mai mushrooms and garlic.

We were very full by this stage, and were glad that dessert was a light and refreshing jasmine flower panna cotta with jasmine rice ice cream and jasmine rice tuile. This was one of the best desserts I have had for a long time, with a lovely fragrance and balance of sweetness and lightness.

To accompany our meal, we had a bottle of Languedoc Chateau de la Negly 2008 (£32.50), expertly chosen by the house sommelier - a blend of carignan, grenache and syrah, it was the perfect choice, with a nose of cherries, vanilla and spice and went well with the food we ate. Having had a lot of poor wine at stratospheric prices in Asia, our wine said heaps about the restaurant. You would be hard pushed to find such quality at this price in a restaurant in London let alone Asia, and I was really pleased to taste it at the Issaya Siamese Club in Bangkok.

At end of the meal, we were served some spectacularly good and creatively presented petit fours, and a digestif of Mekhong River Whisky - an interesting drink which is in fact much closer to rum, being distilled largely from sugar cane and blended with Thai herbs.

Dinner at the Issaya Siamese Club was excellent. I loved the food and ambience, and it was well priced with tip top service. I can't wait to return - highly recommended.

Benjaron Royal Thai Cuisine at the Dusit Thani Hotel, Silom

One of the reasons I was in Bangkok was to investigate the Cordon Bleu school in the city, where I am considering taking on a professional Thai cookery course in 2014. Cordon Bleu in Thailand is affiliated with, and located in, the five star Dusit Thani Hotel. As part of my ‘investigation’ of the course, I decided to have lunch there before my appointment at Cordon Bleu.

Benjaron, the Thai restaurant at the Dusit Thani Hotel, was perhaps unsurprisingly very good.  Mieng Kham, a dish of dried fried coconut meat and herbs, wrapped in chaplu leaves (similar to betel leaves) and served with mieng sauce made from ginger, shallots, fish sauce, sugar and coconut (£4.50) was wonderful. There were sour, sweet, hot and crunchy elements which were a sensory delight.

Next, we had Yam Som, a spicy pomelo salad with winged beans, shredded chicken and shrimp (£5), which was again incredibly good.

Nam Prig Long Rua – a dish of fried shrimp paste served with crispy fried fish (£5.50) and Gaeng Kiew Wan Nuea Moo, a green pork curry served with coconut flower (£5.50) with steamed rice were both delicious and well made.

Service was unfortunately quite sullen and uninterested - we had to ask for the waiter’s help on a number of occasions, and felt that we were resented for it. The hotel and restaurant is situated in the busy Silom district close to the night market and shopping centres. Being a luxury hotel with a long history, it is a lovely spot to visit and is definitely a restaurant I would recommend.

Owned by a Taiwanese family who have a chain of hotels and restaurants back home, Cabochon is their first venture in Thailand built as recently as 2011. Antique and vintage car collectors, the hotel’s décor reflects their owners’ impeccable taste for the good and beautiful things in life.

Cabochon Hotel

Part of the exclusive Secret Retreats collection of hotels in Asia which includes the magnificent Tugu Hotel Lombok (reviewed here), Cabochon has a French colonial style and elegance, and beautiful antiques tastefully displayed around its 8 guest rooms, restaurant and lounge bar.

Thai Lao Yeh Restaurant at the Cabochon Hotel

The Thai Lao Yeh Restaurant specialises in serving Northeastern Thai food from the seldom-visited Isan region and neighbouring Laos, cooked in an open-plan kitchen.  Having been fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks in Laos earlier on this trip (reviewed here and here), I was looking forward to some more Laotian food.

Open plan kitchen, Laotian & Isan Thai street food at Thai Lao Yeh Restaurant

The restaurant itself is made from timber salvaged from Thai wooden houses, is tastefully decorated, and is an airy, light and lovely spot for lunch. I loved the open plan kitchen and the antique décor. It is located in a quiet cul-de-sac just a block back from the manic Sukhumvit Road - a haven of tranquillity and good food.

The menu has myriad choices of Isan and Laotian small eats, and is very reasonably priced.  We kicked off with a dish of crispy deep-fried squid (£2.80), and some deep fried Thai fish cakes (£2.20), which were excellent with our Singha Thai Beer.

The Isan pork sausages (£2.80) were equally delicious, as were the green mango and shrimp salad (£1.80) and grilled pork shoulder (£2.80).

Hotpot is a favourite dish of mine to serve, as those of you who have been to my supperclub will know, so I was pleased to be able to share a magnificent Thai steamboat, with beef, pork, squid, fish balls, tofu, chillies and green vegetables, all set over a terracotta charcoal burner on our table.

Dessert was as assortment of shaved ices with different toppings including green tea, red bean jellies and tapioca (£2.20), with a generous serving of condensed milk, wonderfully refreshing.

Lunch at the Thai Lao Yeh Restaurant at the Cabochon Hotel was one of the highlights of our trip to Bangkok. It was excellent value for money, had a lovely atmosphere, and can think of few places I would rather be for small eats and a chilled beer or two in crazy Bangkok.

Listed among the 50 best Asian Restaurants by San Pellegrino, Bo.Lan is undoubtedly a top foodie destination in Bangkok. It was opened by Duangporn Songvisava (Bo), and her Australian partner Dylan Jones (Lan), whom she met working at David Thompson's Nahm restaurant in London. Bo was named the Veuve Cliquot Asia’s Best Female Chef in 2013.

Bo.Lan has an a la carte menu, as well as a set menu called 'Bo.Lan Balance' (£35 per person) which we opted for, based around five dishes - a Thai salad, a chilli relish (or kreung), a stir-fried dish, a curry and a soup.

We started with a selection of tantalising amuse bouches which included Thai wafer with red chicken curry, lamb cured squid wrap with egg net, tapioca pearl stuffed with pickled turnip and peanut, spicy mushroom salad, and steamed minced prawn and egg. This was a promising start to the meal.

Thai noodles with southern style fish curry were next. Served with coconut cream and peanuts, this was a wholesome and delicious dish.

The remaining dishes were brought to the table together. These were equally delicious and provided a range of flavours and textures. They included:

Curry of grilled pork and green banana.

Stir-fried chicken with baby aubergine, bamboo shoots, mushroom and orange chilli.

Salad of green Mekong samphire with grilled squid and prawn.

Crispy fish cake and soft-boiled egg.

Pork rib soup - I love eating meat on the bone, but sadly in this dish the bones were so overcooked that they disintegrated in the mouth, which was not great.

For "pre-dessert", there was a serving of jack fruit with coconut cream, shaved ice, red water chestnut, jasmine syrup and sweet corn. Dessert was gorgeously presented but in terms of flavour, it was a little disappointing in my opinion. We had custard apple with coconut milk, peanut toffee, herbal jelly, guava and pomelo, with Bolan signature tea.

What to Do

Bangkok is a major capital city, with hundreds of options for entertainment, temples,
palaces and sightseeing.  The list below is by no means comprehensive, but include a few of the activities I experienced on my latest trip.  Some other options worth exploring are the Royal Palace, and a number of major museums. A few options close to the restaurants and hotels featured here are below.

Wat Po Thai Massage

Close to the Cabochon Hotel and Bolan is the Wat Po Thai Massage School on Sukhumvit Road. This is a great place to get an authentic Thai massage from expert instructors, at the almost unbelievable price of £3 per hour. There are locker facilities, and clean pyjamas are provided for the oil-free massage. If you are interested, they also offer a 5-day course so that you can learn how to do Thai massage yourself.

Not far from The Siam Hotel, Jim Thompson's House is a must-see place in Bangkok.  The home of a self-made American entrepreneur who founded the Jim Thompson Thai Silk Company, it is made from six traditional Thai-style houses constucted from teak which the owner purchased from various parts of Thailand, and was completed in 1959.  In 1967, Jim Thompson went on holiday with friends to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia (reviewed here).  There he set out for a walk in the surrounding jungle but never returned. Thus began the Jim Thompson legend.  Today, his house is a stunning place to visit, stylishly blending Thai and Burmese artefacts with Italian black and white marble tiles to create a harmonious and unique home. There is also a fine restaurant and shop.

The Siam Hotel Excursions

The hotel offers river excursions which can be arranged at the front desk, as well as cookery classes for up to 6 people at their riverside Chon restaurant, which includes a market tour followed by the class and lunch. They also provide private barge tours. They provide a booklet of recommendations in the room for off the beaten track restaurants, shops and antiques.

The beautiful House of Chao for fantastic Asian antiques

Travel Essentials

The Siam Hotel
3/2 Thanon Khao
Vachirapayabal, Dusit
Bangkok 10300
T +66 (0) 2206-6999
F +66 (0) 2206-6998
E info@thesiamhotel.com

Rooms cost from £280 per night, and the Riverside Suites that we stayed in cost around £440 per night.  You can book direct, and the hotel is also offered on trips with the business travel group Cleveland Travel (www.clevelandtravel.co.uk) and Cox & King's (www.coxandkings.co.uk)

Issaya Siamese Club
4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Chua Ploeng Road, Sathorn, Bangkok.
Telephone: +66 (0)2 672 9040-1
Email: contact@issaya.com

Benjaron Royal Thai Cuisine at the Dusit Thani Hotel
946 Rama IV Road
Bangkok 10500
T: +66 (0) 2200 9000 ext. 2699
E-mail: dtbkfbth@dusit.com

Thai Lao Yeh Restaurant at the Cabochon Hotel
14/29 Sukhumvit 45 Road
Klongton Nua, Wattana
Bangkok 10110
Tel : +66 2259 2871-3 Fax

Bo.Lan Restaurant
42 Sukhumvit 26
Soi Pichai Ronnarong Songkram Klongtoey
Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Phone:+66 2 260 2962

Wat Po Thai Massage
Various branches in Bangkok and Chang Mai

Jim Thompson House
6 Soi Kasemsan 2, Rama 1 Road
Tel: (662) 216-7368

House of Chao
9/1 Decho Road
(BTS Chong Nonsi)
Contact: 00 66 2 6357188

1 comment:

  1. Funnily enough I was in Bangkok a year ago and stayed at the Siam. It's a pity you did not manage to try their Thai restaurant which is superb. I really enjoyed the breezy shuttle rides that they offered. I also coincidentally went to Issaya after turning it up through some foodie research (having not lived there for 10+ years) - none of my Thai "hiso" pals had heard of it (plenty of Americans) but looks like it is more popular now with the local crowd. The mixed grain rice is now a regular favourite at home!


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