Bangkok - 2010
I am sure that there are readers of this website, and my column in the Financial Times, who believe that I flit from one table to another without the slightest problem about reservations. That tables just magically appear as and when I want them at the right time and for precisely the right number.
Things do go right most of the time, thanks to a combination of planning, access to the right telephone numbers and email addresses, and friends, some but not all in the restaurant or wine business, around the world who are invariably extremely helpful as we travel.
But occasionally things do go wrong, even with the best laid plans, as they did on two consecutive, steamy nights in Bangkok.
On the first we found ourselves locked out of an obviously closed and darkened restaurant even though our booking had been confirmed. And the following night we found ourselves, after an enervating ten minute walk through the very uneven streets of the city, confronted by a major six lane highway between us and the restaurant in the Sukothai Hotel with no visible means of crossing to the other side. With no taxis available and an indisputable language barrier between ourselves and the one Tuk Tuk driver who did stop, we had no option but to return to our own hotel to find a taxi to take us on the five minute journey to the Sukothai’s Celadon restaurant.
And it had all started so promisingly. Bo-Lan had been strongly recommended to us by Kim Wachweitl from Siam Winery, the country’s leading winemaker (Monsoon Valley et al). He not only offered to make the booking for 5 of us at 7.30 but also to meet us there for a quick drink at 7pm.
As we were not sure whether Bangkok’s taxi drivers would squeeze all of us into one cab (we subsequently discovered that some will and some won’t), Jancis and I set off at 6.15 with the name and very complicated address written down in English, rather than Thai, for our taxi driver. Fortunately, we were to discover that he was not only patient but also had a good sense of humour.
These virtues were soon obvious when the address he initially stopped at was obviously not a restaurant, the first of numerous occasions on which he was to tilt his head back, exclaim ‘O my god’ and laugh. When we then discovered that the restaurant was in a street near The Four Wings Hotel, we headed off there . The doorman pointed us down a dark side street which we headed down but without seeing any sign of a restaurant. At the bottom of this dark alley, two doormen looked rather suspiciously at us before turning us back up the same road. As we drove for the third time down this street our taxi driver called out to someone on the other side of the street who shouted back, ‘It’s closed’ and pointed to a darkened building behind us.
We got of the car, overpaid the driver [wildly – JR] for his kindness and went to look at what can only be described as, unquestionably, a closed restaurant. The tables and chairs in the courtyard were piled haphazardly on top of one another and there was not a single light on anywhere. We promptly called our children who had just set off from our hotel in a second taxi and left it up to them to use their ingenuity to explain to their driver why, after only five minutes in his cab, they now wanted to head back to the hotel where we said we would meet them.
We phoned Kim, explained the situation and agreed to meet him in the lobby of The Four Wings Hotel without knowing quite how garish the Christmas tree in the lobby was to be.
He arrived, naturally apologetic, having texted the chefs to discover that they had thought we were coming the night before. Their website had announced they were going to close for several days to prepare for their sister’s wedding but it stated that this would be from the 29th and we were there on the 28th.
After a brief discussion on the wine market in Thailand, which apparently faces the prospect of higher ad valorem taxes in the government’s belief that this will combat excessive drinking, we jumped into yet another taxi and headed back to the Bandara Suites, where we were staying, to discuss one of the family’s favourite topics, where to go for dinner.
A week of eating only Thai food near the beach in Cha-Am (of which more later) had left us all keen to eat yet more of this spicy, clean and invigorating food. But our son’s eye was caught by the mention of Aoi, a Japanese restaurant, in the Time Out Guide to Bangkok, only a ten minute walk away, just off the colourful Silom Road. And as they were able to accept a booking in the name of Lobinson, we headed off down streets full of Thais happily eating their dinner in numerous pavement restaurants.
This branch of Aoi, (pronounced ‘ah-oh-ee’) is the original (there are now two others in the city). It is over 20 years old and with its wooden frame and cool interior, it definitely has the feel of downtown Kyoto. And while the Thai maitresse d’ wears a traditional Japanese kimono, her waitresses wear dark costumes that seem to be a cross between a nun’s habit and an English girls’ public school uniform of yore. The two chefs behind the sushi counter were also dressed formally, albeit in white.
The thick plastic-coated menu comes conveniently not only with descriptions in English but also with photos of all the dishes, so no sooner had we ordered the Asahi beer Aoi serves on draught than we were ready to order a couple of dishes each. There was uniform excellence across the range: grilled mackerel with daikon; eel with cucumber; udon noodles in red miso soup; aubergine in a rich, lip-smacking, miso sauce; and an equally unctuous dish of tofu. The bill for five came to 2,000 baht or £40.
Directly opposite Aoi are two massage parlours, extremely common in this part of Bangkok. While the one on the left offers a ‘testicular massage to relieve blood pressure’, the Centre Point Massage Centre on the right looks as smart as any medical or dental practice in London or New York. The following afternoon I returned to this second practice for a massage before the long flight home and was very impressed by an enterprise as clean and professional as any of those I have encountered in a top hotel. Only the price is very different – 400 baht, or just £9, an hour - about 20% of a proper Thai massage in the West.
The two highlights of the following day were also distinctive to Bangkok. The first was a two and a half hour trip along the Khlongs or canals of the Chao Phraya river on a small, relatively slow boat – as opposed to the much longer, narrower boats which race along – which gave us the opportunity to absorb some of the rhythm of the way of life of those who live, and work, on Bangkok’s intricate waterways.
We were also able to stop and stare open-mouthed when our boatman spotted the most enormous lizard, well over two metres long, quietly sunning himself - or herself - on the terrace of an otherwise empty house.
The sun, wind and sense of relief that we were not going to bathe in these waters as any of the locals do generated an appetite ready for the next challenge, the buffet lunch at The Mandarin Oriental.
This is a most impressive operation, with a vast selection of refined Thai dishes on display with impressive generosity for the price of 750 baht or £15 per person. There are shot glasses full shrimps smaller than a baby’s fingernail, smaller than those that go into Morecambe Bay potted shrimps, and here sautéed with chilli so that they are much spicier; a soothing coconut and chicken soup that would delight any Jewish mother; an excellent rendition of a prawn salad with pomelo; and some excellent desserts, a part of the menu many Thai chefs tend to ignore. And to drink there is a dark green creation of ginger and pandanus leaf, a fruit widely used in Thai desserts, that I found simply sensational. I think I had about six glasses in all!
(This was complimentary whereas a glass of Wittmann Riesling would have cost the equivalent of £12.)
Despite all this, we were still hungry for, and rather sad about, our last meal in Thailand as set off to walk what looked like no more than the 15 minutes to the Sukothai Hotel. But after ten we came to this impenetrable, busy road and had to admit defeat. The only option was to go back to the Bandar Suites and order a taxi. Happily, it only took someone with the knowledge of Bangkok’s streets five minutes to deliver us.
The Sukothai is an extremely elegant and spacious hotel, and so too is its restaurant, Celadon, which gets its name from a type of pottery first made many centuries ago.
There is an elegant young woman playing a local musical instrument by the entrance; a cool walk along a corridor lined with Thai decorations to the dining rooms which look out on to water; and a general air of grace about the place. The reserved signs on every table attest to its popularity.
This is vindicated firstly by a very well chosen wine list which features a number of interesting Rieslings and Sauvignon Blancs . We drank a bottle of 2007 Framingham Sauvignon from Marlborough, New Zealand and a glass of Roero Nebbiolo 2005 from Correggia from its featured Italian selection.
We ate extremely well from a menu that ranged across the entire length and breadth of the country. The kitchen’s famous salad of banana blossom and prawns; Chinese sausage laced with chilli; catfish with green papaya and coconut rice; a red duck curry with apples; and, most unusually, a main course of fish mousse, served in two round brown bowls that had the comforting texture of those well made quenelles that used to be on the most adventurous British menus 30 years ago although it was, naturally, far spicier.
With wine, dinner came to just under 10,000 baht, or £200, for five.
And then, with heavy hearts but full stomachs, we headed for grey, wet, cold Heathrow.
Aoi, 132/10-11 Silom Soi 6, tel 0 2235 2321,
Centre Point Massage, www.centrepointmassage.com,
The Mandarin Oriental, www.mandarinoriental.com