“All things truly wicked start from an innocence.” The wise words of Hemingway seemed to sound on repeat during my first week in Thailand. Each day started the same. A band of giggling girls welcomed me in the pastry kitchen of Issaya, one of Asia’s leading restaurants. Thai pop music filled the air to partner drifting aromas of tempered chocolate, candied sugar and freshly baked financiers. Around me the girls delicately pipped macarons, sculpted cheesecakes into ladybirds and sculpted tiny cotton trees with freshly spun candy floss. I stood in due reverence of the sweet delights being assembled in their unmitigated beauty. This kitchen was a nirvana of all things sweet and lovely, a return to the innocence of youth.
But when service finished a different story began to unfold. This was Bangkok after all. With temptation at every turn it’s all too easy to lose a grip of reality in a daze of hedonistic glory. You may well have good intentions, but not for very long. Even a quick drink in my local dive bar, Wong’s Place, descended into a night of debauchery that saw the Bangkok underworld witness night become day to the tune of vintage MTV tapes, Chang beer and ladyboys. I could tell you more. I would tell you more. But Mother’s friends at the tennis club read this and as I’m soon to return home a penniless man I need an excuse for you to buy me a beer.
Maybe I am viewing this wrong? Perhaps the atmosphere of the pastry kitchen did not stimulate a dichotomy between night and day. Surely it kept everything under control? Work with play: the ying to Bangkok’s yang? Okay, okay, I’ll shut up now. you probably want to hear about the food. That is, after all, the reason I traveled to this city in the first place.
Housed in a stunning 1920s villa, Issaya serves up some of the best modern Thai food around. The menu reads like the rise of head chef Ian Kittichai’s culinary career from a food cart seller to becoming one of Thailand’s most iconic chefs. Thai food from the streets and his childhood re-imagined with inspiration and techniques from the number of international kitchens he worked in (though thankfully, the “burger no bun” Ian was forced to cook for Paris Hilton’s dog was one item that did not the Issaya menu).
I was placed in the pastry kitchen, as the chef there spoke English (always a bonus to know what the hell is going on). And I’m pleased I was. My encounters with Thai desserts prior to Issaya, were at times disappointing with many restaurants treating pudding like an afterthought. But Issaya is different, offering argubly the best sweets in town. Far from a purist approach, the dishes range from thai classics with modern twists to modern classics with thai twists. Take for example the kanom cake. This celebrates a very traditional thai practice known as tian op where a beeswax candle with aromatics such as piney frankincense, is burnt to infuse a cream based sweet. In this case a smoked coconut cheese cake, with citrus compote and tropical fruit foam.
The menu also offers a flirtation with street food, such as the kluay-kaek a deep fried floured banana. Only at Issaya, the dish is presented as a grilled banana eclair, with coconut ice cream to help cool down its molten banana centre. There is jasmine infused panna cotta with jasmine rice ice cream, Thai sticky rice mochi filled with black coconut and roasted cashew nut, and a selection of Thai inspired petite fours.
During service the girls drew my attention to the irony that the most expensive item on the menu. Kanom tung taek, figuratively translates as broken bucket because the original street food snack was so cheap even the bankrupt could afford it. But the heft price tag was justified by the spectacular way in which chefs perform the dish on the diners table with splatters of passion fruit foam, sour mulberry purée and shredded coconut seasoning. And, for the grand finale, chefs smash a chocolate sphere containing a coconut soufflé frozen with dry ice into the middle of the table. It’s not every day you get the opportunity as a chef to throw stuff on customers’ tables (unless, of course, you work at Chicago’s Alinea)!
Regular readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed my leanings towards the savoury side of life. Pretty little pastries don’t sing to my soul as much as crisp fried pork skin or a runny slab of stinking époisses. So on my last night I took the opportunity to sneak out of the pastry section to join the action in the hot kitchen. It wasn’t long before I was scooping out the brains of lobsters, and singeing my eye brows on the wok station. The kitchen was hot hard work, the pace ferocious and the chefs welcomed their new colleague by forcing some local banana liquor on me. I immediately felt at home.
There was a beautifully fresh ped krob salad, with slow cooked duck leg, red okra leaves and tropical fruit, given a lick of life with some fiery hot chili pepper dressing. A poo nim tod prik pao kai kem, which if you could order without giggling would bring to you some deep-fried soft shell crabs served with a spicy egg sauce. And of course Thai classics like mussamun curry and goong pad char (tiger prawns in holy basil sauce). One customer almost ended up with no main when I saw the nua sun seaklong – a slow cooked tender beef short ribs in a chili lime sauce. I only reluctantly let the waiter take it away when he promised I could sample a rib or two later.
By the end of my week at Issaya, I was feeling exhausted to say the least. Cooking in kitchens is draining at the best of times without enjoying extra curricular ‘activities’ in Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy and Patpong districts. In the midnight heat I wearily slumped back to my hostel for a good night’s sleep. As I reached home two travellers were waiting outside Wong’s Place looking a little annoyed. “Don’t worry” I told them “it will open eventually just not for a while.” At that moment the inside red lights flicked on giving a glow of devilish temptation. Hmmm maybe just the one drink…it’s what Hemingway would’ve wanted.