Saturday, 17 October 2015

Gaggan, Bangkok, Thailand (Alissa and Don Eat Asia)

"Oh shit... Gaggan is #1!"

Such began my panic in March for a meal that was at that stage 6 months into the future. Having originally planned for a holiday to Japan with stopovers in Bangkok and Hong Kong, only to have our Bangkok time extended (and Japan leg cancelled) on the strength of Nahm and Gaggan's ascendency to the upper echelons of the restaurant world, a table at Gaggan was one of the highest priorities of our trip. I'm pretty organised when it comes to reservations, and had already planned a rough schedule for our holiday when the news broke that Gaggan - the Progressive Indian restaurant in Bangkok of all places - had beaten such luminaries as last year's winner Nahm and perennial favourite Narisawa to be voted Asia's Best Restaurant (later coming in at #10 on the World list). Having had some experience with how tough this kind of reservation can be once a restaurant gets this level of good press - booking a table at Attica when it came #21 in the world was hard enough - I immediately got onto Gaggan's website reservation system and made a booking. Thankfully, it was a fairly painless process and Alissa and I managed to secure a table for our visit in September.

Housed in a beautiful colonial-style building located in a laneway off Langsuan Rd close to the bustling shopping centres of Siam, its a beautiful location for a world class restaurant, and somehow fitting for an Indian restaurant given India's own colonial history.

The interior continues the colonial style of the exterior. Alissa and I seated in a semi-private balcony space on the second floor overlooking the laneway below.

Given that eponymous chef Gaggan Anand is a noted Modernist and Ferran Adria disciple  - Anand was the first Indian chef to stage at El Bulli's Research Lab - we knew to expect some serious Molecular Gastronomy moves which began right away with our pre-dinner cocktails. Alissa's choice of the Coconut Lassi was the flashier of the two, arriving at the table with a Dry Ice-powered cloud filling the table with the smell of coconut. Presented in a coconut shell, the drink itself was a superb cocktail, with the flavours of Coconut and Rum combined with the tanginess you would expect from a Lassi.

The only problem? The foam on top meant we got the drink all over our faces whenever we had a sip, but it seemed fitting that a fun cocktail like this would be a fun drinking experience too.

My cocktail was a gin and basil number called the Witch's Potion. It too originally bubbled away in its cool whisky sipper glass, but dissipated sooner than Alissa's. Nice, bright and herbaceous, the Witch's Potion was an excellent pre-dinner drink.

With the cocktails out of the way, we decided to go with a bottle of Gewurtztraminer to accompany the meal given what we assumed would be fairly spicy food. The waiter agreed that our choice; with its elderflower/lychee notes and a hint of orange rind it was perfect for the cuisine, and I would thoroughly recommend a bottle of this German varietal with the food at Gaggan.

Gaggan offer two degustation menus - the shorter Taste of Gaggan and the extended 23-course Best of Gaggan. Since Gaggan was one of the main reasons for our trip to Bangkok, we decided to go all out and ordered the latter - especially given the THB 4000++ asking price seemed fair and in line with the price of the best Australian degustation restaurants like Vue de Monde, Sepia and Attica (even if its admittedly very expensive by Thai standards). The Best of Gaggan began with a series of 12 Snacks, beginning with Rose - Shikanji (Indian Lemonade). Consisting of Lemonade, spheres of Rose and what tasted like chopped Basil, this served as a palate cleansing beginning, with the floral note of the Rose and the herbaceousness of the Basil giving the Lemonade a lot of interesting character.

Yoghurt Explosion was also something of a palate cleanser. The Sphere was well made, having a perfectly thin membrane surrounding the cooling, sour Yoghurt inside. The use of Black Salt and spice emphasised the more savoury qualities of Yoghurt in a way that was typically Indian.

Edible Plastic Spiced Nuts put a smile on my face, as I immediately recognised the flavours encased within the edible 'plastic' packaging (actually translucent rice paper); this was basically an upmarket take on the Murukku and Nut blend often served as a snack in India, right down to that distinctive dried pea flavour I've often associated with this snack. Edible packaging is something that is very much associated with Heston Blumenthal and the Fat Duck, but I liked that Gaggan utilised it in a dish that was not a Heston rehash, and instead asserted the chef's own identity.

We next sampled Chocolate Chilly Bomb - a sphere of While Chocolate encasing a liquid centre of Masala Spices. This was a surprising and awesome single bite - the sweet, creamy White Chocolate shell gave way to the savoury filling, and while definitely very odd, it worked as real explosion of flavours.

The next trio of dishes were brought out, consisting of Birds Nest (bottom right), Bengali Mustard and Noori Pakoda (top right), and Papadam & Tomato Chutney (left). Being in an Asian country, Birds Nest can actually be made from real birds' nests, however this was thankfully thin ribbons of potato shaped into a nest and fried as a crunchy base, similar to a dish we ate at Sepia in Sydney. Topped with Sweet Potato Puree and Chutney, this was a fairly straightforward but tasty snack that appealed to my love of Hash Browns.

The Mushroom and Noori Pakoda was probably the most opaque of Chef Anand's Modernist transmutations, as the usual fried fritters has become small biscuit-like pucks with a texture similar to the Peanut leh chey Biscuits my father often buys from Asian gourmet specialty shops. The flavour was intense against the soft, crumbly texture, and made us think of Wasabi Peas due to the Mustard. Very interesting and tasty, but very far away from that I would usually consider a Pakoda.

Finally, we ate the Papadam & Tomato Chutney. These were certainly crunchy, having quite a loud audible crunch. The usual thin Papadams had been replaced with something closer to a rice cracker or a prawn cracker but with Indian flavours. The spice on top was very tasty, as was the Tomato Chutney which provided acidity and sweetness. Similar to the Birds Nest this was relatively straightforward, but nevertheless effective.

The Keema (Lamb) Samosa was the first dish that could have just as easily been found in a more classical Indian restaurant but distinguished itself nevertheless. This was an excellent Samosa, complete with a crunchy exterior encasing the well seasoned and unctuous lamb meat within. Alissa and I both appreciated the lovely flavour of cardamom that really shone through and could easily have eaten more than one of these.

Dhokla - the traditional fermented and steamed batter Gujarati dish - was fairly faithful to the original and had a cake-like softness. Topped with curry leaves and coconut, the modernist touch came in the form of a Coriander Foam, which proved to be a perfect carrier of the herb's flavour in a light and refined way.

Brain Damage was one of our favourites in the snack section of the meal. The Brains of the dish's title were Lamb's Brains made into a mousse mixed with what tasted like Cardamom and Pistachio. Lamb's brains might sound off-putting but it was actually really delicious, having an almost foie gras-like flavour. The biscuit-like buns the mousse was sandwiched between were softer than expected, having something of a texture between a meringue and a macaron. The Dehydrated Tomato on top was one of the things that made the dish for us, as it provided a nice zing of flavour that made us both exclaim "Pizza Shapes!" (for non-Australians, Pizza Shapes are a flavour of popular savoury crackers) 

Our penultimate snack - Fukuoka Surprise - sadly has the distinction of being the only dish I didn't really dig. Consisting of White Asparagus Mousse, Salmon Roe, Green Melon Jelly and herbs, the dish was firstly a bit slippery on the plate and a bit difficult to cut open as a result. The Asparagus filling was sweet and creamy, with the Roe providing a pleasingly salt, fishy pop of flavour. These components were fine, however the dish was let down by the consistency of the thicker than ideal layer of Green Melon Jelly which seemed to be made from either Gellan, Agar-Agar or an over the top amount of Gelatine. The result was a Jelly texture that was a bit too hard for my liking, and I wasn't overly convinced by the combination of Green Melon and White Asparagus.

Thankfully, the final snack of Crab and Flowers recovered from the weaknesses of the previous course. Although referred to by the waiter as a Tempura Crab, the batter seemed a bit thicker than a good Tempura batter usually is, and I would say it more resembled a spicy, flavoursome Pakoda filled with Crab Meat and Banana Flowers. By that measure, this dish was awesome, with the sweet, flaky Crab Meat backed up by a nice Tamarind hit of sourness and a bit of spicy heat.

The first of our more substantial courses was the beautifully presented Magic Mushroom, and consisted of Truffle Mousse, Truffle Powder, Green Chilli Powder and a cylindrical Truffle Crisp. The Mushroom and Truffle flavours with the crunch of the Crisp against the smoothness of the Mousse was heaven for Alissa and I as self-confessed Truffle Fiends, however it was the Green Chilli Powder that was the real surprise and master-stroke. The received wisdom regarding Truffles is to served them in a dish and form that allows the flavour to speak for itself, and not incorporate any flavours that could overpower it. Chilli's heat seemed like something that very well might, however it instead seemed to operated in another register that didn't take away from the Truffle flavour and actually enhanced the overall experience.

Charcoal is such a key component of Indian cooking that it was no surprise to find a course named after it. The dish arrived at our table covered in a smoked filled cloche, filling the area with a pleasingly smoky aroma as it was lifted off. The waiter refused to tell us what the dish made from was until after we had finished.

Serving things that looked charred to a cinder is very contemporary, and the dish did look legitimately like a piece of charcoal complete with white ash. Although the colour came from burning vegetables, the dish didn't taste overly bitter, and proved to be made from Sea Bass and Potato mixed with 10 Indian Spices. The texture was super smooth and juicy - so smooth that I discounted it being fish as it seemed to good to be true. Alissa and I enjoyed the guessing game component of this dish, with Alissa particularly pleased that she guessed correctly.

Chennai Kings may have been named after the IPL cricket team and a play on the use of King Scallops, but the 'Sukka Style' of the dish's spicy Roast Pepper Masala is actually a Mangalorean dish from the west coast. I've had more classical versions of this dish before in India, and its usually a fairly dry, textural and concentrated curry due to the coarseness of the ingredients that the meat or seafood is cooked in and the lack of a very wet curry. A crumble to the side seemed like a nod to this, while the foam served as an elegant was of tempering the intensity of the flavours with a lightness of body. We liked the acidity and heat of the foam, however it was the perfectly cooked Scallop that really sealed the deal, as it had a lovely golden crust on the outside without being overcooked. This was an outstanding dish, and one that I hope is in a future Gaggan cookbook so we can cook up a large batch of it to devour again.

Pork dishes are always crowd pleasers, and Pig and Pickle - 72 Hours Prepared Iberian Pork Loin in sweet and sour Punjabi Pickled Mix - was not exception. The Pork Loin was cooked sous-vide and then given a light sear to finish it off, resulting in a predictably juicy and tender piece of meat that was a pleasure to eat. The sweet and sour sauce was said to be a Vindaloo, here sieved to be super smooth, and with a good mix of vinegar, sweetness and spice that helped cut the fattiness of the Pork. The Pickled Onions played a similar role, and were much like the onions we are often served in India as an accompaniment to the meal. In India we are often too afraid to eat these for hygiene reasons, so it was good to actually eat them with a dish this time! Finally, the bed of Pommes Puree was nice and creamy, with a perfectly smooth texture. Again, this was a dish so good we could have eaten several serves.

With previous courses tackling Pork Vindaloo and Scallops Sukka, Chef Gaggan's next creation was a modernisation of Daab Chingri - a Coconut Prawns dish from his home town of Kolkata. The large Prawns served here were cooked perfectly - I'm usually a bit hesitant when it comes to large prawns as they can end up being overcooked, but they were plump and juicy thanks to the use of sous-vide and had well absorbed the flavour of the marinade. The slivers of young coconut underneath had a lovely soft texture - so soft in fact that Alissa initially thought it might be squid. The ring of Coconut Foam provided even more coconut flavour, with the zest of Kaffir Lime and the Mustard Flowers providing acidity and spice.

Who Killed the Goat? is one of Gaggan Anand's signature dishes, and was also one of the best dishes of the entire evening. The Free Range Lamb Chops were cooked Sous-vide then grilled and finished with Almond Saffron Oil for a lovely frangrance and flavour. This was easily the best Lamb Chop I've ever eaten; the low and slow cook on the meat was unbelievably tender, not overly fatty, and finished with a good sear. The splat of Beetroot Puree on the plate gave the impression of blood but also provided some sweetness, as did a dollop of Apple Sauce concealed beneath the Chop. As with previous courses, in less formal circumstances a whole plate of these chop would made a very, very satisfying meal.

Critics of Molecular Gastronomy often argue that its playing with food unnecessarily and that its just a crutch for lesser cooks to hide their weaknesses. As if to answer such critics, the main course - I Want My Curry!!! - was a straight up curry, with a choice of Chicken Tikka, Mom's homestyle Mutton Bhunna or a South Indian Fish Curry accompanied by Naan. Although we did share the dishes, my choice of main was the Chicken Tikka. This was a superb Chicken Tikka - easily the best curry I've eaten since the decidedly regal curries of Dum Pukht in Mumbai, with a rice tomato flavour and perfect balance of spice.

Alissa's main of Mom's Home Style Mutton Bhunna was equally impressive. The flavoursome Mutton was cooked to tender perfection, with the distinctively dry spiciness of lamb/mutton curries really shining through. If you went to a curry house in India and they served two curries of this quality, you'd be very satisfied indeed.

Available in plain and Kaffir Lime flavour - the Naan was decent, but I've had better in India; these were a bit too crispy and dry for my liking, and were a few notches below my all-time favourite Butter Garlic Naan served at Trishna in Mumbai. Still, crispy is better than the undercooked dough sometimes passed off as Naan in lesser restaurants.

Our Pre-Dessert arrived with the return of a dry ice cloud that permeated the room with the smell of Cardamom. The dish was Gajar Halwa - Black Carrot Ice Cream, Crispy Carrot Flower, Cardamom Oil. The Black Carrot Ice Cream was well made, with a pleasingly sweet earthiness that was complemented by the crispy cornet. The flavour of Cardamom really made the dish for us, as its distinctively Indian touch reminded us of desserts we ate during our honeymoon.

In Season was the title of our main dessert. As someone who loves fruity desserts, the dish's combination of Mahachanok Mangoes and Coconut LN2 Semi-Sphere was right up my alley. The Liquid Nitrogen set Coconut Semi-Sphere had a saltiness that made us immediately think of Mango Sticky Rice, with the sweet, fruity flavour of the Mango Mousse and Sauce within only heightening the resemblance. Whether this was the intention, it did taste like a clever Modernist take on a Thai classic, while also harkening back to Indian desserts like Mango Kulfi. Visually, the white dome with an orange filling (as picture at the top of this post), also reminded us of the similarly contemporary Carrot, Yoghurt, Liquorice we ate at Cafe Paci in Sydney earlier this year.

Magnum served as a third dessert, and was a fairly straightforward if rather bespoke take on this classic ice cream. Alissa and I liked the nutty crunch of the outer layer, especially with the sizzling crackle of Popping Candy thrown in there, and the result was somewhere between a classic Magnum and a Ferrero Rocher. Simple as it was, it was still effective and tasty.

To finish the meal, we were served Candies as Petit Fours. The Rose Jelly hearts had a rose flavour and tasted like Turkish Delight.

Opening the lid, the Mouth Freshener tasted like Mukhwas - the candied spice seeds usually given at the end of a meal, and while we did enjoy the fruity Yuzu Tamarind Jelly, we felt the Mouth Freshener should have really been the last bite.

The Verdict: Ultimate
In the lead up to our time in Bangkok I'd read some mixed reports about Gaggan, with some diners seemingly bewildered by Gaggan Anand's style and disappointed by the dining experience. Thankfully, Alissa and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal at Gaggan; unique, innovative and artistically satisfying, Gaggan Anand's personal approach to Indian food exemplified why the best Modernist cooking comes from chefs who have a deep love and respect for tradition while still being able to see a way to the future. Being quite familiar with Indian food, it was a real delight to taste flavours from the subcontinent so successfully given the Modernist treatment, and the sense of whimsical fun made this one of most fun degustations Alissa and I have had the pleasure of partaking in. Sure, some dishes were less inspired than others and I didn't like the Fukuoka Surprise, but the fact Gaggan was able to sustain his ideas for such a lengthy meal with so few dips in quality was definitely an achievement. While I can't comment on whether Gaggan is really the best restaurant in Asia or the tenth best in the world, it would definitely have a high position in the top 10 degustations we've enjoyed in the nearly two years since we started the Ministry of Gluttony, and worthy of our highest verdict. 

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