March 4, 2016 / Leave a Comment
It was a bit of a toss up as to whether we were going to make Sra Bua a stop on our crowded Bangkok dining itinerary. Having made the Asia’s 50 Best list in 2014 but not appearing since, we took a leap of faith and booked in dinner as I’d read their specialty is molecular Thai – something I’d never seen done anywhere in the world before.
It certainly was not your average Thai food. Intricate Thai flavours yes – but presented in a quirky and entertaining way. Exactly what I was looking for as a counterpoint to the traditionally served Thai cuisine we had been experiencing thus far on our trip.
Upon arrival we were lead to seating in the lower lounge section of the restaurant, and served a ginger and lemongrass drink. Nice, but to be honest it just makes me feel like I’m at a spa, not really what I’m in the mood for come dinner. We were handed iPads to select our drinks and dishes – very cool, and they took it a step further than most iPad menus which are becoming more common these days. On top of pictures, the digital menu gave details of ingredients – fantastic for someone who has food allergies or preferences like myself. We chose to dine a la carte, which turned out to be as much food as we could eat and actually a lower cost than the tasting menu.
What we didn’t expect was the plethora of snacks that started to arrive. First, lotus chips and a meringue that was to be dipped in a wasabi mayo. This was quickly followed by a chicken congee nestled in a bed of grass and delicious morsels on a tree trunk platter – this focus on innovative presentation was to be a theme throughout these snack courses, and indeed the entire night. Even more quickly tiny mango crisp cones and then a pork skewer on roasting coals arrived (delicious, the juicy pork was our favourite), and before we’d even taken a bite of those, pork sausage skewers. The pace really felt too fast to actually enjoy and appreciate each morsel and it’s gorgeous presentation individually, and we felt a tad bombarded (all the while being asked what we wanted to order for our main dishes also). We thought maybe we weren’t keeping up because I’m a slow eater (and hey, I like to take a snap or two for prosperity) but we observed the same super speedy progression served to another couple. In addition it was a little uncomfortable not being seated at our final table destination and able to settle in and relax, and enjoy proceedings to the fullest. Seeing other diners were having these snacks at their table, we requested to move to our seats. After being shown a standalone slightly awkward table, we asked if the cosy booth nearby set for two was reserved or not – and were told yes, it was available. Which begs the question, why do restaurants seat people in second rate tables when the best spots are left unbooked for the night? It wasn’t a case of being seated by the window to encourage custom either, this restaurant is tucked far in the bowels of the Kempinski hotel and not somewhere you’d receive foot traffic.
Moving to our comfy new spot, the rest of the snacks then followed. Next came was a chicken and wild rice dish served in eggshell styled cups in a bed of hay – amazing presentation, but didn’t quite hit the mark on taste as the bland, hay-like rice (how ironic) brought the chicken down. The same goes for the chicken custard – not my cup of tea. All too soon a mushroom salad arrived in what may be one of the coolest plating designs I’ve seen – it was served inside a flower floating in a water filled vase. So beautiful and unique, plus this one tasted delicious too. It was great to receive such a lengthy progression of pre-dinner snacks even though we were dining a la carte and really highlighted what this restaurant is about and what it wants to be. Very refreshing in the Asia scene.
We selected the wagyu beef salad next, and the waitress soon arrived with a stand of ingredients to assemble the dressing at the table. I was a little concerned that the ingredients were seemingly added in ad hoc quantities, they were not set out in each provided bowl to exact measures but instead portioned out by the waitress. The waitress then tasted the sauce and commented along the lines of hoping we don’t like things too sweet as the dressing was not. Funny that she commented on the lack of sweetness as that was exactly what was missing from the sauce – it was much too sour. A dash more sweetness would have really balanced out the dish. Beautiful presentation again with the cylinders of cucumber and morsels of wagyu. Not too bad but the bitterness did hold the dish back from being amazing.
Things certainly went on the improve from there. Our next course was the deconstructed Tom Kha Gai (one of my personal faves and a recipe I’ve perfected at home, so I know this dish well). Again it looked near perfection on the plate, with it’s powdered coconut milk, preserved lemon, tom kha puree, shallots and crispy chicken skin. It’s served cold, which they also do with their frozen red curry (I got to try a portion of this in the snacks – amazing) – so it’s not your regular Thai soup. This was a spectacular dish save for the chicken skin – it tasted like cardboard. Once we left that out there was nothing to fault on this plate. Perhaps a different treatment for the chicken and this dish would be a superstar.
Next was the quail – juicy and tender, accompanied by a seriously sumptuous lemongrass and coconut soup poured into the bowl at the table. We couldn’t get enough and lapped up every last spoonful of the soup sauce. Our last (and definitely not least) savoury dish was the five spice pork. Sublime. You simply have to order this if you go, it was spot on.
For dessert we had the banana, almond, coconut and caramel, served in a log of wood. The banana cake had a huge intense burst of banana flavour that you don’t usually find in standard banana cake – expertly done. Again, this one was a hit and the perfect end to our meal at Sra Bua.
In terms of wines, the Kempinski selected house brand Chardonnay caught my eye on the list at a (very cheap for Bangkok) 880 baht (plus 17% taxes). I was a little nervous wondering if the price would purvey the quality, but I needn’t have been. It was wonderful, so much so that we asked if we could order a bottle to take home with us – to which they thankfully complied, and a chilled bottle in a Kempinski wine bag was delivered for us to enjoy back at The Siam post dinner.
Sra Bua certainly is a unique concept in the Bangkok scene that I highly recommend. I just wish they would sort out their timing with the snacks so you can fully enjoy the experience, relax, and taste. This was one thing that Gaggan has perfected, and Sra Bua could learn a lot from them if they want to climb the ranks again and be one of Asia’s best. They do feel on the precipice of greatness, but need someone to take charge and just fine tune the experience a tad. Well worth a visit.