Paste Bangkok: An heirloom garden on a plate

Kenny Mah
Paste Bangkok’s creative take on the classic 'cha nom yen': Thai tea mousse with young coconut — Pictures by Ck Lim

BANGKOK, Nov 24 — Is there a beverage more synonymous with Thailand than the classic cha nom yen or what the rest of the world knows as Thai tea?

Milky, strong, with hints of star anise and clove, the taste of cha nom yen is as recognisable as its vibrant near-orange colour.

So something clicks when we encounter it in a different form — say, as Thai tea mousse with young coconut — familiar yet thrilling. It’s like meeting an old friend who’s had a gentle makeover. Nothing too drastic, but delightful somehow.

Our dessert is emblematic of how Paste Bangkok reinvents classic Thai cuisine. The restaurant is run by Bongkoch “Bee” Satongun and her husband, Jason Bailey.

The two chefs focus on reinterpreting old Thai family recipes from between 1870 and 1930, using only the freshest raw ingredients they can source.

The resultant menu is complex and layered, yet at its core an homage to producing the best and cleanest flavours.

Even a simple bowl of steamed white rice is elevated by the subtle perfume of organic jasmine flowers. Consider this heirloom Thai cuisine, given a modern facelift.

It’s a place we can return to, again and again, by ourselves or with friends so they may discover what we have.

White textures and sunlight make for a clean décor

Our server starts us off with welcome drinks made from bael fruit, elderflower syrup and soda. While perusing the menu — do we want to try a new dish or stick to the old favourites? — we can’t help but marvel yet again at the restaurant’s elegant décor: all white textures in the form of spiralling silk cocoons and curved booths kissed by sunlight.

What a world away from the first incarnation of Paste, back in 2013 when the fledgling restaurant first opened at Sukhumvit 49.

Then, facsimile pages from an ancient Siamese cookbook doubled as wallpaper. We recall how we were greeted by a large bowl of dried chillies at the door.

Their current location is classier, but no less cosy. There is a dedicated if unobtrusive attention to detail — whether the furnishings, the service or the food.

Indeed, our entrées — such as the requisite bites of hna tang khaek (roasted duck, nutmeg, curry paste and sawtooth coriander served on rice crackers) — are always exquisite.

Crispy southern baby smoked prawns are rolled with roasted coconut, cashew nuts and pure palm sugar, to be spooned to one’s mouth on slivers of rose apple.

Given Chef Bee’s Thai-Laotian heritage, several Laotian recipes appear on the menu. We spot Lao heirloom chilli, fennel seeds and cold pressed sesame oil lending their fragrance to cured scallop, fried speck bacon and Irish razor clams.

Presented on the bivalves’ long and narrow shells like sea-faring vessels, there is an artistry here that dazzles.

Roasted duck, nutmeg and sawtooth coriander served on rice crackers (left). Crispy baby smoked prawns served on rose apple (right).

Salads at Paste are a highlight for us. Each appears at our table like a miniature celebration, not unlike a well-landscaped heirloom garden presented on a plate.

Order several, especially if your group is large, to taste the difference between a larb and a pla.

Chef Bee’s Laotian side comes through in the northern pheasant larb with tongue-numbing makwean pepper, cloves, hog plum leaves and herb paste.

Their signature salad is a mélange of watermelon, ground salmon with fried shallots and roasted galangal powder. It’s a contemporary twist on pla haeng taengmo, a dish first served at the inauguration of the temple of the Emerald Buddha in the year 1809 of the reign of King Rama I.

The original version called for drying snakehead fish (pla chado), then removing its bones and skin before crumbling the flesh and frying it with sugar (and sometimes chilli paste) until the floss we are familiar with appears.

Paste uses salmon, giving the light yet flavourful salad a huge dose of omega-3 fatty acids.

Watermelon and salmon floss with deep-fried shallots (left). Chive root salad with lobster, morel mushrooms and white turmeric (right).

Seafood is often employed for a touch of decadence: The salad of "live" lobster, buzz button flowers and crunchy Thai seaweed is given a tangy boost from kaffir lime and mandarin juices.

We find the chive root salad with lobster (again!), morel mushrooms, Asian citron and white turmeric surprisingly refreshing.

The crustaceans in question change depending on availability and seasonality. Sometimes it’s French blue lobster, other times Canadian red lobster. The most recent haul hails from the Andaman Sea. Whatever is freshest passes the test, apparently.

Diners have a different sort of test, of course. This is a place where we can have a meal in peace, increasingly a rarity.

We are here simply for the sake of enjoying the food, paying no attention to any awards or stars the chef or the restaurant may or may not have won. The food comes first, the way it ought to be.

No Thai meal is complete without a soup — or soups, even. Inspired by the Snidwongse family cookbook, first published in 1968, Chef Bee has conjured up a odd-sounding pickled watermelon rind and fish roe soup with sea bass.

Pickled watermelon rind and fish roe soup with jicama dumplings (left). 'Lon' of Australian spanner crab topped with Nan province salted duck egg (right).

Rest assured it’s divine, the crest of jicama dumplings like angel wings you’d be forgiven for devouring.

Instead of plain old tom yum kha moo, Paste renders pork knuckle in a crackling fashion, almost the way a duck confit is crisped up before serving.

The smoky chicken broth has an understated depth to it thanks to use of char-grilled shallots, jackfruit seeds and roasted tomatoes.

At Paste, the main courses — grilled meats, seafood and curries — are served all at once and together with rice, the way meals are eaten at most Asian homes.

One must-order is their chargrilled organic pork. Glazed with wild honey and fennel seeds, succulent meat is enhanced by a smoked eggplant and tomato relish that is good enough to eat on its own.

A spicy relish (nam phrik) or coconut milk based dip (lon) are examples of khrueang chim, an essential part of Thai cuisine.

Smoked eggplant & tomato relish (left). Northern pheasant larb with 'mak-wean' pepper (right).

We enjoy the latter in the form of a lon of Australian spanner crab, Nan province salted duck egg, fresh coconut cream, hairy eggplant and lime leaf.

This isn’t something typically served at restaurants or by the street in Thailand; lon is more identified with home cooking and one should try to get a bit of everything — the creamy dip, the raw vegetables and some rice — in a single bite.

The massaman lamb curry, scented with Thai cardamom and topped with crispy young monthong durian, is excellent but the tour de force here is the kalee ped or Laotian duck curry.

In returning yet again to her roots, Chef Bee has revived the classic recipes of Phia Sing, known as the godfather of Laotian cuisine, and given us a dish to contrast with the more familiar gaeng ped pet yang (Thai roasted duck red curry).

Yet it’s not all about contrast and creative licence. Paste is exciting not for its inventiveness but because it is utterly dependable.

In an age where accolades can fail a diner’s palate and wallet, reliability and consistency aren’t bad traits — they’re delectable, rather.

Paste Bangkok

3rd Floor, Gaysorn, 999 Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini, Bangkok, Thailand

Open daily lunch 12pm-2pm & dinner 6:30pm-11pm

Tel: +66 2 656 1003

www.pastebangkok.com

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