With accolades for being one of Asia’s top 10 restaurants from William Reed Media, Gagan is on most foodie’s “must” lists. And to tempt diners to eat expensive modernist Indian instead of the world’s best cheap Thai tucker, is an accolade in itself. Alas, service here fails miserably.
Our first impression was of Gaggan’s colonial cum classic ’50s style decor, in the best fashion sense. High ceilings, white painted trims and rattan chairs, cool colours. Table tops were variously marble, some chipping at the edges, and no napery, merely woven placemats and sumptuously large gossamer-like napkins. We were greeted by an effusively camp maître d’hotel, who ended up the saving grace of the entire evening.
First mistake: our reservation was recorded for tomorrow, not today. (Their mistake, not ours; plus their internet was not working to reconfirm.)
Escorted to an upstairs intimate table flanked by cookbooks, our first waiter promptly gave us a menu with the sole option of a vegetarian degustation or tasting menu. While India is famed for its non-meat fare, we wanted a little bit more substantial, as well as a la carte. After entreaties we were eventually given other degustation options, plus a veritable tome of individual dishes, spanning the globe East to West, Indian traditional to modernist European, and then some.
In the meantime, we were offered a slightly tart and lemony ice with 6-hour simmered sugar cane, and mint. Close to insipid, and totally lost on us. In the background, we were regaled to John Denver’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, which rapidly descended to a Quaalude version of I will Survive.” But would I, or should I have taken my plane home a day earlier?
There’s an industry term, called “pricing up.” To the consumer, it means, basically, irritation: surcharge for basics like bread, water, service, et al. At Gaggan it begins with mineral water at 270 Baht a bottle, or about $10. In Thailand, that’s costly — especially when there’s no alternative. After all, who can drink Bangkok tap? Where’s my option for cheap domestic bottled? — after all, we PC’s are concerned about food miles. Moreover, with Thai wine taxes at the world’s highest at some 270%, it also means there’s scant decent bottles under the $100 benchmark. To which we retort — “well then, the sommelier better be worth it.” Unfortunately, like so much here, he ain’t, nor wasn’t!
Not knowing what wine to order yet — the remaining three menus had yet to arrive — our second waiter steered us to a red Director’s Cut from filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola — but a plonk disappointingly different from the dry red desiccated grape flavours of the Italian amarone we craved. “Trust me, trust me,” he insisted. We did, then changed waiters! At 4000Baht a bottle (about $125) one does expect more. (Afterwards I confided this story to an oenophile acquaintance, who called Director’s Cut “a wine with a better name and story than taste.”)
But more — or less — was to come. By this time, we finally prevailed on yet another waiter to get us the menu with chapters 1, 2, 3 — but these are not in sequenced appetizers, starters and mains as presumed. “Let’s Get Started” was a confusing array of both starters and mains, with flavours of India meets Italy with a little twist. Or should one say, bent?
A bit bewildered on how or what to order — an unusual prospect for a food professional — we began with a mishmash of lady fingers (okra) with onions and crushed spice; three fresh wild mushrooms with green peas and fenuigreek; plus naan and pratha with carom seeds. We also indulged in the 24-hour stew of 5 different lentils — which was the best of the lot, but more a hearty main, than a side. The saffron rice was too salty — and me a gushing salt aficionado.
Inexcusably, our ordering became even more problematic, as the waiter was jotting barely half the dishes we requested. At which point, we demanded Kh Supachai (Eh) the maître d’ to come rescue us with the professionalism and expertise expected at one of the world’s top eateries. (Their words, not ours.)
On another note, cutesy clever recipe titles are no excuse for inaccuracy. Although Thomas Keller’s French Laundry promotes classic foie gras wrapped tightly in a towel, here foie gras “cold torchon” seemingly means little other than bastardized franglais. Instead of a chilled, fattened liver rolled in a tea towel, out pops a modernist hot sautéed dish of 3 small cut lobes resembling quivering marrow, creatively juxtaposed with Indian berry chutney and granules of modernist liver essence. So where’s the “torchon”? And pity the wait staff didn’t encourage us to eat the grains immediately, before they liquefied in Bangkok’s humidity.
We also ordered “Mary had a little Lamb” tandoori chops with Jack Daniel’s liquor smoking away under a modernist dome, plus flavoured further by “essential oils”, green chili and fresh coriander seed. While half these organic chops were exquisitely tender, they were confusingly presented as one double-cut chop, and one single. (The single chop was slightly gristly.) Go figure!
Our order of fresh pasta with green chilies, coriander seed and leaf (cilantro), parmesan, and baby spinach inexplicably arrived with purslane(?) substituting for the spinach. While the lemony-fragrant al dente pasta texture was perfect, it was overridden rough shod by damn spicy hot sauce. Thai flavorings are meant to compliment other dishes, but this one is served alone — which on its own is too assertive.
And perhaps we should recount what we did not order: signature lobster was unavailable, replaced by large prawns; Indian “foie gras” (or brains) was off the menu; and no organic baby potatoes. Granted, it was after a long holiday weekend.
By this time we decided to skip dessert and go simply for coffee. The almond biscotti was truly ambrosial — perfect flavour, biteable crunch, and unlike so many jaw breakers served mostwhere. Alas, the espresso arrived tepid. And as we were dining in sweltering Asia, not frigid Europe, there is little excuse.
Our final verdict: Annan Gaggan is undoubtedly a creative culinary genius, let down by his chefs when he is not on premises. His a la carte menu options are too vast, and confusingly presented, with no sense of harmonizing a full course meal. As for his waiters, even an obligatory 10% tip is too much for their lack of training. We gave ours in entirety to the maître d’hotel.
68/1 Soi Langsuan Ploenchit Road
Lumpini, Bangkok 10330, Thailand
+66 2 652 1700