Longstanding Bangkok hotel, Dusit Thani, is the latest establishment to embrace the gastronomic revolution labelled ‘Modern Thai’ with the re-opening of its flagship Thai restaurant, Benjarong. Formerly known for its Royal Thai cuisine served on traditional Benjarong crockery, the restaurant now sees a completely reworked menu from the mind of Chef Morten Bojstrup Nielsen. Originally heralding from Denmark, although don’t let that fool you into believing Nielsen is a novice in the arts of Thai cookery, the chef joins Benjarong from Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin. It was at Sra Bua where Nielsen brought some of the most innovative Thai food Bangkok has seen – frozen red curry lobster salad and green curry carrot pots were dishes that got diners talking. Nielsen has also previously working at Copenhagen’s Michelin stared Kiin Kiin and London’s nahm, alongside Chef David Thompson, where the kitchen also held a coveted Michelin star.
Benjarong has changed little in its décor, a good thing, still boasting impressive mahogany wood and traditional silk decoration. Instead additional smaller nods to modern life are now present, including framed contemporary artwork and stripped back table settings. The main focus being given to the reworking of the dishes that now showcases traditional Thai flavours using modern cooking techniques and contemporary plating. The menu includes the Aromatic Journey (four courses) and Benjarong Signature Tasting Journey (six courses) as well as an à la carte option. On this occasion our table sampled the Benjarong Signature Tasting Journey (as well as à la carte and off-menu dishes) with wine pairings for each course.
Dinner begins with a trio of amuse bouche; deep-fried cuttlefish with fresh turmeric, spiced scallop and papaya in coconut milk, and roasted pork leg with smoked chilli tomato jam. Each mouthful is greeted with contrasting flavours and textures. I especially enjoy the sashimi style scallop paired with sweet papaya, coconut milk and aromatic kaffir lime leaf. Roasted pork leg was reminiscent of an Asian pulled-pork with tender strands of meat topped with a slightly smoky condiment and crisp wafer of pork skin (commonly used to garnish a variety of traditional Thai street dishes such as baa mee naam). The course is paired with Montaudon Reserve Premier Brut (Champagne N V).
The following soup and starter course shows Nielsen flexing the inventive chef within. Hot and sour tom yum with prawn and galangal is presented in component form before clear broth is poured over tableside. Flavours are beautifully balanced with no ingredient overpowering the other, concise Thai refinement of the highest order. Another soup (à la carte) of tom klong “smoked soup with mackerel” is equally as divine, with the taste of smoked fish balancing against the sweetness of baby pearl onions.
Soups are served with a starter course of crispy catfish and mango salad with crabmeat and tom yum custard, Nielsen interpretation of the classic Thai salad yam pla dook fu. Starters are given 21st century presentation, the crabmeat and tom yum custard lining an all glass fishbowl, topped by glass conical-funnel bowl containing the crispy catfish and mango salad. The catfish is graciously dropped atop the custard at the table, providing theatre and interaction. Soup and starter are paired with Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough, New Zealand 2012).
Salad of grilled wagyu beef with dehydrated tomato, sweet melon and yam pudding is next to arrive at the table. Chunks of grilled wagyu carry the smoky flavour of the charcoal grill and are paired with rolls of sweet melon and cubed fresh cucumber. Droplets of sticky yam puree are nestled under aromatic herbs and provide balance and acidity to the salad. Presentation is clean and minimal with each flavour complementing the next. Wine pairing is Astrolabe Pinot Noir (Melborough, New Zealand 2011).
Final savoury course on the Benjarong Signature Tasting Journey is sous vide duck breast with aubergine, Chinese chives and crispy wonton. An accompanying sauce comprised of Thai basil is served at the table, as well as choice of steamed jasmine or gaba rice. Flavours feel more Chinese than Thai, although Chinese-Thai fusion is nothing unheard of and makes up a large percentage of the food consumed in Bangkok today. Duck is cooked to juicy perfection, as expected with the wonders of sous vide, and tastes every bit as decadent as it looks. Crispy wonton is packed with rich, braised duck meat filling. Accompanying vegetables of Chinese cabbage, deep-fried chives and smoky aubergine mash all marry well against the taste of Thai basil and duck. Wine pairing is Cave La Suzienne, Mistralou (Coutes de Rhones, France 2012).
Fortunately we were also treated to two of the dishes designed for sharing at Benjarong; 72-hour cooked beef rib in aromatic green curry (à la carte) and braised lamb shank in massaman curry (off-menu). The green curry is of course every bit as great as it sounds, with tender, fall-off-the-bone rib meat in a pool of deeply fragrant and aromatic green sauce.
The braised lamb meat is equally slow-cooked to melting consistency, although in a sauce heavy with cinnamon and green cardamom, something Nielsen assures me is purposeful in order to produce a massaman that stands out from the crowd. Somewhat strong for my refined classical French palate but could be a real deal-breaker for the Thai diners.
Normal tasting menu dessert of basil ice cream with fresh pineapple and salty meringue was on this occasion substituted for a deconstructed cheesecake of Thai mandarin, although I can assure you from a previous tasting that the basil and pineapple with salty meringue (really interesting component) is an absolute winner! Not to say that our cheesecake didn’t hit all the right notes with elegant quenelles of mandarin ice cream, pipings of sweetened cream cheese and candied mandarin sitting on top of biscuit crumble composed of almonds and bitter dark chocolate. Nielsen explained that some desserts will be easily recognisable as traditional Thai where as others pay homage to the Thai’s fondness of all things sweet in other cultures. Wine pairing for dessert is Monsoon Valley Muscat (Thailand 2011).
Dessert is followed by a selection of teas and coffees as well as a choice from a selection of macaroons, I opted for Thai tea flavour, although again for a previous tasting I can promise you other macaroon flavours do not disappoint and these happen to be some of the best macaroons I’ve had the pleasure of ending a meal with.
Benjarong is not only embracing the Modern Thai movement but is taking huge steps to spearhead it. Flavours are familiar Thai yet have clarity and refinement not found in typical Bangkok kitchens. The use of tableside theatrical delivery and modern plating, coupled with modern European cooking techniques showcases east-meets-west fusion without bastardisation. Not only is Benjarong modern in its cuisine but is also challenging the way Bangkok diners think about a restaurant and its concept, with elegant, contemporary press photograph curtsy of New York photographer Jesper Haynes, as well as limited edition menus featuring local artists work, something that the Benjarong team hope to make sought after, collectible items over time. The current menu features artwork from Vorakorn Metmanorom and is entitled ‘The Ploughing Ceremony’.
Benjarong is open for lunch and dinner services. Located within the Dusit Thani Hotel, Rama VI Road (Silom), Bangkok.