I am a very organized traveller. When visiting a new city I have my detailed research in place several days in advance, according to my priorities. So, when we decided to spend a few nights in Bangkok en route to Myanmar, I was absolutely certain I did not want to waste time in shopping malls like most tourists. The top priorities included hanging out with my favorite felines at a cat cafe called Caturday, playing with huskies at a dog cafe called Truelove at Neverland, getting massages and topping the list was eating at Gaggan.
Full disclosure time. I had heard a lot about this Calcutta boy Gaggan Anand who is a shining young star in the culinary world. Before eating at his table, his brand of “progressive Indian cuisine” was to me, a much-abused way of describing a cuisine where chefs aim to impress with plenty of drama and little to eat. I’ve eaten at quite a few restaurants where I have been served gels and foams of this and that, which quite honestly, looked like a baby vomited on my plate and tasted much worse (I must clarify that I have never tasted a baby’s vomit but I hazard a guess here). It was only because of my husband A insisting we “eat at Gaggan before he moves to Japan” that I agreed to give it a shot. Then I saw Episode 6, Season 2 of Chef’s Table on Netflix. I liked the person on the telly who seemed to be a no-nonsense fun sort of a guy.
Gaggan the restaurant is tucked away in a shady nook, housed inside a beautiful white bungalow with tables that offer plenty of privacy. It is a formal sit down dining space that follows a dress code and the night we dined there, we were in the company of a well heeled glam set.
It is top of the list-Asia on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. It ranks 10th overall worldwide. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that reservations are full three months in advance.
Instead of a private table, we chose to sit at the Chef’s Table at the “Lab” on the first floor. This is a communal table surrounded by equipment where Gaggan and his chefs make new discoveries everyday. The mood was relaxed and we quickly made easy conversation with our eclectic set of co-diners who belonged to diverse nationalities: American, Welsh, Australian, Turkish, … We were also in the company of Mason Florence, the journalist who appeared in the Chef’s Table episode, a close friend of Gaggan and the regional representative for The World’s 50 Best Restaurants organization.
The Chef’s Table
Fancy gadgets at the “Lab”
Gaggan made an entry and gave us a quick intro about what to expect: It was a 22 course menu with tasting plates, the first 15 would be served in 30 mins, we were supposed to eat with our hands unless told otherwise.
Then he handed us this Menu.
It was cryptic with cute little icons and no written words. He explained with his innate flair that food is about emotions and what better way to express emotions in this age than with emojis?
Then one by one, in quick succession the following courses were served.
Course 1: Kiss Me. A chilled litchi-rose jelly served on a betel leaf. It worked like a palate cleanser before the meal.
Course 2: Plastic Nuts. An “edible plastic” sachet of toasted nuts. It reminded me of Haldiram’s Chanachur mixes.
Course 3: Yogurt Explosion. By his own account, this is Gaggan’s first breakthrough dish after he mastered molecular gastronomy. A wobbly globule of yogurt spiced with Chat Masala that pops in your mouth and explodes with North Indian goodness.
The chefs plating the yogurt explosion in individual spoons
Course 4: Idly Sambhar. A cracker of a dish, this one had a sponge like Idly base with sambhar foam on top. It melts in the mouth.
Course 5: Chocolate Chilly Bomb. On the outside, a Chocolate ball. On the inside, Panipuri flavored water. Explosive!
Course 6: Eggplant Cookie. Creamy brinjals turned into discs with Baingan Bharta sandwiched in between.
Course 7: Truffle Ghewar. A base of the famed North Indian mithaai Ghewar topped with spicy fried onions and truffle shavings.
Course 8: Mango Wasabi Uni Sundae. Ice Cream. Self explanatory.
Course 9: Pork Vindaloo. Vindaloo served on a potato nest.
Course 10: Golf Ball. A refreshing salad made of various types of tomatoes – cherry, green, pear, etc with a generous drizzle of EVOO.
Course 11: Chutoro Sushi. Here I must take a break and share a few things. Maguro or Bluefin Tuna is a precious catch in Japan. The fish is cut and parts are served in three gradations: Akami is the red meat used in Sushi or Sashimi. Chutoro is the medium fatty part cut from near the fish’s belly. Otoro is the fattiest and most expensive part of the fish. In this course, we were served a Chutoro Sushi. Look at that plate closely. It is bespoke, made with a real fish vertebra!
Course 12: Akami Wrap. The red tuna flesh is chopped and mixed with a guacamole-type salad and served inside a taco-like wrap.
Course 13: Shami Kebab. Although it looks like a ground meat kebab, it is in fact made of chickpea! This was a total googly and we were quizzed about the main ingredient which I guessed correctly.
Course 14: Corn Goat Brain. A wonderful light mousse of goat brain or “Indian foiegras” as Gaggan calls it.
Course 15: Foiegras Passionfruit Yuzu Jelly. The passionfruit is specially sourced from the Chef’s friend’s orchard and the pulp was thickened with a tart and citrusy Yuzu jelly. A total knockout that cleansed the palate.
Course 16: Charcoal. Quiz time again. A shiny dark fried ball made with three things: Amritsari Fish Tikka, Patrani Machhi and Bengali Machher Chop. The crust is made of charred brinjal skin mixed with chickpea flour. Clever.
Course 17: Tomato Matcha. This was sheer drama. The sous chefs came to individual tables and whipped up a Tomato Shorba using traditional Japanese techniques used in making a Matcha (Japanese Green Tea Powder). They used a tiny “broom” to create the froth in a cup. Tasted spectacular. Unfortunately I do not have a photo.
Course 18: Lambchop Rangoli. Like an Indian Burra Kebab. The rangoli on the plate is made of stenciled beet puree.
Gaggan shows off the beautiful chops before grilling them
Course 19: Crab Curry Coconut Rice. A “Dabba” or enamel tiffin carrier arrived with servings of toasty coconut rice, Malabar style crab curry made with the sweetest crab flesh I have ever eaten and a Shrimp fritter. Delicious. Stuffed by now.
The enamel tiffin carrier
Course 20: Kheer Cronut. The Cronut which is a croissant and doughnut rolled into one is the brainchild of a Manhattan bakery called Dominique Ansell, that we had the fortune of visiting a couple of years back. Here the Cronut had a cardamom flavored rice pudding or Kheer in between.
Course 21: Apple Snow. Apples served three ways with ice cream and milk “snow”.
Course 22: Indian National Drink. Looks like “Paan”, tastes like Masala Chai!
Surprise Course 23: This ice cream they served with a Curry leaf dust. The taste is still lingering inside my mouth. SO GOOD!
At the end of the meal we were handed another menu, this time with the full reveal. Gaggan also shot and handed us polaroids (of us) on his instant picture camera for keepsake.
Throughout the dinner service the Chef kept talking to all of us, sharing humorous anecdotes, spreading cheer, using cuss words in Bengali only he, his pastry chef and we (the only Bengalis) understood. We were in splits.
Post dinner, Gaggan invited us for an informal chat or “adda” as we call it in Bengali, while his staff closed the kitchen. He introduced us to his shy pastry chef Solanki, another Calcutta Bengali, narrated the story of his personal and financial struggles before opening the restaurant. He told us about his days in ElBulli where he interned under Ferran Adria and how he owed everything he learnt to him, about his mentorship of other chefs and how he is opening new restaurants for them in Bangkok. He told us about his future plans post 2020, when he will be shifting to Fukuoka, Japan to open a collaborative restaurant with a Japanese chef which in his own words will be “out of these World’s best lists” and “the most inaccessible restaurant in the world”.
Then he booked us a spot at Suhring, one of the many restaurants he has invested in. I will write about my experience there later. It was well past 1 o’clock and he insisted on driving us back to our hotel so that the “adda” could continue.
Here is the thing. As I mentioned earlier I am weary of restaurants using words like “fusion” and “progressive” to describe their food. But what I loved about Gaggan was that the food tasted exactly like it SHOULD taste. Like authentic regional food, cooked with the best of ingredients, rendered delicious because they KNOW what they are doing. Only, it LOOKED different. And therein lies the drama – understated, not in your face. The Gaggan experience is satisfying at so many levels.
His energy is infectious. Clearly his intelligence, flair and dominant “Can Do” attitude has gotten him to the place he is in today. His defiance and rebellious nature can be interpreted as arrogance by some, but this warm and endearing Calcutta boy who calls himself a Bengali (he is Punjabi by birth) has a heart of gold. I went to sleep that night with a stuffed tummy thinking to myself what an amazing day I had spent, meeting the affable Gaggan Anand.