Southeast Asia (8/13) – Week-Long Birthday in Thailand

Southeast Asia (8/13) – Week-Long Birthday in Thailand

Our fourth and primary stop on this trip was Bangkok. Neither of us had been to Thailand, and we both craved visiting it, especially after my sister Ariel’s testament to its awesome food scene. Strictly speaking, HK, Singapore, and KL were all just appetizers leading up to this main course.

Touching down in Bangkok was exciting for two other reasons:  (1) we were checking into a Park Hyatt, the nicest hotel on this trip, and (2) we had a dinner reservation at Gaggan, one of the top rated restaurants in the world. As soon as we disembarked from this $50 Air Asia flight, the remainder of the day would be nothing but splurge.

I had a dilemma: Hong’s birthday was coming up in a week, at the end of the trip. I wanted to plan something special for her, but it was hard to arrange for much nice stuff on that day. Also, in Bangkok it’s objectively impossible to find anything to top the Park Hyatt + Gaggan combo. Wouldn’t it be depressing to reach the high note today, and go down a few notches as we approach the birthday? Oh what the heck, let’s just do the birthday thing early then. I made some arrangements, and didn’t tell her about them.

Park Hyatt Bangkok was the newest Park Hyatt property in the world. With under a year in age, this hotel was not yet listed on many hotel search sites.  The airport taxi dispatcher had no clue where it was, either. It was located in Siam Square, the posh part of town with too many high-end shopping malls. The hotel itself was connected to one called Central Embassy, which for taxi hailing purposes was pronounced “centom embaaaasi”. The check-in process was as expected: we were helped immediately by friendly staff, and the room was gorgeous. After checking out the hotel gym, bar, and outdoor infinity pool, we went down to explore the mall.

Park Hyatt Bangkok from the pool level

Waiting area next to the check-in counters

Beautiful room

Nice view from the 25th floor

There wasn’t much we could afford in this mall – even its movie theater charged $35+ per patron! But we were hungry and needed to eat something. For context, our reservation at Gaggan wasn’t until 9:30pm. We needed to grab a bite around 5pm so we wouldn’t starve, but didn’t want to over-eat and diminish the grand dinner plan, either. For this filler meal we picked Ippudo – the famed ramen brand whose Manhattan location once made me wait 80 minutes during off-peak hour. I am still of the opinion that Ippudo was over-hyped, but for today’s needs it hit the spot perfectly.

Central Embassy

Ippudo, a good option for an afternoon snack

After the temporary hunger relief, we took time to get ready and snapped some pictures in the hotel lobby. The restaurant was not far from the hotel, but not close enough to reach by foot in nice clothes. We knew that hailing a cab right at the hotel wasn’t the smartest idea, given the one-way streets and traffic jam, so we inquired for some pro tip. Orn, a member of the hotel’s team, offered to help.  She went out of her way to take us downstairs, through the mall, across the pedestrian bridge, and grabbed us a taxi. We were impressed and slightly embarrassed by the walking tour – seemed like a lot of trouble for someone in a suit and high heels.  But we were 100% grateful for her hospitality.

Park Hyatt Bangkok staircase

Park Hyatt Bangkok lobby area

Gaggan was situated in a side alley of a rather uneventful street, in a white two-story house. Joel told us about this restaurant when we mentioned Bangkok. At first, I was reluctant to take our time away from experiencing Thai street food. Then the reviews caught my eyes: two Michelin Stars, currently ranked the world’s #7 best restaurant, consistently rated the #1 restaurant in Asia, etc. Hong and I normally don’t care for these superfluous labels, but hey that’s a lot of achievements! Booking a reservation was as easy as filling out an online form. The meal’s fixed price exceeded our previous most expensive meal by a factor of two.  I thought it was fair for such a rare experience, but the irony was that it took place in one of the lowest-cost cities out there. A glass of distilled water at Gaggan cost us more money than most of full-sized entrees that we had on subsequent days.

The chef, Gaggan Anand, is Indian
Though I’d dispute this restaurant being Indian

Would have never guessed this being a restaurant

We hung out for a bit while our 9:30 seating was being prepared. It threw me off slightly but guests from the 6:30 seating were just wrapping up. Parties were then brought to their tables in different rooms of the house. We were given a corner table in what seemed like the foyer portion of the house, alongside a Chinese family with a Caucasian son-in-law, and an European couple with their adult daughter. It was a fairly intimate setting, and it wasn’t obvious how many other guests were dining at the same time.

Each of us was presented with a long piece of paper with 25 emojis on it, mysteriously representing the 25 bite-sized courses to come. I referred to it as “the menu”, and we spent most of the down time wondering how we’d eat a British flag or a tongue. One by one, the servers brought the courses to our table and explained them. Everything was a delicate, beautiful craft presented on a unique container, and most of them were to be eaten in one bite. For the most part, it was impossible to look at the presentation and know how it would taste. Even though the restaurant claimed to serve “progressive Indian cuisine”, only 1/3 of the flavors were of Indian origin. Another 1/3 were distinctively Japanese, a few others were Thai, and some were indescribable.

Getting ready and excited!

Um yeah, makes total sense

The “tongue” dish was a tri-colored spicy paste that we were to physically lick off this plate

Among the most memorable was a tiny flowery “cookie”, made with dehydrated eggplant sandwiching an eggplant sauce. It melted on the tongue immediately and exploded into vast layers of curry flavors. There was no substance to it and I’d hesitate to call it eating, but the powerful curry flavors filled our mouths and lingered for many minutes. It wasn’t the best tasting curry I’d had, but the flavor completely blew my mind… it was powerful, penetrating, and persistent, while its spiciness level was mild at the most. How was it possible to eat nothing, yet taste so much? The dinner wasn’t a meal for me, but an artful culinary experience.

Not that you could hurry art, but the main downside to this dinner was how long it took: 25 courses with a 5-10 minute wait between courses. We started at 9:30pm after a long day of travel, and still had a bit of lingering jet lag. I may have tasted the last 1/3 of the courses with my eyes closed. Three hours later, the final course – a coffee sesame ice cream cookie – brought the dinner service to a conclusion.

After sitting there in silence for a few minutes, we found the lights suddenly dimmed. “That’s a creative way to cue customers to pay and get the hell out,” we both thought. Then several servers appeared from the hall behind me, holding a pot with candlelight on it, and started singing the birthday song. The multinational team sang the song in English with a several different accents, which I thought was cute. Hong assumed that it was for the family at our adjacent table, and I was too sleepy to really process the information. Then the choir approached our table and it occurred to me that I was expecting had planned this. Somewhat. I emailed the restaurant to inform them that we were here to celebrate Hong’s birthday, but never got a response so I wasn’t sure if anything would come of it.

Happy birthday at a world’s top restaurant!

Like all these other courses, the cake was 2-3 bites in size and placed on an atypical container – a large bowl with a few tiny pots of plants. Its taste wasn’t nearly as memorable as dinner, but it was a very nice touch and an extra reason for this experience to be unforgettable. Nicely done, Gaggan!

When we arrived back in the hotel room, my main plan for the birthday surprise had shown up. I commissioned a portrait of us a few weeks back and emailed it to the hotel. Members of the staff had printed and framed it, and placed it on the desk while we were out. That’s all I requested, and I was happy with its execution. But they didn’t stop there. Hong also got some gifts from the hotel: a full vase of fresh orchids, a branded chocolate mousse cake, and a birthday card signed by several members of the staff. On some level I knew this was part of the transactional hospitality, but it was also undeniable that these individuals went out of their way to make this occasion special. Thank you for making her so happy, Gigi, Pynk, and the others at Park Hyatt Bangkok!

These were waiting for us in the room

Whoa and there’s a cake!

Now our hotel room really felt like a home to come back to

I know nothing about pastries, but this sure looked fancy



Southeast Asia 2018 Index


1 Comment

Post a Comment