Age is a funny thing in Bangkok. While everyone seems obsessed with everything looking younger and new, a hotel in Sukhumvit has done the exact opposite, ripening itself almost a century overnight to defy the stainless bling of the boutique hotel march. Cabochon Hotel & Residence instead looks back to the days of yore for inspiration, landing in 1920s Shanghai to be exact. And inside is a new Isan restaurant, Thai Lao Yeh, that is also happy in continuing the past glories of this region's food, and to good (and spicy) effect.
The hotel and restaurant is the latest aesthetic romp from Taiwanese owner Eugene Yeh, the creator and former owner of The Eugenia on Sukhumvit Soi 31. This time his signature style and name goes on the restaurant inside, Thai Lao Yeh, which is a play on the Mandarin word for grand old man's restaurant.
Ironically enough, it's the young creative class of the city that have noticed the venue, with fashion mags and TV shows queuing up to use the interior. The venue was the recent host of Le Baron Presents the Art of Hosting party in Bangkok that involved a lavish spread of Parisian social poignancy - a far cry from the cultural context of the chicken wings normally being made in the kitchen but somehow working in this city of contradiction and juxtaposition.
In the restaurant, like the rest of the hotel, the decor dominates the space. Luckily it has been given a little more breathing room than the pokey Joy Luck Club lounge that flanks the hotel on the other side. There's room for about 10 tables or 50 punters, but it was relatively quiet the mid-weeknight we visited. The walls of the restaurant are lined with 100-year-old Thai timber, said to have been salvaged from a rural Thai village.
A good place to start an evening at Cabochon is in the mentioned lounge bar for an old-world aperitif. Star ruby (B280) is a refreshing starter with a vodka base, and a nice touch of mangosteen as garnish in the place of a cherry. The smartly dressed staff don't miss many details.
While the dominating decor is firmly grounded in the days of yore, the cuisine is a curious choice of regional staples from the North and South. And the dishes hold nothing back in terms of sugar and spice. Gai yang takrai (B120, prices subject to tax and service charge) is a straight-up serve of delicious fried chicken wings with a hint of lemongrass; some of the best in the city, we say. More regional signatures, such as Laab Laos (B150), doesn't hold back on the chilli but is worth the battle. Som tam (B120) also pulls no touristy punches and could bring a tear to the eye of even the most northern chilli-smith.
More eccentric menu items include Gaeng pak wan kai mod daeng (B160), which is a chewy and sweet serve of crunchy ant eggs that might leave a trail of dead insects across the table if you aren't careful. Seua rong hai (B150), or tiger's cry, is strips of delicious fried beef that have been marinated in northern spicy goodness and burst with flavour, taking menu honours.
So how do they reproduce these regional delights so succinctly? Much of the ingredients are sourced from Klong Toey Market, they say, delving into the genuineness of the menu further. Perhaps that's the secret. Just don't tell the guests upstairs in the hotel where their ingredients are from.
Admittedly, it's a little strange to step back to 1920s Shanghai to enjoy sticky rice and laab, but with its kitschy prowess and attention to detail, the place somehow works. The food is great. The decor is impressive. The location has become a new food hub, with Quince, WTF and Smith in the near surrounds. Share this eccentric charm with visitors. Just don't tell all your friends so it stays undiscovered a little longer.
Thai Lao Yeh
Regional Thai/Laotian Cuisine Cabochon Hotel & Residence, Walpole Building, 14/29 Sukhumvit Soi 45 02-259-2871-3
About the author
- Writer: Richard Mcleish