Where comfort means class
Front Room's chef de cuisine knows how to merge the best of both Thai and Nordic styles
The word "comfort" and its variations may be used quite a few times in the review you're about to read.
The open kitchen manned by young and talented chefs adds a dynamic, fun-filled vibe to the casual restaurant.
But that is a good sign, let me tell you.
Because when a food critic feels comforted by the food she eats, especially at an up-to-the-minute establishment, it means that, amid all fanciful frills, she has impressively sensed from the dish genuine tender-loving care.
Front Room, which first opened two weeks ago on the ground floor of the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok, labels itself a Thai-inspired Nordic restaurant.
Baked beetroot, pickled papaya, caviar and beetroot sauce.
Despite its clichéd cuisine concept, the 80-seater is another restaurant that made me feel grateful for a career that allows me to encounter first hand some of the boldest and most talented kitchen wizardry.
Prior to my first dinner there, I was a bit sceptical upon learning about a new-face female chef trying to present in the city "Nordic-Thai cuisine".
You know, in this food-competitive metropolis overrun by countless wannabes who try so hard to reach stardom through the help of media and publicity, I always distance myself from being someone's shortcut to fame.
But Rungthiwa "Fae" Chummongkhon, Front Room's chef de cuisine, is the real deal. And I'm not judging by her fancy portfolio, which includes 10 years at several Michelin-rated restaurants in Denmark. It was based on my two recent meals there.
A native of Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand, Fae is an ambitious, work-addicted chef with a good palate. Her cuisine is a delicious marriage of traditional Thai recipes and Nordic cooking techniques, particularly curing, fermenting and smoking. That results in imaginative creations that reveal a familiar and comforting Thai flavour-profile.
The restaurant's menu listed only 12 à la carte items: four options each under appetiser, main entrée and dessert.
Multi-course tasting meals (2,500 baht per person for the seven-course; and 3,200 baht per person for the 10-course) are highly recommended should you wish to thoroughly understand the cuisine, or simply to indulge in lengthy culinary excitement.
Sea bass with black garlic, coconut and broccoli.
All dining guests here are treated to a warm, baked riceberry sourdough accompanied by salty-sweet butter infused with house-brewed soy sauce.
I settled for the full-steam 10-course journey and it began with a selection of amuse-Bouche. It featured five light-bite delicacies including croustades with pomelo and shrimp filling; fish cracker with sweet and sour gel; salmon on beetroot meringue; pumpkin leaf chips; and mini sweet potato taco and peanut.
Following this was a platter of pressed sea bass fillets with black garlic powder, crunchy sprigs of pickled sun choke, sautéed broccoli, citrus vinaigrette and icy pellets of coconut cream. The dish, prepared with local fish, got the dinner rolling impressively with a diversity of colours, textures, tastes, temperatures and cultures.
The next course, dubbed Baking Beetroot, gave me a craving for chef Fae's creation centring on a vegetable I previously hadn't been so fond of.
The dish was, as I had expected, dominated by the beet's deep-red hue and almost nothing else. But it's the aroma that was unexpectedly tempting.
The beetroot had been baked until caramelised on the outside while the centre retained a slight tanginess. It was served with a garnish of caviar, pickled papaya, beetroot gel and aromatic dill oil in a pool of soothingly tasty sauce made with chicken stock and beet.
Mom's Soup Memories, the fourth course to arrive, is how the chef portrays a gastronomic comfort food from her childhood.
This squid noodle, as she calls it, featured local squid, sliced into thin strips as fine as silk-satin ribbons, before being smothered with garlic oil and served with a tasty dark brown broth made with cucumber, gourd and chicken.
Blue crab, celery crudite, celeriac and yellow curry.
Described as crab, celery crudite and yellow curry, the next dish may have looked whimsical and weak, but inside a crispy pastry cone stuffed with loose crabmeat, celeriac and curry hollandaise was a politically correct flavour of Thailand's famous curry crab. This was another of my favourites on the table.
When it comes to poultry, chef Fae opts for organic chicken from her home province. Golden-hued roasted chicken wings, stuffed with minced chicken meat, arrived at the guest table under a glass lid fumed with aromatic smoke from burnt lemongrass fibril. The pudgy wings were enjoyed with creamy lemongrass sauce.
At most fine dining restaurants, top-grade beef is chosen as a headliner in a multi-course meal. Many times the beef dish turns out to be overshadowed by the previous courses. But that's not the case here.
Chef Fae presents her beef dish with a dry-aged, 250-day grass-fed M5 wagyu strip loin from Australia's Rangers Valley.
The super-delicious, perfectly charred steak was paired with braised local oxtail, which was tender but still yielded a good and flavourful chew. Marvellously complementing the red meat were stuffed morel mushrooms, cashew nut purée, sunflower sprouts and thin slices of vinaigrette-marinated fresh taro stalk.
The deeper the dinner progressed, the more I admired the chef for her creations that allow every single ingredient to shine while cleverly complementing one another.
Every bite generated a wow as it paid tribute to the quintessential elements of the recipe, even if they are least profiled. The plating, the taste and the texture were definitely on-point.
Desserts were represented by grilled-asparagus ice cream with dill caramel; basil-white chocolate mousse with mango and tuile; and an eight-item selection of mignardises.
To match the extraordinary meal was extraordinary drink. Taking a cue from the Scandinavian juice-pairing trend, the restaurant offers a house-concocted juice package at 600 baht per person.
Guests can expect to find, for example, a smokey sweet brew of roasted gourd, coconut sap and pandan leaf to welcome them to the meal; guava and green apple juice infused with rosemary and kaffir lime to complement the seafood course; red grape juice seethed with clove to enhance the beef dish; and ginger soda with vanilla to cap the desserts.
Wagyu striploin, braised ox tail, morel mushrooms and fumet sauce.