In Bangkok, the 'world's best' Indian restaurant
It's been a wild year for Bangkok chef Gaggan Anand.
In February, his eponymous Indian restaurant snagged the 10th spot on "Restaurant" magazine's inaugural list of Asia's 50 best restaurants. Two months later, it landed the 66th spot on the publication's "best in the world" list.
Quite an achievement for a man of 35 -- "It was beyond my expectations" -- who took a risk and opened a joint serving Indian dishes reinvigorated by molecular technology barely three years ago.
Reviews have called the Kolkata native's food everything from modern Indian to molecular Indian. Gaggan prefers the phrase "progressive Indian."
"I was listening to progressive rock music -- Pink Floyd, Deep Purple -- and it came to me," he says.
"It’s very difficult to classify our cuisine. Basically it’s about putting old school and new school together. This is progressive cuisine.
"My team -- we inspire, we innovate, we cook. There’s an element of spice, a surprise."
The prog reference is fitting, given Gaggan has become a bit of a rock star himself in wealthy culinary circles back in India.
Just this week, Indian actor Abhishek Bachchan (better known in the West as the husband of Aishwarya Rai) tweeted that he had a "magical" visit, recommending anyone visiting Bangkok to check out Gaggan.
The man has more than 3 million Twitter followers.
"It has become more challenging"
We’ve written about Gaggan before, back when he first opened in 2010 and people had no idea what to make of his restaurant or the strange things that went on in his kitchen, with its water baths, tanks of liquid nitrogen and condensers.
These days it's a packed house pretty much every night.
“People come here with higher expectations now, so it has become more challenging," he says of his recent fame boost.
"But does it change how I cook? No. We’ve also had a lot of chefs who want to work with us now. Three to five new applications coming in every day from all over the world."
So why is Gaggan one of the few Indian restaurants to achieve professional recognition at this level?
"I have begged to differ," he says. "When we started doing this cuisine, everybody said 'don’t do it.' When we wanted to open a restaurant only a few said yes.
"But I’m a stubborn chef. I do what I want to do. And I want to bring Indian cuisine to the global level."
The question of whether he’s going open a restaurant in his homeland inevitably comes up.
Sorry India, not happening.
"In India, they now understand that chefs need their space," he says. "But there are high cost factors so you can’t really break the boundaries.
"Here in Thailand, you have opportunities to grow. Rents in India are about 25 times as much as in Bangkok. I don’t want to take a risk with partners' money. We’re doing a cuisine that nobody has done. Here we’re successful. But that doesn’t guarantee I open in France or wherever else and will have these results."
"elBulli is like the Vatican"
Prior to opening Gaggan, the chef spent two months training with the research team in Spain at Ferran Adria's three Michelin star elBulli restaurant, where he learned a deconstructive approach to cooking that involves creating dishes that appeal to all of the senses.
Just as we ask about the impact of his time in Spain, almost on cue a staff member arrives to tell Gaggan the Spanish ambassador is on the way for dinner.
"Let's accept that Spain has changed the geography of fine dining," says Gaggan. "It was France, now in the last 10 years it’s all about Spain. Ferran is like the pope of cooking and elBulli is the Vatican."
Gaggan says he was the first Indian and just the second Asian to train there.
"Ferran told me not to copy his recipes, but follow his philosophies," he says. "And that is what I’m doing."
What diners can expect
Set in a restored white wooden house, nothing about Gaggan's restaurant looks like a typical Indian restaurant.
The decor, also white, is understated but comfortable. There's not a single piece of kitsch in sight.
The chef’s table is the hottest seat in the place.
It’s one thing to see the creations as they arrive on your table – they really are edible pieces of art -- but quite another to see the culinary theatrics that bring them all to fruition.
Though the a la carte menu has interesting choices, the best way to experience Gaggan is the 10-course testing menu (starting at 1,600 baht).
If you've read this far, you'll know this isn't the kind of place you stroll into looking for a bowl of butter chicken and a side of naan.
Most of the dishes are modern takes on Indian classics, some more futuristic than others, with the odd dish that bears noticeably less of a connection to the subcontinent than some.
Like the oysters with lemon foam, angel flowers and spiced Indian Ocean sea salt. (Check out the gallery above for more dishes.)
But it's the twists that make the place so exciting, whether it's the edible "plastic" bag of nuts made with translucent rice paper or the white chocolate snowball served with freeze-dried mango for dessert.
If you know Indian cuisine well you'll likely experience more than a few "a-ha!" moments, as you think “I see what you did there, Chef.”
Gaggan, 68/1 Soi Langsuan (opposite Soi 3); +66 (0) 2 652 1700; Open daily, 6-11 p.m.