“Come for the experience, not the hype”. That’s what Gaggan suggests his guests do when they dine at his eponymous restaurant in Bangkok. Seemingly sound advice, a reasonable request even, but my problem was that regardless of whether I came for one or the other, neither stacked up. The hype is unavoidable. Even if you don’t have a Netflix account and an unhealthy obsession with current food culture, the chances are you’ve still at least heard of the runaway hit Chef’s Table. For the viewers, it’s an insight into the lives and inner workings of some extraordinary culinary minds, and for the chefs themselves, I imagine it’s ticket to celebrity chef stardom and a guaranteed full house for the next few years.
If Chef’s Table lured me in, it was the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards who sealed the deal when they awarded Gaggan the top spot for the third year running. Upon reading that, I decided on a whim to make a booking; with only a couple of weeks until our Bangkok visit, I wasn’t holding out much hope but imagine my elation when they confirmed our table for two. So yeah, I fell for the hype; hook, line and inspirational-sob-story sinker, but after embarking on this twenty-something course journey at Gaggan, I was disappointed to say that I did not fall head over heels for the experience.
To guide us, we were presented with a menu consisting completely of emojis; our only hints as to what we would be consuming were a series of lone pictorial symbols… was this quirky, cleverly relevant, or just plain stupid? At this point, we weren’t sure but gave it the benefit of the doubt and chalked it down to being part of the experience. So too was the lightning speed at which the first couple of snacks arrived at the table; the quick succession of the lemon, explosion, and wheat emoji dishes, all seemed to be mouthfuls designed to perhaps throw us off guard and straight into the Gaggan journey. The first came in the form of a citrus cola drink, the second was a play on El Bulli’s liquid olives as a nod to Gaggan’s short stint there, and the third was a curious looking and tasting cracker.
They were perfectly good snacks, and we always like starting a meal with amuse bouches as they serve a purpose, they set a scene. But then the next few dishes felt suspiciously like amuse bouches too and we started veering into rocky territory with Gaggan. An eggplant biscuit, a chocolate chilli bonbon, a green pea and mushroom roll were all well executed, some more delightful than others, but were mere mouthfuls again. With twenty-five items on the tasting menu, we certainly weren’t mad enough to expect all of them to be full dishes, but we also weren’t expecting to feel like we were chowing down on a steady stream of elaborate canapés at a very long party.
But as we ploughed on at this party for two, we did find several gems along the way. We could have demolished several of the Chettinad quail legs, and done with a whole plateful of the fiery pork vindaloo cubes or the moreish mini akami tartare tacos for that matter. Though they were three of the most restrained dishes, they were also three of the best examples of powerful spicing or knowledge of flavours. A chu toro nigiri, where the rice was replaced by a meringue, was simply sensational, and dare I say, maybe one of the few truly original dishes on this menu. It made us wonder if we were just a little oversubscribed to fine dining culture because despite everyone banging on about how groundbreaking Gaggan is, we weren’t reduced to wide-eyed awe at any time… There’s no denying that Gaggan is laden with a well-stocked armoury when it comes to gastronomic technique but we didn’t feel they were quite hitting the ambitious targets we had hoped.
We were told from the outset that this menu represents the chef’s culinary journey and influences. That’s all music to my ears because my love of an inspirational story is partly what got me here in the first place, but I also love a story that hangs together. By the end of Gaggan’s story, I felt like I had traipsed round the world and back again, and was still none the wiser about where I’d been. I love seeing chefs draw inspiration from different countries or even different chefs, and truly believe that the creative fusion of flavours can be genius, but it only works when the chef is confident in their own signature style. Without this, it feels like a chef is trying to emulate those he admires, instead of being influenced by them. Many will disagree with me but I felt like this menu was more about showing off everything, instead of being brave enough to only show off its best.
The service, another key part of the experience, was also a bit confused. It wavered between overly assured and patronising when dishes were being presented to us, to excessively contrite to the point of being awkward, when some basic but vital mistakes were made. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it all felt… insincere… and as a result, I never fully felt at ease or particularly connected to this meal. I really wanted to love Gaggan, but it didn’t make my heart, mind or stomach flutter. I wanted to marvel in the journey and leave nodding my head in agreement with whoever judges the Asia’s Best Restaurant Awards, satisfied that they made the right choice in putting Gaggan at the top. Instead, I left deflated by both the hype and the experience, and paid around twenty times the price of a local Thai meal for that pleasure!
Have you been to Gaggan, did you love it?
Have you dined at any other restaurants featured on Chef’s Table or the World’s Best 50 Restaurant list?
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