First things first: Freebird has nothing to do with the Lynyrd Skynyrd song of the same name, and the so-called Modern Australian concept is not nearly as nebulous as it sounds. This restaurant, the latest, most headline-worthy addition to Bangkok’s ever-booming dining scene, transcends the labels that have been laid on it – even those ascribed by its founders.
Under the inventive direction of Sydney-born chef Dallas Cuddy, Freebird offers a refreshingly different experience, blurring the line between upscale and casual without any affectation.
As soon as it opened at the start of September, Freebird appeared on seemingly everyone’s Instagram feed. Turquoise and fuchsia murals, the glowing beacon of the Batman-like bird emblem, angled tangerine tiles that form a stunning accent wall – the restaurant is an artist’s playground, a renovated townhouse on Sukhumvit 47 reimagined by partner/designer Alan Barr.
Each section features its own distinct design concept, yet they all flow into one another. Even the open kitchen is a triumph of form and function. Occupying a room at the front of the house, it’s illuminated at night through picture windows, building a sense of anticipation for arriving guests, adding an element of excitement for those already dining and offering some visual stimulation for the kitchen staff, too.
“We wanted to create a place that was fun and engaging, where the floor staff can loosen up and have fun with customers,” says Cuddy, whose previous stops include Nobu in London and Verge in Melbourne. “It’s restaurant-quality food in a casual setting, and to achieve that we used local products whenever possible.” And not just local ingredients, either.
One table is made from Lao teak, but that’s about as far away as Barr, Cuddy and their third partner, Benjamin Lee, have looked for furnishings. Sewing machines from Chiang Mai make up the base of one long family table, wall paintings come from an artist who sells from his shop in the Chatuchak Weekend Market and the parquet flooring is pre-existing (though it had to be uncovered by the team).
There’s even a small hothouse out back, as well as a few planter boxes along the path to the front door, where Cuddy grows herbs and vegetables for some of his dishes. Altogether, the setting serves to amplify the style of Cuddy’s cutting-edge cuisine.
Speaking of which, by now poor Cuddy must have explained “Modern Australian” to every writer in Southeast Asia. “It means we take the best bits of other cultures and make it our own,” he says without a hint of irritation. “It also means we don’t have to follow the rules. There’s a sense of liberation in doing that.”
True to form, Freebird’s cuisine reflects Cuddy’s life experiences: Japanese from his time at Nobu, Italian from home-cooked meals as a child, even Indian from his travels through cosmopolitan London and Sydney. To best understand what this entails, he recommends ordering the customisable 10-course tasting menu, “A Taste of Freebird”, and doubling down with the self-styled “sommakase”, in which the house sommelier selects wines to pair from a list that’s heavy on cold climate vino.
“I’ve done close to 20 menus, and I’ll change three or four dishes every few weeks. I get bored easily,” admits Cuddy. “But for guests, when they come back, they can try something different.”
All tasting menus begin with a blast of umami, the thread that links Cuddy’s creations. Homemade bread comes with butter whipped with truffle, seaweed and sesame, the butter a standout in its own right.
What follows from there is up to guests, but it would be a shame to miss out on the seed toast with sea grapes, which has become a Freebird signature, carrying on that umami theme. Cuddy and company make flaxseed crackers with dashi and layer them with Parmesan cream, organic sea urchin and local sea grapes. Crunchy and bright, texture and taste elevate one another in these bites made for eating with your hands.
Along with urging guests to get a little messy and eschew the fork and knife at times, Cuddy’s light-hearted approach to eating is clearly evidenced in one of the more interesting dishes on the menu: fresh profiteroles prepared not as true sweets, but as sweet-savoury one-bite appetisers instead. “We eat with our eyes first,” says Cuddy, referring to the flavours the brain signals the palate to expect as much as the beauty of a perfectly presented dish. Filled with duck liver parfait and paired with truffle honey and macadamia nut milk, the profiteroles play with expectations, and in doing so they infuse the experience with some excitement.
Fresh Australian oysters may sound uninspired, but not so with house-made pickled onion and shiso dressing on the half shells. These are the kind of noshes that could be popped all night, one after the other. They’re likewise packed with umami, but not so much as to overwhelm the oysters’ natural sweetness. For a similar effect, try the sous-vide squid, shaved to resemble rice noodles and served with yuzu kosho (a citrus-chilli powder), oyster cream, seaweed butter and pickled cucumbers. A nod to Asian culinary traditions, the dish gets a lift from the acidity of the pickles. “I like bright flavours,” admits Cuddy.
As the menu builds, so does the size of the portions – not to mention the meaning behind each dish. Mushroom buckwheat risotto with slow-cooked, locally sourced pork and whipped Parmesan, topped with herbs and butterfly pea petals, is what the chef appropriately calls “comfort in a bowl”. Reminiscent of congee, this substantial starch should stoke a sense of nostalgia in every eater, whether Asian or Australian. That’s the goal. To hear the chef explain it, every dish should evoke memories while representing his experiences, as well.
For the roasted ocean trout, maybe those memories are tied into its preparation. There are no fancy techniques involved with this one, just a good filet of fish, a tangy glaze and an oven. Of course, nothing is so simple. The fish gets the yin to its yang in the form of trout roe, pennywort and mussel escabeche on the side. Like all the dishes at Freebird, it’s best eaten with a little bit of everything, an all-encompassing medley of flavours that rewards those prone to experimentation.
Of all the experiments the chef himself undertakes, from a caramelised potato cooked with smoked cheese curd and covered with mint vinaigrette to kurobuta pork neck, brined, cooked sous-vide and grilled, then paired with pistachios and local herbs, the most successful speak to where he’s come from more than where he’s going.
Cuddy still follows Nobu’s trinity of taste, texture and temperature. He still expands single moments of joy and humour into everlasting memories, as he does with a peanut butter parfait that recalls the moment a co-worker received a suitcase full of Snickers bars instead of the sneakers she asked a friend to bring her from Australia. Most importantly, he still pays homage to the people whose hard work rarely receives the recognition it deserves, such as the caretaker of the property on Sukhumvit 47, whose fondness for birds was the source of inspiration for the name Freebird.
That aspect, above all else, makes dining at Freebird such a special event. And it gives this restaurant.