Billing itself as the first restaurant in Bangkok to serve a progressive Thai-Chinese chef’s tasting menu, Potong has fast become the city’s most talked about restaurant as well. Prestige stops by for an unforgettable multi-sensory dining experience with the renown Chef Pichaya “Pam” Utharntharm
If you’re not familiar with Vanich 1 Road, it’s one of those impossibly narrow Chinatown shop-filled side streets that’s tiled (not paved), with barely enough room for a single vehicle. And it’s along this cacophonous, chaotic laneway that you’ll find Potong, a new player in the city’s fine dining game. The mastermind behind it all is Pichaya Utharntharm, more famously known to TV viewers as “Chef Pam”, and her focus here is to shine a gourmet spotlight on the culinary traditions of Bangkok’s Thai-Chinese community; which makes the restaurant’s premises an important part of the overall experience.
Chef Pam was born into a family of fourth-generation traditional Chinese herbal medicine producers, and the 120-year-old, five-storey shophouse building that’s home to Potong was once the headquarters for the family business. As the business grew the production moved to a larger facility, but the building always remained within the family. Almost three years ago, Pam and her business partner (and husband) Boonpiti “Tor” Soontornyanakij began the work of remodelling the property top to bottom, and their labour of love has produced spectacular results.
Diners enter at street level and are treated to a welcome kombucha drink in the Sino Bar, which still retains elements of its storefront dispensary past – including the original signage and company logo above the front door, and a century-old wood ceiling. Climb the wooden stairs (or opt a ride in the nifty two-person elevator) and you arrive at the second-floor dining room, formerly the medicine preparation room. At the far end, doors lead to a small outdoor balcony, where the exposed weathered walls and original stucco decorative flourishes offer a glimpse into the building’s historic past.
The third floor offers more seating, as well as captivating hand-painted wall murals depicting jungle tigers, an ornate shrine to the Three Kingdoms of Chinese lore, and a tiled outdoor balcony lounge with more beautifully weathered walls and stucco work. One flight up sits the soon-to-open Opium Bar, and above that is the not-quite-ready fifth floor open air rooftop deck. As a whole, it’s an incredible architectural transformation, juxtaposing old and new throughout and creating the perfect backdrop for Chef Pam’s wildly inventive culinary creations.
Described as the city’s first progressive Thai-Chinese set menu, her mammoth 20-dish dining experience is a journey of the five senses that incorporates the five elements of taste – namely salt, acid, spice, texture, and maillard reaction (the distinctive flavour of seared, browned, and toasted foods). However, it’s also an informative journey, as many dishes reference Thai-Chinese traditions and history; some well-known and some obscure to anyone who didn’t grow up along Yaowarat Road.
The meal begins with one tiny orange each, plucked off a small tree that’s been set upon the table. The giving of mandarin oranges is symbolic in Chinese culture of wishing someone happiness, except these tiny, one-bite starters are made of white chocolate and filled with orange kombucha – a delicious, and auspicious, beginning.
Next up is another single-bite dish, this time resembling a small striped clamshell. Referencing salapao (steamed bun) the filling here is delicious lamb char siu – the method used to make BBQ red pork – with a touch of honey, coriander root, and garlic. The striping, meanwhile, is created using light and dark soy sauce, and the accompaniment is a shot of umami vegetable broth.
This is followed by a theatrically displayed version of Chinese corn soup; its creamy texture enhanced by white pepper, sunflower seeds, truffle vinaigrette, and a crunchy brown butter tuille topping (crème brûlée-style). The corn milk leaf chip served alongside is used to crack the surface and scoop up the contents, while the side of tea – made using corn silk – is flavoured with star anise and aromatic Chinese herbs.
By this point in the meal it’s obvious that Chef Pam’s aim is to push boundaries; riffing wildly on classic recipes, and deconstructing – then reconstructing – traditional fare. The course that follows – duck tongue slow-cooked for several hours, then grilled slightly – continues this epicurean experimentation. The tiny tongues, served skewered on small wooden pikes, are then rolled by diners across a tri-colour display of sauces (green curry pesto, mussel cream, and Kaffir lime gel) before being consumed. It’s a little DIY, mixed with a little WTF, followed by some OMG.
As the courses continue to arrive, the galaxy of tastes continues to expand. A bamboo dumpling, containing dried scallop and frog leg and topped with a candied coriander stem, is served in a hot lemongrass broth infused with Chinese roots. A baby gem lettuce leaf is stuffed with egg yolk emulsion, fermented radish, and dehydrated vegetable powder, then garnished with a perfume spritz of chrysanthemum kombucha. A superb single bite treat of sous vide squid egg – served with spicy chili oil, and a duotone topping of white sesame with ginseng, and black garlic – exhibits the firm texture of a perfectly seared scallop.
When the black chicken arrives, Chef Pam takes a moment to explain in person the genesis of this somewhat sinister looking entrée. “Usually, black chicken is just used for making broth, and no one eats the meat, but we make it the star of the dish. We brine it, and roast it, and then grill it. Black chicken is black from the bone, to the flesh, to the skin, but the only thing not black is the heart,” she says, pointing out a tiny pink morsel on my plate.
The bird is accompanied by black rice, cooked in an aromatic broth seasoned with aged mandarin peel, cinnamon, star anise, and other flavourings. It’s then finished in a pig bladder, which Pam ceremoniously cuts open on the spot to reveal all the heady aromas. The final detail on the plate is a squirt of housemade black vinegar foam, and while this is unquestionably a showstopper dish it’s hardly the end of the show.
With so many courses it’s impossible to list them all, but the catch of the day – in our case a delightful grilled pomfret served with fermented bok choy, sea grapes, coriander sauce, and a dollop of fermented radish, squid, and chili paste – was a definite highlight. Fermented and pickled produce also made an appearance in the final savoury course, where a selection of three meats – brined and slow-cooked char siu style beef, hay dry-aged duck, and red grouper – were presented on a black marble Lazy Susan swivel tray, alongside an assortment of tempting sauces and sides that included cashew mustard, chili oil, sundried radish, and fermented radish. Dry-aging and fermentation are two of the chef’s specialties, and we gladly accepted her invitation to quickly visit the small, curtained-off mini laboratory she has on the third floor.
Desserts come next, and the lineup begins with a button of soft plum meringue sitting atop a pillar of stone, meant to evoke memories of a beloved childhood candy. Then, a hand-blown translucent toffee “swan”, filled with a powder of chocolate, Chinese five spice, xinjiang, and mala – all resting on a pillow of black soy ice cream and white chocolate vanilla crumble – is set before us on small trays emitting billows of dry ice fog. Crack the caramel shell, mix, and consume. Utterly divine!
The evening concludes with an amusing display of petit fours, artfully arranged in a plexiglass diorama map of the Chinatown district. And while each bite has a story to tell about history, tradition, and the link to our past that food provides, it’s the final nibble – a fortune cookie sweetened with mountain honey – that adds an extra special footnote to this particular meal. On the thin roll of paper inside my cookie it reads: “Never do anything halfway”. To me it seems less of a fortune, and more of a motto to live by… especially if your name is Chef Pam.
For more information and reservations, visit Potong.