Although just over a year old, there’s ample reason why Nusara has firmly established itself as one of the city’s most celebrated private fine dining experiences.
It goes without saying that 2020 was a difficult year and that 2021 is no walk in the park either. However, at Nusara, an intimate Thai fine dining spot located just off Maharat Road near Wat Pho, the past 12 months have been pretty good, all things considered.
The restaurant, which opened in June last year, has seen business remain relatively steady despite a few lockdown-related closures and the intermittent restrictions on serving alcohol. It even managed to land the No. 20 spot on this year’s Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list, which certainly delighted chef/owner Thitid “Ton” Tassanakajohn.
For anyone who follows the food scene in Bangkok, chef Ton needs no introduction. He’s the mastermind behind the one-Michelin-starred Le Du, as well as the two iterations of Baan restaurant – one in Bangkok, and one in Taipei – and the fun and funky Mayrai Pad Thai and Wine Bar, which conveniently occupies the street level space in the shophouse building that’s home to Nusara.
“It’s named after my grandmother,” Ton informs me as he points to the elaborately framed photo of her which rests on an easel next to the main dining table. He goes on to explain that this second-floor space was originally conceived to be a more casual-style restaurant, but when his grandmother passed away at end of 2019, he and his brother Tam – who is also actively involved in Baan and Mayrai – decided to change the name and the concept. “We wanted to make something in her memory. She raised us, she cooked for us, and she’s the one who inspired me a lot to be who I am today. So, we changed the focus to fine dining.”
The lovingly decorated interior is compact but never feels cramped, with a long rectangular table for up to a dozen in one room and a spacious table for four in the other. The reservation policy encourages guests to book the entire table, large or small, and this, in turn, has attracted the attention of diners looking for both the safety and sophistication that a private dining experience offers. Couple that exclusivity with Ton’s incredible virtuosity in the kitchen, and it’s no surprise this elegant hideaway has garnered so much acclaim in such a short time.
The 12-course dinner set menu (THB 2,990++ per person) is daring and delicious in equal measures; always remaining recognisably Thai, but throwing out culinary curveballs when it comes to ingredients and cooking techniques.
“Le Du is my take on modern Thai cuisine, but here I want to look to the future,” says the celebrated chef. “Thai food has been frozen in time for the past 200 years, using the same old recipes, which are great, but I think it should have some new input. This is what Thai food could be.”
I keep these words in mind as the amuse bouche course arrives, consisting of two bite-sized morsels displayed on a beautifully ornate plate. First is a Kaffir cracker, topped with a mix of shrimp, garlic, pepper, and celery root, all seasoned with sugar and a touch of fish sauce. It’s wonderfully tasty but it’s the tiny, pickled quail egg with turmeric, set atop a carved cucumber base, that packs the bigger flavour punch, as the cucumber conceals a mix of chili, galangal and garlic that’s released as I chomp down on it.
The next few courses are described by Ton as variations on yum, the spicy “salads” that are a cornerstone of Thai cuisine. Things begin with a sampling of thinly sliced grouper – trap-caught in Trat province – which is artfully arranged on a small decorative plate, complemented by scallion and ginger and dressed with lime juice and fish sauce. Lovely.
The next item resembles a rice flour wrap, languidly draped over an assemblage of cucumber, Chiang Mai tomatoes, pickled garlic, cucumber flowers, and celery leaf. However, this translucent sheet is actually extremely thinly sliced squid, and a testament to Ton’s skills with a carving knife.
Crab curry follows, doled out by the chef onto a wide, crispy betel leaf, then topped with “caviar” – in this case charcoal-grilled horseshoe crab eggs – and garnished with cilantro. As a die-hard fan of anything curry, I am particularly enchanted by this dish’s combination of fiery flavours and subtle textures; the caviar being slightly chewy, the crab exquisitely tender, and the betel leaf adding some crunch.
Animal eggs appear in the next two dishes as well, beginning with giant ocean catfish roe, pickled in seasoned fish sauce and served with sour mango. The taste is as dazzling as the plating, deftly mixing the salty pop of the roe with the sour of the fruit. By contrast, the sushi-style crab roe – harvested from organically raised rice paddy crabs in Lamphun – on steamed rice has a much earthier, pungent taste. Topping this is a chimichurri-style sauce, made from Thai mustard green, as well as crispy garlic and fresh kaffir lime leaf.
The soup course is a tom ka – “Made daily, with fresh coconut,” Ton interjects – that utilises gourami from Samut Prakan. The painstaking preparation of the fish sees it sun-dried, then steamed (to remove the meat), then air-dried for one day, and finally deep-fried before being served; jauntily garnished with a purple rosella leaf. The first bite convinces me that all this effort has been worth it, and once again it’s a dish where texture and flavour work in harmony; the crispy fried fish, the velvety soup, and the smoky bite of the charcoal-roasted herbs.
The meaty main courses arrive in individual portions – “Like a Thai kaiseki” says Ton – alongside another soup and a nam prik side dish for sharing, all of which lends the meal a communal feast feeling; the hallmark of chowing down Thai-style. The tender and tasty pork jowl is slow-cooked for an entire day before being charcoal smoked and grilled, stir-fried with housemade curry paste, and then reduced with red wine. Served with plump red grapes, this dish strays well beyond the traditional.
The hefty chunk of pork belly, meanwhile, looks utterly familiar but is in fact cooked for 36 hours using a variety of methods – boiling, frying, sous vide, and steaming – before being presented in a jus made from pork meat reduction and palm sugar. As for the beautifully blackened wok-seared Wagyu – medium rare and still juicy inside – it’s accompanied by a powerful ka pow dipping sauce, made with four different chilis and various herbs.
The soup of black grouper with dried chilli features a bone broth that Ton says is styled after Japanese ramen. The head and bones of the fish are boiled, to extract the collagen and flavour, and this is combined with a stock made from three different types of local clams. The meat of the fish, by contrast, is cold-smoked, and the end-result is a satisfying smoky side dish that could easily be a signature main on its own.
Of course, the surprise hit of the night for me was the extraordinary peanut relish nam prik dip, served with a copious pile of vegetables and greens. “The special thing is, we don’t use salt, fish sauce, or shrimp paste,” Ton proudly points out, adding that the flavouring comes instead from the water residue that floats to the top when making traditional shrimp paste. “Usually, they throw this away, but it has a unique saltiness I like.
“Addictive, isn’t it?” he asks playfully, and I am powerless to disagree.
A series of sweets rounds out the meal, including a very pleasant fresh sago and coconut dessert, topped with fresh grated chestnut, and Ton’s take on pla heang taeng mo – watermelon with dried fish flakes – paired with sticky rice. Things come to a close with a trio of petit fours based on classic Thai treats, plus a serving of seasonal fresh fruit accompanied by an outrageously yummy dip made from sweet fish sauce, chilli, and dry Chinese plum powder (another addiction-inducing item).
Normally the dinner set menu at Nusara is available with wine pairing – expertly curated by Tam – but the current booze ban ensures that sparkling water is as close to bubbly as I’ll get during my visit. But even without some well-chosen reds and whites, the meal has been superb from start to finish, and I’m tempted to say it’s the best of the bunch in Ton’s impressive restaurant lineup.
It’s safe to assume that granny would be mighty proud.