One of the most buzz-worthy restaurant openings in recent months has been the launch of the Bangkok branch of Ministry of Crab, the single-focus Sri Lankan restaurant that has held a place on Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list year after year since 2015. It’s the fifth branch outside Sri Lanka, following on the heels of openings in Shanghai, Manila, Mumbai, and the Maldives. The Bangkok outlet is located on Sukhumvit Soi 31, ironically right across the street from T-Pochana, another restaurant whose sign also features a giant crab graphic.
“I think it’s kind of cool there are two crab logos on this part of the street,” chuckles Dharshan Munidasa, the good-natured masterchef behind the original Ministry of Crab, which he opened in Colombo in 2011 together with his cricketer pals Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. Of course, the similarities between these two neighbourhood restaurant rivals doesn’t extend much beyond their choice of logo creature, and Dharshan goes on to explain that the large-clawed crustacean depicted in his logo is a mud crab. “The only kind we sell”, he adds.
Within the sleek and stylish interior of Bangkok’s Ministry of Crab this nifty mud crab icon can be found almost everywhere; from the staff uniforms, to the flatware, to the humourous black and orange bibs that diners wear, emblazoned with ‘Keep Calm and Crab On’ in large white capital letters. Obviously, the message here is to eat a lotta crab and have a good time doing it, even if things get a little messy.
Before even glancing at the menu, diners on the first floor of this two-storey restaurant are made aware that the primary focus is whole crabs which, in turn, are sorted by descriptive names and priced according to size. On a large plaque that hangs above the lively open kitchen area, 10 crabshells are arranged from smallest (the ‘1/2 Kilo’) to largest (the 2kg ‘Crabzilla’), and if the light behind the shell is illuminated it means that critter is currently in stock. On the night of our visit Crabzilla was nowhere to be found, so an ‘OMG!!!’ crab – anything between 1.5 and 1.9kg – would have to suffice.
While waiting for our main course we sampled some other menu items, beginning with the popular and, interestingly, non-crab appetiser known as Oyster Sixers. Here six succulent pre-shucked molluscs are placed in individual glasses, along with wooden skewers that each fly a tiny black and orange MoC logo flag. Accompanying the oysters are a lime wedge and three small test tubes with homemade hot sauce, aged soy sauce, and green chilli sauce, respectively. It’s a delicious starter in which you can mix and match the flavours and then simply slurp everything down.
Another recommended starter is the crab liver paté, a meticulously prepared dish that’s served with crisp squares of melba toast and a miniature flask of honey. The taste of the creamy paté is mild but very pleasant, and a few drops of honey adds a nice touch of sweetness. We follow this with an order each of baked crab, which comes served in a black crab-shaped bowl complete with a removable orange crab-shaped lid. It’s quite satisfying – almost like a crab risotto – and thankfully no bib is needed… yet!
Before our main course crustacean we devour a rather sizeable Sri Lankan king prawn, served in a tangy garlic and chilli sauce. Like the crabs, the prawns here are also priced and named according to size and, yes, there is a ‘Prawnzilla’ (anything weighing in at 500+ grams). After this, our bibs are donned in anticipation of the course yet to come.
When the monstrous main course pepper crab arrives, it’s an almost intimidating sight. The beast is placed in the wide serving bowl resting on its meaty claws for support, while its smaller limbs are flipped up over its body, making it look a bit like a Cirque de Soleil contortionist. The shells are pre-cracked, making getting at the perfectly cooked sweet crab meat that much easier, and a special extraction prong – as well as a shell cracker – is provided as part of the table cutlery. The accompanying black pepper sauce, made using hand-crushed peppercorns rolled on a traditional miris gala (grinding stone), is definitely one of the highlights of this dish, and any left in the bowl should be dutifully mopped up with an order of the homemade toasted bread.
Although there are a few other non-crab items on the menu – the seer fish served batayaki style in a buttery brown sauce is excellent – chef Dharshan began Ministry of Crab with the intent of focusing his energy and skills on a single ingredient, a restaurant concept that some found baffling.
“Single ingredient, or single technique restaurants, are normal in Japan,” explains the chef. “I’m half Japanese, my first restaurant [Nihonbashi] was Japanese, my mom’s Japanese, and I was born in Tokyo, so naturally lots of things in this kitchen are Japanese. In South Asia restaurants are considered to be good when there’s more variety. In Japan it’s the other way around.”
“We only use live crabs,” he goes on to say. “Nothing can be frozen, nothing can be chilled. We are a single ingredient restaurant and it’s paramount that we ensure the quality.”
Ensuring the quality is also something that applies to the franchise partners chef Dharshan allies himself with. “We are not trying to market ourselves,” he points out, adding that apart from
the outlet in The Maldives – which he and his team opened themselves – all the Ministry of Crab restaurants outside Sri Lanka have been the result of people approaching him, and not the other way around. However, there are so many deciding factors involved, the main one being the ability to ensure of steady supply of quality crustaceans, finding the right working partner is not always an easy task. “It’s not a franchise that anyone can just put up their hand and get one,” he says emphatically.
As our evening together winds to a close, our dessert comes in the form of a wonderful coconut creme brulée served in a coconut shell with plenty of flesh still lining the insides. It’s an original signature creation of which Dharshan is especially proud, and it’s a treat we savour alongside our final glasses of Bellavista Alma Gran Cuvée Brut. Throughout the meal this lovely sparkling wine, served in champagne flutes with a small MoC logo etched into the glass, has been nicely pairing with each successive course.