“Can you eat Thai food?” a staff member says to me just minutes after entering Saneh Jaan, the 140-seat flagship Thai fine dining restaurant at Glasshouse at Sindhorn on Wireless Road. After opening in May last year, word of its “homey-but-high-end” Thai cuisine spread across town quickly, leaving many pundits to label the restaurant one of the most exciting Thai openings of the year – hence our visit.
It was a bizarre question to ask, but one foreigners are used to fielding. Thais have seen enough people like me bead sweat after biting a bird’s eye chilli or wobble after a whiff of plaa raa to be pensive about submitting our frail tongues to a drumming at the hands of their beloved food.
The slate of cuisine at Saneh Jaan doesn’t make concessions for a Western palate, either. While the same could be said about most of the other elite-level Thai offerings in Bangkok, such as Bo.lan, Le Du and Osha, those restaurants push a mixture of fusion and modern Thai food – Chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn of Le Du denies his food is even Thai at all. Saneh Jaan, on the other hand, is staunchly traditionalist.
Heritage staples such as cho ma lee, moo palo and saneh jaan – the auspicious bean flour and coconut cream dessert from which the restaurant gets its name – fill its menu. The culinary minds behind the food, and there are many, including consultant Torroong Jarungidanan and sous chef Phatcha Pirapak, travel across Thailand to extract ingredients from where they are traditionally prepared best – shrimp paste from Krabi, jasmine rice from Surin and pomelo from Nakhon Pathom are notable examples. When that’s not feasible, they grow produce at a nearby garden on Lang Suan road, another nod to the cuisine’s not-so-distant farmstead roots.
Even the most modern aspect of the restaurant’s concept, its 20th century décor, takes its cues from almost a century ago when King Chulalongkorn pushed the country towards modernity, allowing Western and Thai design philosophies to meld for the first time. The restaurant’s interior borrows elements from traditional Thai pavilions and feels like an old, but very luxurious, Thai home. The front door is a hefty block of wood reminiscent of what you would find outside the big city, the main dining area is plastered with photographs of iconic Thai sights – the Emerald Buddha here, the Grand Palace there – and the wood panelling along the walls follows a classic pattern evocative of the homes many Thais grew up inside.
But, the idea of “traditional” Thai food can be a difficult concept for foreigners to grasp, and sometimes downright intimidating – even for the most battle-tested chefs.
It should be a rather simple equation: find fresh Thai ingredients, a good recipe and make sure to balance sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy flavours. In practice, it never works that way. For every 10 Michelin-star chefs to cross the pond and try their hand at this country’s cuisine, it seems at least nine of them leave with a three-word review: “It’s not Thai”.
Renowned chef Gordon Ramsay discovered this the hard way on his show The F Word several years ago while cooking pad Thai for a man only identified as “Chang”, the head chef of the now defunct Blue Elephant, London. Moments after taking his first bite, Chang issued Ramsay with his own three-word review. Ramsay, who spent ages preparing for the meal and, in his eyes, followed all the “rules” of Thai food with a few twists, beamed his patented death-stare Chang’s way and retorted, “Well, I think it’s not that bad!” Chang, a flamboyant, small and unimposing figure – especially next to the commanding Ramsay – just smiled. “It’s not that bad,” he said. “But it’s not Thai.”
Thais take tremendous pride in their food culture, as they should. Few countries can say their flavour for fare is among the pillars of international cuisine, but Thailand can. At the bedrock of its long-standing culinary history is a deep respect for the seasonal ingredients that pepper its countryside and a pride in melding these fiery, pungent and textural sensations into well balanced meals.
It’s that same bedrock on which Saneh Jaan stakes its claim – it’s the old-school way, or the highway.
The moo palo (five-spice soup with egg and pork), is a great example of this philosophy in action. While most moo palo found in Bangkok today is rife with sweetness, Saneh Jaan’s rendition balances sweet and savoury as one – which, as you can guess, is more traditional. The warm, subtle notes of Chinese cinnamon, cloves and star anise are an excellent counterweight to the spicier meals across the table. Hard and soft tofu from Sangklaburi, along with juicy pork belly cubes and a hard-boiled egg, add texture and savoury flavours to the sweet five-spice essence. The dish is inviting and comforting – even to a foreign palate like mine that’s tasting it for the first time.
Although we ate it along with everything else, the restaurant’s take on cho ma lee (fish-stuffed flower-shaped dumplings) is best served as a light appetiser to awaken the tongue – an interplay between soft, savoury fish, crunchy, sweet roasted garlic and a sharp bird’s eye chilli on top. Each bite-sized morsel is juicy, flavourful and spicy enough to feel balanced without becoming overbearing. When eating Thai food, balance normally comes from a combination of dishes, each blended together to create an equilibrium of taste. But appetisers must stand alone, and the cho ma lee certainly does this job well.
The green curry with catfish was another highlight – amusing to my Thai dinner companions who giggled at yet another foreigner adoring green curry. The locally caught catfish (skin on) was tender and sweet but not soft enough to break down from repeated spoons stabbing in the bowl for another bite – perfectly cooked. A subtle chilli kick, jabs of basil and the occasional crunch of baby eggplant keeps the dish interesting long after other items are competing for your attention at the table. Perhaps I’m just a stereotype, or perhaps it’s just good. I can’t tell, but I bet on the latter.
As good as these three were, tradition calls for a wider array of flavours and textures, and tradition is correct. The meal would have been incomplete without the crunchy and refreshing counter balances of two more staple dishes: stir-friend string beans and nam prik koong seab (spicy shrimp paste dip with freshwater prawns, fried salted damsel fish and vegetables).
The soft string beans, with crunchy pork and homemade shrimp paste, add welcome salty and bitter flavours to the ensemble – great when mixed with the other dishes or eaten on its own with rice. The nam prik koong seab brought the same salty-spicy shrimp paste (this time as a dipping sauce), but complemented it with fresh, cool veggies that helped to quell the lingering tastes from the other dishes enough for another go at the table.
If you’re the type of person who loves spicy food, but feels a little bruised when it’s over, dessert is here to patch you up. Classic Thai desserts are one of Saneh Jaan’s mainstays – after all, it’s named after one – and it touts a host of rare Thai sweets from across the land. We opt for somchun, a subtle, sweet and refreshing blend of assorted fruit in citron and kaffir lime syrup, and, of course, saneh jaan, sweet, melty golden balls of bean flour and coconut cream. Both were uplifting, satisfying and, as I’m reminded by the staff, very authentic.
It doesn’t make the point as bluntly as Italian or French restaurants might, but Saneh Jaan’s message is clear: tradition to the core. And it’s hard to not be charmed.
Eating a meal there, while surrounded by luxurious trimmings, single-block wood tables and Noritake china, feels more cosy and comforting than your usual fine dining restaurant. A little bit like home, actually, even if you didn’t grow up here – which is exactly as advertised.