Sunday, September 25, 2011

Celebrating our first wedding anniversary with Mr Oreste @ La Buca restaurant

Updated 22 January 2018

7 years. That's how long it has taken for me to write an update on La Buca.

It's enough time for my wife and I to graduate from newlyweds celebrating our 1st anniversary, to proud parents of 2 beautiful kids (the elder turning 6 in 10 days' time)

La Buca though, has stayed the same. The same location on Sukhumvit Soi 1, within walking distance of Bumrungrad Hospital, the same homey atmosphere and warm no-nonsense Italian fare that is not purposely decorated for Instagram. Price has risen, but it's bound to, over a long 7 years. Note that a large 1.5L bottle of water will only set you back 90THB here and there's no additional service charge.

Ham and mushroom Fettucine, perfect for kids.
Snow fish risotto, fresh and yummy.

Oh my finally we meet again, truffle and porcini mushroom tagliatelle. Minus the foie gras, you miss some meatiness but still oh so good!

The bigger update, sadly, is that the flamboyant Mr Oreste (read more about him below), the founder, heart and soul of the restaurant is no longer there. He has sold the restaurant and retired in another province in Thailand. What a pity, because Mr Oreste and La Buca had completely fused into 1 and I could not imagine one without the other. Well, this old man deserves a rest and let's bless him though he will be sorely-missed.

After speaking to the new owner, a well-mannered Thai lady, I am pretty convinced her aim is to keep everything absolutely the same. So let's hope it happens.


This is supposed to be a blogpost to commemorate our very first 911 aka wedding anniversary, but no, it's not. Because of a certain arrogant Mr Oreste from Italy, this has fatefully become a post about his restaurant nestled in Sukhumvit Soi 1 instead.

Old Mr Oreste vs young Mr Oreste
It was our first anniversary, I had to make sure it's good, thus my extensive research online for the best Italian restaurant in Bangkok. For some reason, La Buca hit all the spots, small cosy European style restaurant opened and run personally by Mr Oreste, all the way from his native Italy. I was slightly surprised when I made my booking via email:

Me: "Mr Oreste, I would like to make a booking at your restaurant for dinner on 11 September, it's our first wedding anniversary, thank you."

An unexpected reply soon came back: "Dear Eddie, 11 September, dinner ok. Enjoy 20% discount for my birthday. Ciao. Oreste."

OK, maybe my wedding anniversary isn't such a big deal, but come on man, is your birthday so much bigger a deal? Well, a discount is a discount, and since he is so full of self-admiration, even better for us, because the food will be good. La Buca wouldn't be voted one of Thailand's best restaurants by Tatler for no reason.

One of Thailand's best restaurants according to Tatler
911 was a rainy gloomy day, and it didn't help that the restaurant was further away from Ploen Chit BTS station than Mr Oreste suggested. Fortunately we managed to find it without too many problems. When we finally arrived, Mr Oreste was already waiting for us, in fact, he was the one who welcomed us at the door.

One of the most obvious things in the restaurant.
He's a typical Italian man, full of swagger, full of himself, proud of his food and all his achievements. The restaurant looked like a mini Oreste life-story museum. He has even made his birthday a reason to give a promotion (which we needed as the food wasn't cheap for Thailand standards). We followed his recommendations, which I later found out were the exact dishes which won him the hearts of Tatler's food critics.

Home-made tagliatelle with Foie Gras and truffle
Mr Oreste proclaimed this dish as the best of its kind in the world, certainly big words from a big man. Just look at the thickness of the Foie Gras, there were 2 pieces! The pasta was made to perfection and the bewitching aroma of truffle unforgettable till this day (I am not kidding). It was also the first time we ate such a generous serving of good-quality goose liver, but it ended up like having too much of a good thing. I honestly would pay the same price and be happier with more pasta, more sauce and just half the serving of Foie Gras. This is not a reason to knock this splendid dish though.

Saffron risotto with braised veal shank
The risotto was fragrant, veal shank tasty, but it paled in comparison to the pasta dish. However, Mr Oreste delivered what we expected of him -  solid, rustic, no-nonsense Italian dishes thought out with more focus on taste than presentation. The serving sizes were pretty good as well. The heaviness of the dishes soon had us calling for the dessert. Mr Oreste responded again, in his own amusing way.

"We have the La Buca cake. Best in the world." (again, best in the world?)

*kisses his fingers*

"Sponge...... Rum......"

*swirls his fingers as if caressing the chin of his mistress*

"Chocolate mousse.........." (I had a good laugh)

How could we not order it?

La Buca cake, best in the world (?)
It turned out to be good, not great. There was so much rum it was like eating solidified alcohol, not my cup of tea. Again, I understood why Mr Oreste thought so highly of it, as I can easily think of a few friends who would brand this dessert as a touch of genius.

Happy Birthday Mr Oreste, please give us a discount next year too! Any discount during Christmas or New Year? Or maybe your mom's bday, or your dad's?
It had been a good day for Li Li and myself, with the visit to Mr Oreste's cosy eatery a fitting finale to our first wedding anniversary (he even personally hailed the taxi for us before we left). I just hope during our next visit, the food will not be a showcase of richness. It's like having a good massage, only to go home to find a couple of small bruises on your back as the masseuse pressed a weeny bit too hard.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Venice of the East Part II

I remember blogging about Bangkok being the Venice of the East when I just arrived in Bangkok (in 2009) when Srinakarin Road looked more like a river and the area outside my shophouse became a lake.

Subsequently, in 2010, my customer in Hat Yai had his newly-renovated shop soaked all the way up to almost the 2nd floor. Bangkok remained largely unscathed, so I did not have any strong feelings then.

Unfortunately, floods did not spare Thailand in 2011 too, with nearly 50 out of Thailand's 76 provinces affected one way or another. This time, I happen to be on a road trip visiting key customers and witnessed the gravity of the situation with my own eyes. Countless acres of farmland were destroyed and homes made un-liveable. Villagers had to sleep in temporary stalls lining the sides of the roads while pondering how to cope with the loss of their crop. As I drove past them my heart cringed, because while I did not know what I could do to help, my brain was telling me to leave this area as soon as possible before the floods worsen.

Pictures speak louder than words, but as I took them mostly through the tinted windows of my car, they do not reflect accurately the urgency of the situation.

This entire road was flooded, we had to do a detour.

What happened to the tree trunks?

We were driving on a bridge over troubled water
Villagers finding reason to smile at the camera
Venice of the East
As I am typing this, millions of Thais are still suffering from the effects of massive flooding while I am already back in the comforts of my apartment in Bangkok. I pray that the people in Thailand can be resilient and remain positive in adversity, and that I will never be able to find a reason to write a Part III to this series of blogposts.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Stranger in Bangkok witnesses the epic battle of stag beetles

I spent my 30th hatchday in a small village 50km from Chiang Mai city called Doi Lo. In my ex-company, I grew tired of flying the world setting up booth after booth in various world-renown international trade fairs, but with a cruel twist of fate, I found myself leaving my poor wifey at home in Bangkok and spending my milestone birthday sweating my pants of setting up a stall in an annual carnival/night bazaar in rural Northern Thailand. Talk about a fall from grace!

But well, every cloud has many silver linings, and I am already used to taking positives out of everything that points against me (more so after I came to Thailand). In spite of the scorching heat in the day, when my colleagues and I gulped down cup after cup of coconut juice, and threats of heavy rain at night, I found myself increasingly immersed in the joyful atmosphere of an annual carnival in a small village.

I began observing in amusement the various assortment of dogs running around.

Cute dog, but look at the number of soft toys the game booths have to prepare every night

Wait a minute, that's not a dog, that's a cow!
I laughed at a trio of adorable 2-yr old triplets chasing each other around in front of my stall, with their young and slim mother watching closely behind.

I pretended to be shot and struggling for my life when 2 boys walked past firing their noisy toyguns at me.

I took pictures of a group of friendly schoolgirls, which they gladly obliged.

They LOVED taking pictures, their male counterparts beside them were all running away from the camera!

I watched in amazement as families of 5 came in a single scooter, and middle-aged women trotting around in their pyjamas as if they were sleep-walking.

But the day climaxed when I saw something that made me realise what I had lost (or never had) in my childhood. While I can still remember very clearly how my secondary school friends and I spent our boring time in between lessons trying to taste sweet victory stacking our erasers over one another, people in Northern Thailand are going ecstatic over epic warfare between stag beetles!

Stag beetles ready for battle

Their horn is tied onto the stick, which doesn't allow them to escape. They feed on sugar cane and rotting fruit.
From what I understand, just like stags, male stag beetles fight for mating rights. During their mating period at the end of every rainy season (which is round about now), they would detect the scent of their female comrades and start locking horns to win their bride. Capitalising on this order of nature, villagers would catch these horny males and pit them against one another on a piece of hollow log which houses a female for excitement and prize money.

Stag beetles locking horns in battle over a female that is hidden in the hollow log

I witnessed one of these epic battles myself. It's highly intriguing, as both beetles fight for their lives over love. A fallen beetle is not a beaten beetle, he can pick himself up and resume battle. The game only ends when one beetle decides to retreat and give up. No beetle deaths are incurred in this game, just a lot of lost pride and cash for the owner of the defeated bug.

This is undoubtedly one of my weirdest birthdays yet, but I kind of enjoyed it. You have to watch the video below to understand what I mean.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Ka-Nom -- where simple dough fritters steal the show

Bangkok has, to me, always been a lifestyle location. For a normal tourist, aside of relentless shopping, eating and the odd massage, there might be nothing much else to do (unless you are interested in ladyboys and grotesque Thai-girl shows). I can't really argue against that, but for me, Bangkok is a metropolitan city that bustles with freedom and creativity. As a result, designer cafes and cool chill-out spots sprout up in the oddest of places, especially along a few small streets (aka the Ekkamai and Thong Lo area) in Sukhumvit where the so-called HiSo (High- society) and expats hang out frequently.

Li Li and myself happened to be along Sukhumvit Soi 49 one day when my sit-in-a-nice-cafe-and-do-nothing mode hit me once again. I have to admit that I have had too many of these rushes of blood since I came to Bangkok, but what's not to love when we can really free our minds of any worries and just spend some nice time together? So we decided to spend our next 2 hours in a cafe called Ka-Nom (they call themselves a boutique bakery).

Another one of those nice little cafes in the middle of nowhere
The moment we stepped inside, it became obvious that their star attraction would surely be their pies and Portuguese egg-tarts, which cost a whopping 40baht each (very pricey considering my tried-and-tested ones from KFC cost only 19baht).

One needs great conviction to give one of these pies/tarts a miss, especially the egg-tarts.

Personally, what caught my eye was the little dough-frying stall right outside this self-proclaimed boutique bakery. Deep-fried dough fritters, or what the Chinese call 油条, would be the last thing I expect to see on the menu in a cafe with this ambience, but it really did seem to be one of the leading lights here.

Thai dough fritters are short, unlike the very long ones in Singapore
We were pleasantly surprised when our lunch arrived on our tables, because both pasta dishes were relatively authentic and extremely fragrant.

Li Li's Penne Alfredo with smoked salmon (160baht only), tastes wonderful
My Spaghetti Aglio Olio w/ beef (160baht)
I'd like to give special mention to my Spaghetti Aglio Olio. This dish is Italy's version of our simple stir-fried noodles (炒面)and it's traditionally a celebration of good olive oil, garlic and well-made pasta. More often than not though, restaurants in this region will end up serving an oily, bland mess of starchy over-cooked noodles. This serving however, gave me everything I wanted from a proper plate of Aglio Olio -- well-seasoned, slightly spicy, lots and lots of fragrant garlic, Al-dente spaghetti, fresh beef. Unfortunately, all's not perfect. Like most other similar eateries in Bangkok, Ka-Nom fell into the vicious cycle of trying to fusion it with Thai cuisine by unnecessarily adding in a handful of Thai basil. That said, I am sure I would get my perfect Aglio Olio next time when I remind them not to add the basil in. For the price, the serving size, ambience and taste, Ka-Nom's pasta dishes really put Singapore's alarmingly popular PastaMania to shame.

So now for the main event - dough fritters. Unlike usual dough fritters, which is slightly savoury, Ka-Nom made theirs slightly sweet to make it a perfectly sinful dessert. We are supposed to eat it with a knife and fork, dipped into their smooth and delicate custard (3 colours, but all taste the same).

5 palm-sized dough fritters for 50baht

To be honest, and I hope I am not exaggerating, I never expected myself to be impressed by dough fritters to this extent. I am not so good with words, but they managed to encrust a deliciously-sweet soft dough with a thicker-than usual crisp shell. There was hardly any oil at the bottom of our plate too. 5 fritters were too many for one sitting, so we were delighted to bring 2 home for later enjoyment (they gave us extra custard to bring home, how nice). For a nice cafe which serves decent drinks and excellent food, I salute them for successfully making overpriced egg tarts (they were predictably very good too) and the often-underappreciated dough fritters the stars of their show.

Lastly, for a shocking (??!) revelation. Our meal at Ka-Nom was preceded by both of us enduring the pain of needles to draw blood for a medical check-up. Seeing the smiles on our faces, it is clear that we both enjoyed it (this was taken BEFORE the nice food came), why not? We would gladly do anything to ensure the health of our Baby in Bangkok.
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