Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Stranger in Bangkok's adventure at Jok's Kitchen

Update: I visited Jok's Kitchen for the 2nd time in August 2018, you can read all about the 2nd experience here.

I went through my last few blogposts and realised that this has almost become a foodblog. As much as I do not want to flood you with another post about food, I think I have to do this, as I have been waiting for this day for a long time.

I do not know about you, but private kitchens have always been something of an alluring mystery for me. I remember when I just arrived in Bangkok, my standard weekly dose of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods brought Jok's Kitchen to my attention. The food was certainly not the bizarre part, but the whole setting of the place - set deep into one of the dark alleyways in Yaowarat (Bangkok's Chinatown), only serving 2 tables per meal (which results in a need to reserve your seat 2 months in advance) and only presented what the chef had to offer depending on the day itself. In my heart I told myself I have to try it one day since I am based here anyway, and recently when the opportunity finally presented itself, I just could not say no.

The road leading to the private kitchen, certainly impossible to locate for a non-native!
Thankfully, with the help of my good Thai friend Nueng, we managed to make the trip there possible. 2 years down the road, the rules have changed, and it might still be the toughest table in Bangkok to date:
  • Both lunch and dinner are served, and seating capacity has increased to 4 tables per meal
  • A minimum of 6pax per table, final number to be confirmed 3 days before the actual meal, costing at least 800baht per pax, if not more, depending on what's served on the day
  • A choice of menu (not so much of a choice), basically just selecting which way to cook the ingredient Ah Hia Jok has already chosen for you, and this has to be confirmed 3 days in advance too
  • Reserving your table way before hand, we had to wait nearly 1 month for the meal
So 6 curious hungry souls soldiered through the dimly lit, wet soi until we reached our table, but not before walking through 2 sets of sliding doors too. We were looking at each other with a sense of relief and interest when we finally sat down, as it felt like a hidden hideout for some very important personnel in the underworld.

So now to the food, which I will present in a chronological order, with credits to Liang Xinyi for 2 of the pictures without my watermark:

Extremely delicious shrimp dumplings covered with an obscene amount of fried shallots and garlic, simple and fresh, easily my second favourite dish of the night

The legendary steamed crab, which many come specially to eat. Never have I been served crab that's been made so easy to handle. Sweet and meaty, but for a whopping 2900baht, I will stick to my Sri Lanka crab in Singapore
Grilled shrimp with salt, surprisingly my favourite dish. The shrimp was plump, succulent and cooked to perfection.
Crowd favourite, braised goose web with egg noodle. Deliciously tasty noodles with goose skin dying to fall off the bone. A winner.
Salted fish fried rice, the only dish I didn't care about. Mediocre at best, but not a dish to judge the kitchen by.

A simple yet delicious peppery grouper soup to summarize Jok's kitchen in a nutshell: Top quality fresh seafood presented in its simplest form
Yam Paste with dates and (lots and lots of) gingko nuts. Divided opinion. It could do with more yam, but to me, as long as you do not view it as a yam dessert, it's a tasty sweet treat to end the meal.

After a satisfying meal, we asked Ah Hia Jok to come out to take pictures with us, convincing him with a cover story that we were Singaporeans coming specially to have a meal in his kitchen (there were actually 3 Singaporeans, 2 Thais and 1 Malaysian in the group, all based in Thailand), which he obliged willingly to our pleasant surprise.

He went on to explain that he owns a few seafood farms in Thailand and exports his produce to many countries, and that he was just a huge foodie who started off cooking for his friends, and the friends managed to share the 'good news' to enough people to make Jok's Kitchen what it is today. He has had media coverage not only by Bizarre Foods on Discovery Travel and Living, but also by CNN and BBC, to name a couple. It was extremely amusing for me to hear that a certain powerful lady from Temasek Holdings ate there for a few times already, but knowing the satellite issues in Thailand, it all made sense.

Ah Hia Jok standing straight and proud amongst a group of happy diners.
Lastly, the damage was 840baht per person (35SGD per head), which is considered expensive in Thailand, especially for the location and setting. However, though this is not the top table in Thailand, it might certainly be the toughest one, and you will definitely enjoy good service and the freshest seafood prepared in ways to preserve their natural goodness.

If you are frequently spending 25-30SGD in places like Cafe Cartel, Swensen's and Fish and Co., please do not give Jok a miss, especially if a (very very) rare opportunity presents itself. I wouldn't.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Queue and Queue at After You

My wife is here in Bangkok (hopefully for the long haul), and that means I no longer dread lonely mealtimes. In fact, I found sufficient motivation to look for new interesting places to experience different tastes now that I can order more food at one go.

After You is a hugely popular dessert cafe in Bangkok at the moment, with 2 branches located in Siam Paragon and J-Avenue (Thong Lor). I have been told about it for a while now, with friends blogging about it or posting pictures of its scrumptious treats on Facebook. Finally, with her arrival, Li Li gave me enough energy to try out the branch at Paragon after church last Sunday.

To be honest, online reviews of its desserts are mixed, with some loving it to the max and others hating it to the core. Another blogpost focusing on its dishes would not be interesting at all, therefore I have decided to approach this entry from a different angle. There is a story behind every success, and there are a few unique things I observed during my visit that convinced me that After You has what it takes to reach the sky.

1. Take pictures please!

Correct me if I am wrong. In my impression, signs like the one above usually only tells people what NOT TO DO. After You does that, but it also tells people what they WANT you to do, and that is to take pictures! Being the ardent photographer of almost all dishes that cross my path, I find this subtle encouragement refreshing and re-assuring. It sure sets the tone for the rest of the meal as I can snap away without any reservations (not that I can't in most other restaurants though).

2. Queue and Queue

Having spent 28 years in Singapore, I am already used to queueing up for food. It is even fashionable to spend an hour queueing to get a seat in a popular eatery, but if I was told I will need to queue TWICE just to get a seat and my order in, I would probably think twice and give it a miss.

However, at After You, queueing twice is the minimum requirement for every customer.

Once for your seat.
And again AFTER YOU sit down, to place orders and make payment.
You will then need to wait again for your dessert to arrive. The great thing about this place is that the pleasant environment and friendly staff makes the waiting extremely bearable (if not enjoyable).

3. The permanently-full jug of syrup

The star of After You is its thick toast, which is naturally what we ordered on our first visit, and as expected, it was served with a jug of syrup.

Syrup jug filled to its absolute brim
I used to wait tables for 6 months, so I was not about to take this jugful of syrup for granted. I looked around for all the syrup jugs I could lay my eyes on and realised that every jug was filled to its brim! Think about it, when was the last time you were served with a full jug of syrup? You should be laughing your way home if the jug was more than half-full. This was the first time I had ever seen an eatery which trains its staff to painstakingly refill every single jug of condiment before presenting it to a new customer. This meticulous act is not one of absolute necessity, but one of love and willingness to go an extra mile to complete the customer's flawless experience.

The food, when it finally arrived, was not perfect, but it was good. Piping hot thick toast crisp on the outside, soft and buttery on the inside, topped with 2 huge scoops of ice-cream and as much syrup as you want, how wrong could it get?

Shibuya Honey Toast

At the end of the day, I couldn't taste that much difference between After You's offering and a similar one I ate at iBerry a while ago, but I think we can all agree that an eatery's success is usually not solely dependent on its food.

Happy with my Apple Cider drink, which was deliciously refreshing.

With excellent service and little dollops of tender loving care, decent food can also hit all the right notes.

stranger in bangkok

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Bodyslammed by Bodyslam

For the last 2 weeks, I was caught among the angst and emotions of the Singapore General Election. Though I am a non-Singaporean based in Bangkok right now, I spent 28 years of my life there, I have a Singaporean wife and I cannot rule out the possibility of my children becoming Singaporeans one day, thus my intense interest. This has really been a pivotal election. How times have changed, even when I am not in Singapore, I could catch all the rally speeches on TodayDigital and feel more involved than I have ever been.

Anyway, GE2011 is history. It's the beginning of a new dawn in Singapore. It took the sacrifice of an old advocate of democracy Mr Chiam See Tong and the demise of my favourite Singaporean Minister George Yeo to happen, but the change of tide has become a reality, and I am excited to see what evolves 5 years down the road (and that of course hopefully includes another sight of Returning Officer Yam Ah Mee).

Here in Bangkok, while the various rally speeches were taking place in Singapore, my fellow Stranger-in-Bangkok Wendy and I graced a wonderful live performance of a popular Thai band Bodyslam. Firstly, for those who think I stay in a slum (like Potong Pasir and Hougang as described by certain election candidates), think again. If the most popular Thai band (think Mayday in the Mandarin Pop scene) can come here to perform thrice in the space of 4 months, this is actually the up-and-coming hot precinct!
From my limited knowledge of Bodyslam and their songs, I know that they have been in the Thai music scene for a decade now, and their music has gone through a huge change, from commercial pop in the beginning to a certain kind of serious melancholic rock these days, almost to a sense of self-indulgence. It is not exactly my kind of thing, but being involved in various performing groups since I was 13, I am always curious to understand why some performers garner success while others do not.

As a result, for every show I go to, I end up scrutinizing the dynamics of the band, taking note of whether the sound has been mixed properly, and keeping a close eye on every band member's specific traits and skills. Furthermore, for pub gigs like this one where picture-taking is allowed, I couldn't stop myself from spending most of my time trying to take decent photos of the band. Wendy, now you know why I can't go into a state of hysteria, but trust me, I did enjoy myself in my own way.
Decent effort in limited lighting yeah?
Bodyslam is a band which has held full-scale concerts in huge stadiums, so for their charismatic lead-singer Toon to lead them into full-hearted jamming for 2 hours in a small suburb pub says a lot about their passion for music and their love for their fans. This alone, is ample reason for their huge success.
Toon in (almost)full glory!
To end this blogpost on a high, I shall share with you a song called Kid Hod (Missing You), a collaboration by Bodyslam and famous country singer Siriporn. The first time I heard this song was in a KTV when I was having our 2011 annual dinner with my colleagues. The excellent MTV plus the shocking fusion of modern rock and traditional Thai music kept my jaws open for the entire song. Think Shin's version of One Night in Beijing, just even more outrageous and serious in the message it is trying to convey.

I will gladly pay to watch them live again, and again.

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