IN THIS ISSUE
BANGKOK, Part One
By John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
BANGKOK, Part One
By John Mariani
Buddha Temple on Chao Phraya River
I suspect everything most people imagine about exotic locales comes from movies or books, which in the case of Bangkok may derive from the 1974 James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (left) or the mystery novels of John Burdett featuring detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep. In the mind’s eye, then, Bangkok seems a ravishing, ancient city crisscrossed by canals that earn it the sobriquet of “Venice of Southeast Asia,” dotted with golden temples and rife with smoke-filled bars plied by the city’s B-girls.
In his 2004 novel Bangkok 8, Burdett writes of riding the Sky Train above the city’s traffic and of seeing the “great skeletons of unfinished high-rises that loom out of the chaos from time to time, monuments to a building frenzy that chilled with the Asian financial crisis in 1998 and never heated up again.”
But, in fact, over the past decade, the frenzy was redoubled, so that now Bangkok is as modern as any city in Asia, meaning it is a forest of high rises, banks, condos and hotels that have erased most of the exotic city as it was as recently as the 1990s.
Think of it this way: If
Rome were to be razed and only Vatican City were
left to remind you of the
Eternal City’s glorious past, that is what has
happened to Bangkok, where only
the magnificent Royal Grand Palace and a number of
smaller temples now give you
a sense of the city’s rich history and character. The canals have been paved
over, old neighborhoods
demolished and people squeezed out of ancestral
Many of those condos and office buildings go empty, even as more are constructed ever outward from the city’s center. Many are just tax deductions or places Asian millionaires park their money.
Taxes tend to be high, unemployment is low, but so are salaries, so that a university graduate makes only about $500 a month to begin. Still, everyone gets medical care and education.
It’s a much cleaner city than it used to be, and the notorious stinking three-wheel tuk-tuk (left) have switched from diesel oil to natural gas. Oddly enough, they seem to cost more than regular taxis, which are amazingly cheap in Bangkok. Otherwise, the Skytrain (below) is a fast, efficient way to get around to 25 stations and connects with the even newer subway system, with 16 stations.
Rudimentary English is taught in primary school—the locals call it “Thai-Lish”—so it is really not much of a problem to converse with anyone in the food and service industries in Bangkok. The gay population is treated well, and there is legislation to legalize gay marriage.
All of this and a great deal more I learned over a comprehensve tour of Bangkok by a marvelous young tour guide named Pat Srithaworn (firstname.lastname@example.org), whom I hired through my hotel for 3500 baht ($110) for a six hour tour. Upon meeting him, I said that my first impressions of Bangkok were that its transformation into a predictably modern city seemed to have wiped out what was old and historic. He agreed that this was largely the case but said we would hire one of the boats (2000 bahts; $63) to take us on the southern curve of the Chao Phraya River, where the culture has experienced a smidgen of gentrification.
The river boats (left) cut quickly through the murky water, then slow down to wait for a huge set of a dike’s iron gates to part, opening onto a very different, older Bangkok along whose banks most people are living in shanties set right next to beautiful Buddhist temples. Along the way you will see small crocodiles sunning themselves on the front lawns.
Still, north of those old neighborhoods, the Grand Palace makes a trip to Bangkok requisite for anyone seeking true Asian splendor. The complex, built entirely in wood, had been the home to royalty since 1782, when Thailand was called Siam. King Phutthayotta Chulalok built it and some masonry structures have been added, but overall it is a gilded Xanadu. Today the royal family lives elsewhere, and for the past year it has been a place of mourning since the death of the last king.
One could wander the great plazas and be in wonder at the exteriors of the buildings, for not every one is open. One that is will amaze even the most jaded of travelers: the Reclining Buddha (Phra Buddhasaiyas), representing the entry of Buddha into Nirvana and the end of all reincarnations. Immense in size—50 feet high and 150 feet long—it has a core of brick covered with plaster then gilded; the statue’s feet are inlaid with mother-of-pearl (below). Along the walls are more than a hundred bronze bowls representing Buddha’s characters, and visitors are encouraged to drop coins into them.
Much of what remains of interest to the traveler seeking Bangkok’s cultural soul is still there because it was built—in some cases dragged in—by King Rama V, who brought the Vimanmek (“Cloud”) Mansion to the city in 1910. The mansion has eighty rooms, appended with 20 buildings arrayed over a parkland. Inside is the Royal Family Museum and the Royal Carriage Museum. Then there is Wat Traimit, Temple of the Golden Buddha, which is in fact the world’s largest solid gold Buddha statue, once covered with plaster until it was chipped away by workmen to reveal the spectacular surface underneath.
Since the 1990s, and despite booms and busts, most of the international deluxe hotel chains have come to the center of the city, straddling the Chao Phraya River, including the Mandarin Oriental, the Shangri-La, the Royal Orchid Sheraton and Lebua (below), where I stayed. I found it to be a singularly beautiful all-suites hotel, rightly famous for its Whiskey Bar on the top floor and outdoor restaurants overlooking the cityscape. I shall be writing about those restaurants next week, but for now let me say that Lebua is a place of what seems an unending line of staff members at every turn, closing their hands to their lips and smiling at you, greeting you at every elevator door, and answering to every request with dispatch and cordiality. The rooms, which you can find right now for about $111 per night, all have balconies, and excellent bathrooms,
The nightlife in Bangkok lives up to much of its exotic hype, and depending on your tastes, it’s probably best to ask your concierge for guidance and to remember the song “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical Miss Saigon:
One night in Bangkok and the world's your oyster
The bars are temples but their pearls ain't free
You'll find a god in every golden cloister
And if you're lucky, then the god's a she
I can feel an angel slidin' up to me
NEW YORK CORNER
By John Mariani
28 West 44th Street
The obsession of some Japanese food aficionados is to find the smallest, most out of the way, most expensive sushi bar of a kind where the chef-owner holds forth behind a ten-seat counter in the bowels of an obscure subway station alcove. Then there are those people who kinda-sorta like Japanese-Chinese food but are more interested in the nightclub vibe of a vast food hall like Tao, where a liquor set-up will cost a gang of guys $500.
The six-month old Sen Sakana, in the Theater District, does not pretend to be the former and has no desire to be like the latter. Spacious it is—190 seats—with a bar up front, a good-sized dining room and an elevated sushi counter, but owner Allan Wartski, Executive Chef Mina Newman (right),of Peruvian descent, Taku Nagai and Sushi Chef Hyun Lee are very committed to making this an authentic Nikkei-style Japanese food destination, showcasing the culinary marriage that occurred when Japanese emigrated to Peru, blending Japanese tradition with New World products and spices, not least chile peppers. Nikkei is the name given to the immigrants, whose people now number about one percent of Peru’s population.
The first sighting of this kind of fusion food was at Nobu in TriBeCa, now an international chain as easy to find in Ibiza as it is in Dubai, with mixed results. Sen Sekana is a far more approachable restaurant, whose name means “one thousand fish,” to describe the number of species that swim in the Pacific waters off Peru.
The menu is way too long and difficult to wade through, from soups and starters to kushi yaka items on skewers to main courses, robata grilled vegetables and two pages of sushi. The captains and waiters will guide you, but perhaps it’s best to stick to either sushi or the other dishes that precede it for a first visit.
The sushi is certainly well worth it all on its own, for here is one of those Japanese restaurants where the various species of seafood—maguro tuna, unagi eel, hotate scallop, kinmedai golden eye snapper, and many others—all have a distinct flavor. Too often elsewhere it’s difficult to distinguish among them. Not here, and to add to the distinction you can have them as a classic maki roll ($8-$21), nigiri or sushi ($4-$18 per order), as well as with novel ingredients like scallop with Pisco ponzu jelly, lemon zest and citrusy yuzo, or hamachi yellowtail with a Peruvian green sauce ($6-$13 per piece). There are three $80 omakase dinners of twelve pieces of nigiri or sashimi.
For the table you might want to
snack on root
vegetable chips (below)
with charred tomato dip ($9), or shishito peppers
flakes and yuzu
salt ($8), or more
substantial appetizers like harumaki
of spicy tuna with yuzu-spiked
in crispy shells with guacamole ($23) and a delicious ceviche of madai
tiradito with red snapper, shio kombu (dried
Amarillo chile and mango
sauce and harumaki spring rolls ($24).
Don’t miss the yucca cheese croquettes with
a spicy Peruvian huancaina
cheese sauce and lime daikon
($12). All these are meant to be shared.
The kitchen is playful with desserts, which include a waffle made with squash batter and sweet potato and laced with molasses.
Sen Sakana is another Asian restaurant that is bringing the Theater District a culinary reputation (see my review last week of Hakkusan) in direct contrast to the now defunct Guy Fieri restaurant and chains like Olive Garden. And with a $49 four-course pre-theater menu, Sen Sakana is ideal to make a fine, festive evening.
By the way, Sen Sakana is a no-tipping restaurant, which should be factored into your response to the prices.
NOTES FROM THE WINE CELLAR
FROM THOSE KINDLY SWISS WHO HAPPILY
FUNDED HITLER'S WAR EFFORTS AND
STILL LAUNDER INTERNATIONAL DRUG MONEY
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Eating Las Vegas
JOHN CURTAS has been covering the Las Vegas
food and restaurant scene since 1995. He is
the co-author of EATING LAS VEGAS – The 50
Essential Restaurants (as well as
the author of the Eating Las Vegas web site: www.eatinglasvegas.
He can also be seen every Friday morning as
the “resident foodie” for Wake Up With the
Wagners on KSNV TV (NBC) Channel 3 in
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