BANGKOK, July 1 — Blink and you might miss 80/20, a restaurant located along tree-lined Charoen Krung Road. What a tragedy that would be though, for inside is one of Thailand’s most exciting and creative kitchens, where old and new come together.
Headed by executive chef Napol “Joe” Jantraget and Japanese pastry chef Saki Hoshino, 80/20 marks a growing trend in Bangkok that prizes foraging from local markets and regional farms. The result: a joyous marriage of the kingdom’s food heritage with modern culinary techniques.
Opened in November 2015, 80/20 began as a home-based cannery after the thirty-something duo returned to Bangkok, which explains why fermentation and preservation feature frequently in their ever-changing menus. They had first met in Canada 10 years ago while both were still in school.
Jantraget recalls, “Canada is where we started learning cooking and pastry professionally and deeply.”
According to Jantraget many types of fermentation products are already being used in Thai cuisine: “Therefore it is important for me to expand the knowledge in this area. By reinterpreting Thai cuisine, we want to create more varieties of fermentation products because we believe that these are the foundation of Thai dishes such as nam pla (fish sauce) or the use of nam goong (fermented shrimp paste) in most curry pastes.”
Hoshino, a virtuoso of preservation, adds, “Thailand has so many beautiful vegetables and fruits. When the fruits are over ripe, they are very cheap but not many people buy them. But those fruits are the best to make jam, confiture and sorbet.”
Besides what is produced in-house, the chefs also plan their menu around ingredients from local artisanal producers. Jantraget says, “We often go to the nearby Talat Noi market to pick up some herbs, fruits and vegetables. We use fish and seafood from Surat Thani, in the south. We use organic free range chicken, wild fruits and vegetables from Isaan. Different rice from different regions of Thailand.”
This dedication to making full use of what’s available locally was apparent from our first few visits to 80/20. An ala carte menu of sharing plates dazzled with dishes such as their nam pla cured white prawns paired with young coconut marinated algae and coconut dashi. “Kung-Foo” Salad, a Thai classic of red tail catfish with seasonal herbs and greens, wild almonds and fermented crab sauce, might be the best salad we’ve ever eaten.
Heaven in every bite.
Local milky mushrooms are grilled over charcoal, its umami levels elevated with dehydrated enoki, crispy crickets, smoked onion, sour leaves and ant eggs vinaigrette. The pan grilled squid — already a feast of flavours thanks to turmeric purée, smoked tomato, roasted lotus seeds, lotus root chips and pickled Siam tulip — gets punched up further thanks to a vinaigrette made from som-kak (a local citrus) and maeng-da (giant water bugs).
Who knew insects could be this tasty?
While some restaurants excel at their savoury courses only to falter when it’s time for dessert, Hoshino’s deft hand at crafting sweet treats make a strong case for saving the best for last. Sweet Thai Smoke — toasted rice marshmallow, burnt banana leaf ice cream, shio koji tuile, grilled banana chips and soy rice crumble — is part Thai, part Japanese and 100 per cent delightful.
Hoshino’s penchant for contrasting two ordinary elements to create something sublime is evident in her Milky Fresh: goat milk ice cream, mangosteen goji berry gel, Isaan wild almonds, goat milk caramel, fresh mangosteen, pickled goji berry and seaweed crumble. Every new discovery at the market is a fresh challenge. She quips, “We just have to make them delicious!”
Recently 80/20 has transitioned fully to a Chef’s Choice tasting menu of five or seven courses. Consider this a contemporary omakase with Thai ingredients you never knew you’ve been waiting to discover. (The Thai “ingredients” extend to the décor, which makes use of wrought iron and sustainable Thai wood crafted by local artisans.)
Where other establishments may serve one or two amuse-bouches, 80/20 surprises us with four bite-size creations: kale leaf wrapped salted mackerel with kale sauce, crispy fried pork bao, poached duck egg with pea purée and fiery shallot jam, and torched squid with tangy gooseberry granita.
These set us up wonderfully for the first couple of courses: a red grouper crudo, ant egg vinaigrette, wild almonds and papaya salad, exceptional in its balance of acidity; and chargrilled tiger prawns with fresh hearts of palm, fresh lychee and lychee vinaigrette, with a brown sauce made from grilled prawn shells infused in broth — not unlike a prawn umami reduction!
Jantraget’s laser-like focus in juggling so many different textures and tastes stems from his experience working at other kitchens prior to opening 80/20. He says, “I’ve learned not to get distracted by what others are doing when I have ideas. Because if I listened to everyone, I will get lost and what I do will become average.”
He needn’t have worried; the courses that follow are far from average. Tom jap chai, a traditional Thai vegetable stew, is reimagined with slow cooked pork belly, dehydrated vegetables and a light yet flavourful pork consommé. Cured smoked sardines go well with “albino” curry. Love beef? How about a juicy tenderloin given a savoury kick thanks to oysters, oyster jus and three different preparations of mushrooms?
At this point in our dinner, Hoshino takes over, first with a palate cleanser of pickled talingping (the Thai version of belimbing) enveloped by pandan sorbet. Refreshing. The showcase of local fruits continues with “Season of Mango” that highlights the in-season Maha-chanok mango: sorbet made from ripe mangoes infused with pandan, cubed green mango and mango chips.
Since moving to Thailand, the Nagoya-born pastry chef has tasted many new fruits, vegetables and herbs she hadn’t encountered before. She says, “It’s very interesting. I compare and find similarities between Thai desserts with Japanese and European desserts. Sometimes techniques are very, very different but the results are almost same. So those differences and similarities make me think of different desserts.”
Hoshino’s produce-driven approach persists with a celebration of everything coconut: banana leaf infused coconut ice cream, dessicated coconut, candied coconut and mochi. Finally, the petit fours brings us full circle, an echo of the earlier quartet of amuse-bouches: pungent yet milky nam pla caramel, sweet dorayaki, green mango candy with sea salt, and an intense fermented chocolate with goji berry.
The name 80/20 refers, in part, to how 80 per cent or more of the ingredients used are locally sourced. From markets around the corner and from farms all over Thailand to these unassuming tables in Charoen Krung, the adventurous diner will never go hungry — or get bored — here.
1052-1054 Charoen Krung Road, Bang Rak, Bangkok
Open Thu-Sun 6pm-12am
Tel: +66 99 118 2200