BANGKOK, Jan 4 — It’s high noon and the sun is sizzling. When a heatwave feels imminent, what choice do we have but to run and hide inside an air-conditioned shopping mall?
We’re in the city, after all. This is South-east Asia; summer is perpetual, whatever season or time of the year the calendar claims it to be.
There are few outdoor options in Bangkok when it’s this hot, unlike in the Mediterranean, where dining al fresco during summer months is a way of life.
What better way to cool down than with a chilled glass of sparkling wine and a dish of light pasta — who could manage more?
All is not lost. Hidden away in a tiny soi near the Rama IV Road and the Queen Sirikit MRT Station is El Mercado, a European influenced delicatessen and restaurant.
Its name comes from Spanish for “market”; its airy open courtyard that reveals itself after navigating a nondescript entrance reminds one of a mercado in Valencia or a marché in Provence.
Run by French owner Axel Aroussi and his Spanish partner Griselda Gras, El Mercado has an enviable array of charcuterie, while doubling as part wine shop, part fromagerie.
The chalkboard menus are handwritten in tiny print, listing brasserie favourites and seasonal delights.
We swear we hear Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s Latin-tinged swoon song “Señorita” playing though the chatter from surrounding tables.
Hallucinating the line “The air was hot from summer rain / Sweat dripping off me / Before I even knew her name, la la la”? Yes, it has exactly that sort of ambience.
Sure beats being stuck indoors, inhaling recycled air. This is how gatherings, whether a party of five or flirty date for two, ought to be, especially when everyone is dreaming of or already on their holidays. It’s time for a little oh la la la.
We start with cold glasses of Torresella Prosecco from Veneto, dry with a crisp bite, and continue the rest of our meal with sparkling water to avoid getting too tipsy.
It’s nice to get just a little buzz on, nothing more. The weather is too fine not to be fully present and enjoy it.
To complement the midday warmth, we decide to eschew hot dishes such as pasta and risotto, and order only cold dishes.
What better way to whet our appetite than with a charcuterie and cheese board, accompanied with some fresh bread, pickles and dried figs?
We traverse the span of continental Europe: from Spain to Italy, from France to Germany, with every nibble.
First up is Spain with the famous Jamon Serrano, the dry cured ham sliced into paper-thin strips, and discs of mildly spicy Chorizo Vela, a dry-cured pork sausage seasoned with sweet paprika.
There is French with the Saucisse Seche Perche, a dry-cured pork sausage whose aroma comes from being hung on poles inside a smoking room; there is German with the fine balls of Salami Parmigiano Truffle, orbs of premium salami and summer truffle encased in a dusting of salty, country-style Parmigiano Reggiano.
It’s hard to be carb-conscious; you’ll need hunk after hunk of bread for their decadent spread — be it the rustic home-made pâté de campagne, or country terrine, or their old-fashioned rillettes de canard, made using only duck, wine, herbs and aromatics.
Let’s not forget the cheeses. A good cheese board should offer a variety of styles: soft, semi-firm, firm and even strong or blue cheeses.
Our selection includes a nutty raw milk Comte that has been matured for three years in France; a creamy and delicate Brie filled with truffles and Mascarpone; and a strong-smelling Fourme d’Ambert, shot with cerulean veins and a pedigree hailing from the Roman Empire.
These are cheeses made from cow’s milk, which is more common. But there is something to be said for the exception to the rule: a soft and crumbly log of Buche de Chèvre, made from goat’s milk and tasting unbelievably well balanced.
The curated platter of saucisson and salami, cheeses and spreads, makes for a refreshing change from the massive baked hams one typically partakes of this time of year. Christmas and New Year’s Eve shouldn’t be an excuse for a heavy belly or a weary palate.
While El Mercado serves some splendid options for mains — from a hearty salad of French red and white endives, blue cheese and walnuts, perfect for vegans, to a classic lemongrass infused organic chicken, paired with refried potatoes, sautéed mushrooms and sweet roasted carrots — we decide ‘tis the season for something more luxurious.
Keeping our “no hot foods on hot days” theme going, we take a plunge and request the hefty Seafood Platter. El Mercado’s version is a two-tier affair, with the top salver occupied by an extravagant option of lobsters, crabs or langoustines.
When else are we going to indulge ourselves?
The real ocean’s bounty, however, lies underneath in the bottom tray. There are pink shrimps and small gray prawns, sweet and juicy. There are cockles and bouchot mussels with tiny black shells; the latter grown on ropes hung from poles in the sea, barnacle-free and clean-tasting.
There is reverent nod to Japanese cuisine with the inclusion of sashimi — crimson tuna loin and orange-hued Scottish salmon — along with plenty of sinus-clearing wasabi.
Bulots, fresh whelks that are also known as sea snails, have a firm texture and are addictive when smeared with mayonnaise.
The tearjerker moment comes when we start on the oysters: Isigny Special N°3 from the waters of Normandy.
Slurping each down we can’t help but recall the way Anthony Bourdain described eating his first oyster, how it “... tasted of seawater... of brine and flesh... and, somehow... of the future.”
We mourn the great man’s unwritten future and celebrate his heroic past with every slippery mollusc devoured.
Those with a sweet tooth would rejoice with the deluge of treats from El Mercado’s bakery: canelés and éclair, tarts and flans, quiches and baguettes.
But honestly we have no room for any more, despite the old adage of always saving room for dessert.
Instead we ring in another season well lived by toasting friends and loved ones near and far, here and departed, with more sparkling beverages (water or wine, you decide).
For soon it will be a brand new year. Another season and another reason to feast!
490 Phai Singto Alley, Khlong Toei, Bangkok, Thailand
Open Tue-Sat 11am-11:30pm; Sun 11am-10:30pm; Mon closed
Tel: +66 99 078 3444