Fine Dining With a 25-Course Emoji Menu
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
It’s 25 courses of freaky fusion food — delicious, mind-spinning mash-ups.
Typically, if one of my friends says he’s just eaten at the “best restaurant,” he actually means “I really liked that restaurant.” In Thailand, where I’m based, great food is abundant. So the “best” claim? It’s pretty much lost its meaning.
Yet if they’ve just eaten at Gaggan, a progressive Indian restaurant in Bangkok, there would be more truth to an otherwise absurd statement of superiority. That truth greets you when you first walk through Gaggan’s doors, inscribed into the three award statuettes: “Asia’s Best Restaurant.” Awarded by the World’s 50 Best organization, there’s one for 2015, 2016 and 2017, an unprecedented culinary three-peat completed earlier this year.
Don’t go to Gaggan expecting a normal meal.
Even Gaggan Anand, the chef behind his eponymous restaurant, would be the first to admit such rankings are a touch silly. After all, evaluating the competition in such a wide range of cuisines — from curry to sushi — is like comparing apples and oranges.
And Gaggan’s dishes themselves often defy categorization. Don’t go to Gaggan expecting a normal meal. Actually, don’t even expect traditional Indian food. From goat-brain cream disguised in a citrus waffle to the chili bonbon amuse-bouche, you will not be served chicken vindaloo with garlic naan. Gaggan admits that his 25-course tasting menu — there is no à la carte option — may not tick every one of your boxes. “But we’re constantly trying new things here. Constantly reinventing,” he says, explaining that while the menu changes every three months, they could theoretically change it “every week.”
The restaurant itself is nestled — almost hidden — down a narrow alley. At the end of the street, you are greeted by this grand British colonial townhouse, its open spaces entombed in sharp panes of pristine glass to keep out Bangkok’s sweltering heat and humidity. Inside, the homely setting of white wicker chairs, clean wooden tables and high ceiling fans offers a simplicity that offsets what happens on the tables.
The menu is … unconventional. Printed on a single rectangle of translucent paper are 25 emojis — yes, emojis — in a single column. Nothing written, nothing explained. “Want to guess what the ice cream emoji will be?” my friend asks me. “Probably not ice cream,” I respond. As the meal begins, the courses start flying out of the kitchen — we were warned that the first 15 would be rapid-fire — accompanied by cryptic explanations from our waiter. Eventually they slow down in pace, and increase in portion size.
From the Chettinad South Indian-style quail and the black hunk of “charcoal” hiding the prawn amritsari within (my favorite) to the sea urchin ice cream (the ice cream emoji!), it’s an experience that truly tests the senses. The food plays with textures, hiding smooth pastes in seemingly brittle forms, but also in tastes, with strong spices dictating seemingly sweet concoctions.
It’s also a test of time: Be prepared for a three-hour extravaganza. Ringing in about 4,000 baht ($115) per person, it’s actually one of the cheapest restaurants in its class, and one that left me incredibly content, but not in the usual postprandial glow that demands a nap. Instead, it’s a rapturous fatigue that left my mind spinning away trying to untangle the dishes my stomach was digesting.