Sunday, 10 May 2015

A Review of The Water Library, Chamchuri, Bangkok

Part of the Thai delegation at the recent Asia's 50 Best Restaurants ceremony was a Mr Oliver Kramny, who was formerly the GM at the (Mandarin) Oriental's legendary Le Normandie and now the GM for the Water Library Group.  Now, the Water Library did not make the 50 Best list, and it was mentioned in various despatches (including at my friend Kenneth's blog and other more private channels) as a restaurant that deserved a place on the list more than certain ones which did.  So when I found myself with a free evening on a recent visit to Bangkok, I made a beeline to the Water Library with my (by now) old crony, Bangkok-based journalist and PR man, Gavin Nazareth.

The Water Library is, to put it mildly, in a very strange location.  After losing and rediscovering Gavin along the hustle of Sukhumvit Road, we hot-tail it to Chamchuri Square via the MRT.  For those of you who haven't visited, Chamchuri Square is a decidedly middle-of-the-road shopping centre with decidedly middle-of-the-road casual eating and shopping options.  With its promise of fine European dining, the Water Library would stick out like a sore thumb, except that it is sequestered away in a secluded corner of this fluorescent-lit everymall.

Kramny is at the door to greet us with a glass of R&L Legras Brut Grand Cru NV.  If I needed any more reason to like him, he was born in Alsace, and his group employs a Singaporean chef, Haikal Johari, as one of the talents in its stable.

But tonight, we are the guests of German chef Mirco Keller, who runs the kitchen at the Chamchuri outlet.  Keller offers us "whatever we want to eat", explaining that he offers a Seasonal Tasting Menu which showcases his inspirations and a Classic Tasting Menu, which showcases the restaurant's signature dishes.  As Keller explains it, the Seasonal is a lighter, fresher and more progressive menu, while the Classic is richer and more intense.  "90% of my European guests will order the Seasonal, whereas 99% of my Thai guests will go for the Classic".  Having been here a few times before, Gavin opts for the Seasonal, which makes my opting for the Classic much easier.

Amuse Bouche: Tuna Tartare, Potato Crisps

Before we start on our menus proper, a little starter is brought along to amuse our bouches.  The fact that it has potato chips / crisps in it already makes it a winner in my books, but the chips are merely a shroud for a gorgeously fresh tartare of tuna marinated in a salsa roja with a great acidity and lovely roasted notes.

Bread Course: Croissant

"We give you breakfast as well as dinner!" jokes Kramny as he sees the look of bewilderment cross my face.  I have never before been served with a croissant at dinner (this dinner took place literally two weeks before my Darren Chin experience, where I was served a croissant at dinner for the second time in my life), and while this directly-imported French croissant is rather good, it is still a little odd.  A homemade manitoba roll is more to my taste, crusty and substantial and going a real treat with a little knob of truffle butter (incidentally, far superior to the truffle butter at Cilantro).

Entree: Capellini with Wakame Seaweed, Tasmanian Abalone and Caviar

This is a good dish, and it has a lot in common with its chronological predecessors, the truffle and caviar pastas at restaurants with the Les Amis DNA (Les Amis itself, obviously, and also Iggy's and Gunther's and numerous others).  For my palate, however, the capellini was slightly over, and the abalone slices were too thin.  Abalone is prized as much for its texture as its flavour, and you substantially lose the first when you slice it so thinly.  I think Keller has, however, pitched this dish successfully at the Asian palate, with its perennial cravings for umami, noodles and abalone.

Second Entree: Onsen Egg with Fricassee of Boston Lobster and Veloute of Parmigiano Reggiano

The parmesan is subtle, and I think Keller plays that note well so that it doesn't overwhelm the flavour of the lobster.  With the egg and the sweetness of the lobster and vegetables, however, it is quite a rich dish.

Third Entree: Homemade Tofu with Foie-Gras and Shiitake Emulsion, Bonito and Leek

Gorgeous.  Decadent.  Umami.  Wow.  Surprisingly, the hero of the dish is the tofu, piping hot with a light, crispy exterior, but it sets off the earthiness of and foie gras and shiitake mushrooms beautifully.

I must admit, though, that the mouth-filling flavours and textures are starting to wear me out; Keller certainly wasn't lying when he said the Classic Menu was rich.

Bonus Course: Beef Consomme Infused with Curry Leaves

As I was reeling on the ropes from the vicious right hook of the foie gras, Keller brings out a vacuum coffee maker.  But instead of coffee grounds in the top flask, there is a veritable garden full of curry leaves.  The spiciness and light bitterness of the curry leaves has a surprising affinity with the beef consomme, and the result is hot and supremely comforting.  When it's bitterly cold and snowing outside (admittedly not a very common occurrence when you are in Bangkok), this is the kind of broth that you want to be sipping by the fireplace with a good book in your hand.  Awesome stuff.

Bonus Course 2: Iberico Pork Loin with XO Sauce

This was an off-menu special for the day as Keller had just gotten in some iberico pork loin from Spain.  The pork itself is meaty and well-cooked,  but I really don't catch the XO sauce reference - for a start, Keller uses cognac in his sauce, which no self-respecting Cantonese cook ever would.

Palate Cleanser: Wasabi Granita with Caramelised Lemongrass

After being overwhelmed by wave after wave of big, robust, flavours, my palate praised the heavens for the mercy of this refreshing wasabi granita.  The caramelised lemongrass added a distinctly Thai touch.

Main Course: Seared Chilean Seabass with with a Mushroom-Bacon Ragout, Japanese Yuzu and Truffle

A superbly-cooked piece of fish with the most gorgeous golden sear.  The ragout, with the barest accent of yuzu and chock-full of mushrooms and some truffle oil, is unrepentantly decadent.

Dessert: Apple Tarte Tatin with Madagascar Vanilla Ice Cream

Keller didn't seem particularly interested in this dish when he was introducing it ("you have a traditional apple tarte, not sure what else I can say"), but I thought it was a sensational tarte tatin.  Crisp, flaky pastry, tender apple slices brought to just the right side of caramelisation, 

Mignardises: Coconut Macaroon, Pate de Fruit, Rice Crispie Treat

Decent, but really not exciting.


Keller is very clearly a chef of significant chameleonic talent, able to change his range to suit his audience.  His food does not compromise on flavour, sometimes to the detriment of the diner.  When I mentioned my near-death gastronomic experience to Kenneth (who enjoyed his visit to the Water Library), he simply noted that Keller trained at the two-Michelin-starred Tim Raue, as if that explained everything.  In turn, 
Kramny is the personification of clean-cut blond German charm, and a most reassuring and hospitable presence on the floor. 

There are a couple of things that strike me as a little incongruous, though.  The dining area beyond the central "water library" is not carpeted, and I find it very difficult to reconcile the presence of an aspirational, big-ticket dining experience here with its location.  And the Classic Menu, given its tendency to overwhelm and over-indulge, is a ballbreaker regardless of what culture you come from.

And I guess that is where the artificiality of "food criticism" is shown up in earnest.  I have not lived any length of my life in Thailand, although I have visited on numerous occasions and have enjoyed the food each time.  But for me to tell someone what I find rather odd, is an exercise in cultural judgment necessarily based on my ignorance of what that culture / market wants.  It is, and can only be, a very personal opinion based on my experience.  Proceeding from that premise, the only relevant question is whether I liked the Water Library.  

I did.  A lot.

Chamchuri Square, 2nd Floor
Phaya Thai Road
10330 Bangkok Thailand 
Tel: +662 160 5188
Reservations recommended.

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