I’m not quite sure how to put our experience at Gaggan into words, but I’ll try.
Words we used that night were “challenging,” “awful,” “um, no,” “oh, dear, that texture,” and “why couldn’t everything have tasted like that??” Let me start from the beginning.
When planning our trip to Thailand, we learned that Bangkok has not one, but two top 25 restaurants in the world. One, Nahm, we knew about and had planned from early on to check out. But Gaggan was new to us. It was also recently voted the #1 restaurant in Asia. That’s huge. We had to go. We booked a reservation a month out and eagerly awaited. Lauding Trip Advisor reviews and high critical claim stoked our excitement
Gaggan describes itself as a “progressive Indian” menu. A set menu at 3500++ baht is a lot for a meal in Thailand, but when you’re talking the top meal in a continent, $100 pp is easy to excuse.
We arrived at Gaggan, a colonial style white house hidden down a dark alley. Awash in uplights, it was a gorgeous setting against the dusky Bangkok night. We walked in giddy. I wish future me had been able to warn present me.
The restaurant’s set progressive Indian menu consists of 19 different courses. For DC folks, think Jose’s Minibar or Komi or the now-deceased Rogue 24. I looked at the set menu, mostly intrigued, picking out the few things I knew I wouldn’t like (I figured, 2 out of 19, I can deal) and buckled in for what I thought would be an exciting ride. Let’s go to through every….single….bite.
The first 10 courses were small bites. You’d have one of these little things and quickly be whisked onto the next.
- Dewdrop – Ironically before heading to Thailand, I had read this article about New York’s newest dessert that looks like a boob implant. This was a much prettier version of this. We lifted the lily pad it was served on and slurped it into our mouths. “I like it,” Jay nodded. It was fine to me, tasting a bit like a sweetened water with a soft consistency. In my mind, I thought it was preparing our palate for a barrage of delightful tastes. There was a barrage alright.
- Edible Plastic Spiced Nuts – Our lovely team of servers (service at Gaggan is magnificent) sat three dishes at our table. First was a package of spiced nuts that were served in a rice paper plastic packet that you were to eat as well. We abided. The nuts were good, with a sweet, spicy Indian flavor to them. The plastic was…unnecessary. But at least we were moving in the right direction to flavor town.
- Now, before I get into the Yogurt Explosion, I want to touch on my biggest issue with Gaggan. It wasn’t the taste (although Jay disagrees with me – he felt a lot of the tastes were bland or he didn’t enjoy them). But if you have any sort of food texture issues, GAGGAN IS NOT FOR YOU. I actually don’t think of myself has having texture problems. I eat oatmeal, yogurt, custards. But I do admit that I’m not a fan of loose flans or any foods that gush into my mouth (obvi twss). This is where things when horribly wrong.
SO YOGURT EXPLOSION. Our servers sat these beautiful serving spoons full of a curry-flavored white substance, with pepper flecks. Because it was called a yogurt, I expected it to be tight. I put it in my mouth and there was a creamy, curry, liquidy explosion. “Oh!” I exclaimed as the liquid coated my mouth. This was not a good “Oh!” It was a “What is happening???” oh. As Jay ate his, he had a look of confusion on his face. I now know that that was the moment when he realized this meal we were about to drop a ton of money on might not go so well for us. I actually didn’t mind the flavor of this one (Jay thought it was terrible) but the texture was just so much no for me.
- Chocolate Chilly Bomb – A little piece of chocolate with a spicy surprise inside. I thought this would be okay, like a spicy piece of chocolate. Popped it in my mouth, SPLOOSH. More gushing??? WHY! Sigh. (Jay liked this one.)
- Salli Boti – “This is a nest of crispy potatoes with a meat sauce on top.” Our server said. It was less of a meat sauce, more of a gravy, but I sighed in relief. I can do this. Something about her saying meat sauce and then a brown globule appearing didn’t do it for Jay. But I ate this one (even though the globule was still a little explody). Mind you, this bite wasn’t really special. But it was edible. At this point, that was considered a success
- Uncooked curry cookie – mine mostly exploded in my hand before it reached my mouth, due to my brute strength. This was fine because when my curry-loving husband tried it, he had nothing to say about it at all.
- Papadum Uni – this was when I began to protest. A staleish rice cracker served as the base for uni (sea urchin) and a small piece of strawberry. I took a small bite and quickly pushed it away. Jay ate his. He gagged. This is who we had become.
- Idly Sambhar – this was a take on an Indian savory breakfast cake made of fermented black lentils and rice. I liked the flavor and the texture. Jay wasn’t a huge fan.
- Indian Tamago – like Japanese tamago, this was an egg custard, but with Indian flavors. I politely took a nibble, but that damn texture issue reared its ugly head again.
- Foie Gras Sundae – served in a teeny ice cream cone, with mango ice cream, I ate this like it was my last meal. Sweet, salty, crunchy, yummeh! Hmmm, maybe we’d come out of the darkness??? Although 10 dishes (or bites) in, that’s the last thing you want to be thinking.
So then we moved onto the bigger dishes, which I was mostly excited for but there was one dish I knew would be a hurdle….
- Charcoal – They brought out a hunk of blackness (it looks like….yeah, like charcoal) swirling through fog under a glass dish. They did not tell you what was in the charcoal, but made you guess. The presentation was lovely, but after the first 10 bites, I was concerned. I cut into the charcoal and was pleased with the potato and fish concoction, reminiscent of a samosa. Jay thought it was fine. I also think I was so desperate for tasty food at this point, I would have considered anything meaty and solid a success.
- Magic Mushrooms consisted of forest mushrooms in the shape of a log with “edible soil” (I believe it was foie gras). I loved this. The flavors were layered, complex, but worked well together. Finally, a pretty gimmick that tasted good.
- Red Matcha – In Japanese cultures, they perform a Matcha ceremony at the table, mixing up the green, herby beverage at the table. Gaggan’s riff on this was to first eat a sweetened salad consisting of tomatoes, grapes and starfruit. As we ate that, the waiter mixed tomato consommé and curry spices together. I was concerned because neither of us are big tomato fans, but we really enjoyed this. The salad was delicious and light and the delicate soup had a surprising amount of depth.
- I need a moment – I need a moment before we talk about Story of a Fish Called Kin-Medai
Kin-Medai is the course I initially had concerns about. My concerns were justified. This was a story told in 4 acts, aka, fish served 4 ways. Our server placed what looked like a garden pot in front of us, under each level a new act.
Act 1 – Oil poached with gunpowder. I enjoyed this. Nothing special, but it was a small piece of fish delicately cooked and well-flavored, but not overpoweringly so. I was just thankful it wasn’t gushy. Jay later told me he found it a bit too oily.
Act 2- Fish head with Rice Kedigree. Let’s call it fish oatmeal. Let’s also move on.
Act 3 – Eggplant smoked with fish smoke – I’m not a huge eggplant fan, but Jay loves the stuff. I thought this was fine and had a tender smokiness to it. Jay liked it, but not enough to eat the whole serving (which was very small).
Act 4 – Fish Bone Jelly with Orange Segments. I think I blacked this one out. Intentionally.
Two savories to go, bear with me!
- Rangoli – Lamb chops. They were fine. But because they were lamb, they were so welcome. I maintain that Jay makes better lamb chops than this though.
- So, they literally call this dish “I want my curry!!” because they know people come to eat at this highly-acclaimed restaurant and expect some damn curry. This one was a Green Chicken Tikka Masala served with Naan and rice. If I understand correctly, Tikka Masala is not actually a traditional Indian dish.
I took one bite of this curry and was instantly filled with ANGER. White, hot rage coursed through my veins. “Are you f-ing kidding me???” I exclaimed. Jay took a bite as well and he instantly knew.
It was one of the best dishes we’d ever had. The Tikka Masala was packed with flavor. The meat was tender and the herbaceous curry was tasted in every bite. The accompanying naan was perfectly salted and buttery, chewy, but with bite.
I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe I had just sat through one of the worst meals in my life to arrive at one of the best things I’d ever eaten.
I’m not even going to go through desserts. They were fine, better than most of the meal. But I was so bummed. I wasn’t even pissed that this dinner was such a miss. I was pissed that it was an EXPENSIVE miss.
Also, I was so confused as to how we had been so wrong about this. I’m not naïve, I don’t think Trip Advisor/Yelp/Opinions of Others are the end all, be all, but what had those reviewers seen that we had not? A finer combing, I found a few reviewers who felt just like Jay and I – adventurous eaters who had been excited for a fun, good meal and spent two hours wondering if they were being punk’d. It felt nice not to be alone.
Rumor has it that Gaggan used to be different. You could a la carte or do a set menu. Some said years of success and accolades moved him to just the set menu, which many thought was a step in the wrong direction.
A few days later, chatting with a writer for Bangkok Magazine, he seriously guffawed at my thoughts on Gaggan. He told me I wasn’t alone and that rumor had it Gaggan was moving the restaurant to Japan and he was being encouraged to open a curry house in Thailand. Yeah, I’D GO TO THAT.
A few weeks later and we were still sorting through wtf happened. It was, by far, one of our most adventurous meals together. We felt like heels sending partially eaten food back, looked around confused at the other tables seemingly enjoying their gushy snacks and giggled like schoolgirls when after I told Jay the bathroom sink didn’t work and there were wet washcloths instead and Jay joked that the “deconstructed sink” was part of the menu.
We may have had a terribly disappointing meal, but my god, we also had an experience that we will never forget.
I hope this post doesn’t come off as culturally insensitive. Anyone who knows me, knows I love trying foods of all sorts. Until it gushes. I draw the line at gushy.