Taking inspiration from traditional Thai rice and curry shops, Wana Yook restaurant puts a fine dining spin on classic comfort food – beautifully presented in an exceedingly comfortable setting.
The term “hidden gem” is perhaps used a little too often when talking about recommended restaurants, but in the case of Wana Yook it’s especially applicable. First off, this fine dining spot is indeed hidden; tucked away on a miniscule laneway near Victory Monument, completely obscured from the street by the Five Fifteen Victory boutique hotel. Secondly, and obviously most important, it’s a true gastronomic gem, offering a gourmet take on the traditional Thai khao gaeng (rice and curry) shop.
“I’ve always had this idea to do a restaurant with this rice and curry concept. In khao gaeng everything spills over onto each other, so we take that same idea, and these flavour combinations, and put it all into a smaller bite,” explains Chef Chalee Kader as he leads me on a pre-dinner tour of the restaurant. The building itself, incidentally, is a gorgeously restored Rama VII era, two-storey house, and it’s what completes Wana Yook’s “hidden gem” triumvirate. Majestic to behold, the art-filled interior offers multiple dining areas – accommodating up to 60 persons in total – with a décor sensibility that matches stately and elegant with touches of fun and funky.
“No one really knows the exact origin of the house,” the chef informs me, adding that old photographs show it was built after Victory Monument. “It’s maybe 60 to 70 years old. It’s a cool area actually… sort-of ‘old town’ and with residential Ari nearby. When I saw it I thought, ‘Let’s not waste
Needless to say, with a Midas-touch chef like Chalee in charge – the talent behind 100 Mahaseth, Mickey’s Diner, and the recently opened brunch spot Fran’s – nothing’s been wasted. In fact, Wana Yook has, since its opening over a year ago, quietly established itself as a must-try destination for in-the-know gourmands.
The current set menu degustation dinner experience begins with an ever-changing welcome drink (on the night of my visit, a Chinese plum and strawberry kombucha-style concoction), followed by a wonderful three-part amuse bouche. The first bite is an egg mix filled with cured prawns, fiery roasted chili paste, and lemongrass, adorned on top with a mint leaf. It’s quite yummy, with a nice sourness and a real kick of heat on the finish (I’m happy to discover that Chef Chalee doesn’t hold back in the spice department).
The second introductory bite is a taco-shaped treat filled with shrimp and shrimp roe that’s been stir-fried with sweet radish and topped with delicate coriander flowers, all resting in a bed of pirella seeds. The third, the chef tells me, is a take on tod man pla (fish cakes with curry paste), with the traditional cucumber, shallots, and vinegar dip made into a caviar-style topping.
The next course, the ‘Daily Relish’, arrives at the table perched atop a formidable serving plate which, to my mind, resembles a glazed bundt cake. It’s a tasty mouthful of a starter, combining potent shrimp paste with rice, peppercorn, and fried gourami, all topped with a colourful veil of thinly sliced rose apple. It’s also the first serving to come with a featured rice.
“Throughout this meal we’ll be highlighting different grains of rice,” the chef explains as he places a display bowl onto a rectangular wooden serving tray for me to admire. “We have six in total, starting with this short-grain rice from Chiang Mai, which is almost like Japanese rice.”
Calling attention to lesser-known varieties of rice ties in directly with the restaurant’s aim to fully embrace Thai heritage – all the ingredients are sourced within the kingdom – while simultaneously working with local artisans and organic suppliers. And for diners, I’d say that’s a solid win-win.
When the chef next returns, he comes bearing a tender morsel of ultra-fresh squid that’s been braised in palm sugar, with fish sauce, coriander root, and garlic pepper, and then stuffed with unhusked jasmine rice. Topped with rich, jet-black squid ink and a striping of salted duck egg – with a generous pour of gaeng som (sour orange curry) on the side – it disappears from my plate all too quickly.
This is soon followed by what turns out to be my favourite dish of the evening: rice field crab that’s first pickled in fish sauce, then braised into a coconut cream, then served alongside a juicy tiger prawn, lemongrass salad, and ruby red rice with Pirelli seeds added for a bit of crunch. Delicious, obviously, but it’s all elevated even further by a dusting of vibrantly coloured, powdered tai pla (curry made using fish offal) that covers half the plate. “Run your knife, or finger, through the powders to get a taste” Chalee instructs, “then cut the prawn up, dip it into the cream, and smear it into the powder.”
Before tearing into this artfully presented dish I attempt to capture some (hopefully) IG worthy images, when I suddenly notice the plate itself is naturally angled. “I got them custom-made in Chiang Mai, and we purposely told them to tilt it,” Chalee says with a grin, anticipating my next question.
The dinner’s seafood focus continues with a fabulous mini-filet of coral grouper, lightly grilled and paired with gaeng omm (a Northeast-style curry that doesn’t use coconut cream). It’s plated with mackerel relish, battered and fried fermented spring onions, and a delightful base of spongey, gooey, sticky rice – like a Japanese mochi cake – that’s been slightly crisped on the outside. An amazing overall taste combination.
Next up is a pretty looking plate of curried cockles, chili prawn, and coconut shoot salad, presented with 105 jasmine rice – “the one we’re all accustomed to,” remarks Chalee – before the last of the six featured rice dishes appears; an excellent fried catfish in curry paste, with bamboo shoot curry and crispy gourami floss. It’s a stunning looking dish, with the intense green of the coriander powder topping and basil leaves offset nicely by the edible flower garnish and the beautiful earthenware bowl. Quite superb!
As I savour the last delicious bite of chewy catfish, the display bowls of rice, and all the other plates, are whisked away in preparation for the main course to come. Soon after, a large wooden serving tray is placed before me, populated by multiple bowls and plates of varying sizes.
The largest plate is reserved for freshly doled out spoonfuls of rice – three separate, different coloured varieties in all – while the smaller bowls hold the remaining meat and fish dishes: chicken in a zippy turmeric and lemongrass soup; grilled calamari with fragrant herbs, pork mixed with salted fish and wrapped in cabbage; and a very tantalising beef dish.
“That’s curry with grilled striploin, from Sakhon Nakhon province,” the chef points out, adding that the breed is “Wagyu crossed with dairy cattle.”
Rounding out the multi-plate selection is an egg dish in which the whites have been separated and crispy fried, with the yolks then laid on top. “The chicken yolk we pickle in fish sauce, but for the duck yolk we went crazy a bit and pickled it in Maggi. This one’s a real crowd pleaser!”
You’d think, by this point, that I’d have tired of curry-rice combos, but nothing so far felt the least bit repetitive or uninspired. That being said, it was a refreshing change when the sweet course arrived and took the meal in a slightly different direction.
The main dessert, served in conjunction with a soothing bael and panda leaf hot tea, is created using burnt coconut husks, with the ash going into the pandan ice cream fondant, the meringue wafer topping, and the sesame seed and coconut crumble base. Add to that a healthy dose of salted coconut cream and it’s a nice, not-too-heavy way to finish a pretty substantial meal.
The evening concluded with a trio of petit fours, and a promise from the chef – and the restaurant’s newly hired sommelier – that a curated wine pairing option was in the works. Just the thing to add a little extra sparkle to this lovely hidden gem.
For reservations, visit Wana Yook.