Gaa: The Brainchild of Asia’s Best Female Chef 2019
In 2017, Gaa arrived onto the hybrid cuisine scene in Bangkok. Situated just right opposite the eye-catching glass facade of Gaggan on a nondescript alleyway, the matured darkness of the room, its maroon banquette seats and velvet curtains would occasionally catch an ostentatious sparkle from across the street. It’s a far cry from the Darth Vader theme and flame thrower guns-blazing approach in Gaggan, but a similar stream of thought flows through both restaurants. One that champions uniqueness of spirit, a confluence of culinary experiences spanning lands, and more importantly, an unwavering resilience to defy the odds—much like a trailblazer.
To prepare oneself for the Gaa experience is to first understand where Chef Garima Arora has formally sharpened her knives. There are delicate nuances of India in there from where she was born and bred, followed by a decidedly more prominent show of knife work and precision cooking from her culinary school days in Paris’s renowned Le Cordon Bleu. Yes, there is also the lion’s share of Nordic and Scandinavian influences present in the menu, having worked at Noma before, which brings forth a certain purity, simplicity and freshness.
Incidentally this spills over into Thai inceptions as neo-Nordic also places heavy emphasis on seasonal foods and terrior—a real motivator in Chef Garima’s cooking (evidently, as she grunts slightly from a backache, the result of a two-day bender spent foraging in Northeast Thailand, Udon Thani with chef friend Weerawat “Num” Triyasenawat). Modern eclectic sets it aside from any other cookie cutter concepts, and is unassumingly delicious.
Bangkok is a city for the twinkly-eyed wayfarer, which is why it needs a restaurant like Gaa. It is a dining room where the most fundamental of emotions are tended to—its comfy nooks, cheerful service, unpretentious hip-hop beats and the combination of raw concrete with time-honoured teak finishings inducing ‘kick off your shoes’ vibes. It’s a metaphorical sighting, but more than once, I witnessed travellers enter and leave their inhibitions at the door as the staff swoop in with the care and expertise of a well-oiled SWAT team. If there is something to learn from this restaurant, this has got to be it. I deem it the iconic Patrick Swayze ‘dirty dancing’ move—played into muscle memory: starting with a good thurst and jumping high into the arms of, well, an Indian culinary goddess (proven by her recent instatement as Asia’s Best Female Chef 2019.)
The 14-course dinner is akin to a theatrical play, all kinds of dazzling. A refreshing cold towel is brought to your attention. A pour of the fresh and exuberant Blanc de Blancs grand cru champagne by J.L. Vernon is the precursor to the memorable gastronomical experience, with chilled soup of mango, pumpkin and fresh cheese curd that’s set above crushed ice to kick things off. It’s a winner; there are spots of vibrant herbaceousness amidst the sharp relief of pickled mango and a dash of subdued heat from kaffir lime leaf.
It’s not just the menu that walks a jagged line between fine dining expectations and something a little more well-travelled. The drink pairing is irrevocably trendy as well. But instead of chugging down fizzy strawberry kombucha, I opt for the more spirited wine pairing which sole existence is to enhance the being of the food. The suave head sommelier, Fredrik Wohlrabe makes excellent recommendations where food and wine matches are concerned, but let’s not discount the lychee sake as a dark horse that is thrown into the mix. My unintelligible scribbles across my note pad at the end of the night was probably the best testimonial.
You fish a savoury betel leaf from a twig bush and dig into a delicious spicy duck doughnut that spills indulgence and coats lavishly around your mouth’s cavity. It’s the kind of treat you want to ravish in the privacy of your room, to the soulful tunes of ‘Unchained Melody’, only that your swoons and lustful looks are not invisible to the service staff. Fredrik cossets you up a little with an elegant Saint-Joseph Silice 2016, so you smoothen out that crinkled skirt and get back on the horse.
There’s frozen chicken liver shaved over Indian flatbread and laden with seasonal Jambu (guava) and lychee which proved to be a lost cause on me. Sweet baby corns rubbed down with paprika and Himalayan black salt comes with a goblet of corn milk dip. All of a sudden, we are back in the summer of 2006 again, after-school movies, buckets of fresh popcorn, youthful optimism. I pledge hopeless devotion to this snack, and if you should fall in the opposite camp, I’m afraid I just wasted 700 words on you.
Vegetables largely steal the spotlight, but meats do not fade into the background. The intricate crayfish on khakhra—a magic carpet of Indian flatbread buzzing with subtle spices. A mush of smoked crayfish puree sits on the crisp cracker podium with chunks of crayfish and succulent pomelo lined with military precision. It disappears all a little too quickly to ascertain a second opinion. By now, my stomach is heavy, yet my heart fleeting. I had eaten a lot and drank enough to float a battleship, but it ain’t over till you’ve taken a bite of the smoked sturgeon sat above velvety whipped brown butter emulsion and elevated by the pungent tension of fermented garlic chips. Sips of Chablis from Tomas Pico domaine sealing the utopian dream.
The dinner train rattles on: The charismatic pork ribs show up to the table, glistening and ready for its close-up. First sous vide and then charcoal grill, it’s crowned with the kind of caramelised fat that will leave you hungering for more. There’s the three-pronged approach of pomegranate, shallots and coriander stems that throw in spades of texture, balance and acidity in fine measures. Go on, save the best for last, the Unripe jackfruit, cooked till tender should be embraced by ripe jackfruit ‘roti’ and spruced with pickles. It’s so good that it would get a nod from even the most stubborn veggie haters.
If I have a niggle, it’s their overvaluation of marginal utility from their guest. Don’t get me wrong, pricing is as fair as it gets and Chef Garima’s panache throughout the 14-course menu is miracle-working. Call me a sore loser, but I really wanted to enjoy that chocolate betel leaf. Next time, perhaps…
Gaa’s menu captures Bangkok’s culinary scape and its amalgamation of culinary influences using ways to transform locally-harvested and seasonal ingredients into a dining experience that is simply a class act.