IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Take restaurant rankings with pinch of salt

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 1, 2014

The names on this year's list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, announced at the Capella Singapore on Sentosa on Monday, are not exactly a surprise. Except for movements in positions, they largely repeat those in last year's list.

But while the names were expected, the positions were not - and, for me, it proves that such lists should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt.

I agree that any kind of judging, especially in an area as subjective as food, is arbitrary. But seriously, how is Nahm the best restaurant in Asia?

I haven't dined at all the restaurants in the top 10 positions, but my feeling is that those of the Bangkok restaurants Nahm (No. 1) and Gaggan (No. 3) are certainly undeserved.

After last year's list was released with a number of Bangkok restaurants on it - Nahm at No. 3, Gaggan at No. 10, Eat Me at No. 19, Sra Bua By Kiin Kiin at No. 29 and Bo.lan at No. 36 - I decided to make a trip to the Thai capital to find out what I had been missing.

I had not been to the city for a number of years and the last visit was just before Nahm opened there in 2010. But I'd tasted chef-owner David Thompson's cooking during a promotional stint in Singapore and his Thai dishes were authentic and impressive for a non-Thai chef. The cooking certainly beat some Thai restaurants in Bangkok, but it wasn't the best Thai food I'd eaten.

I had already dined at Eat Me a couple of times - the food was decent, not spectacular, and I was more impressed with the homey ambience. Bo.lan was closed the entire Songkran weekend I was there.

So I made bookings at just Nahm, Gaggan and Sra Bua By Kiin Kiin.

The cooking at Nahm was not bad. But it was just good and not memorable, except for a dish that came with a side of fried salted fish that was so salty I could not forget it.

To be honest, I think Sabai By The Sea in Singapore serves better Thai food, and I'm sure there are better Thai restaurants in Bangkok as well. I certainly enjoyed better my lunch that same day at the much humbler and less-known Baan Khanita just down the road from Nahm, even though the food was not as fine.

The crowd at Nahm when I was there was also telling. The restaurant was only half full on a Friday night and none of the diners was Thai.

Still, the experience was much better than at Gaggan. I found its food, which it calls progressive Indian cuisine, pretentious and overpriced.

Converted from a bungalow, like many other restaurants in Bangkok, the eatery had a simple charm. However, I can't say that of the food. It was a watered-down version of North Indian food that ended up being neither Indian nor Western. It wasn't a good fusion either.

The sous vide seabass with raw mango curry was served lukewarm - not the best condition for the fish - but it was not the worst dish.

The course in my degustation menu I couldn't figure out was a starter comprising an almost raw oyster covered in a foam of indeterminate flavour. On the menu, it is called Viagra - Umami Oyster Charcoal Grilled Malabar Style With Lemon Air. Is talent required to come up with that? It doesn't do anything that two drops of fresh lemon juice cannot do better.

Sra Bua By Kiin Kiin, which does a molecular gastronomic twist on Thai dishes, turned out to be the best experience. The restaurant, expansive and designed in a modern luxurious Thai style, is lovely and the service excellent.

I am not a fan of molecular cooking, which loses its magic once you know how it's done, but at least the flavours of the food were authentic. The tom yam did taste like it should, even if the prawn came in a dim sum dumpling instead of in the soup.

After those experiences, you can imagine my scepticism when this year's list of Asia's 50 Best Restaurants was announced. Shockingly, Nahm is now No. 1 and Gaggan has leapt to No. 3.

I can think of two reasons how that can happen though. The first is the voting system. Each voter is given seven votes, out of which three must be for restaurants outside their home region. And they must have eaten in the restaurants in the last 18 months. Chefs and restaurateurs cannot vote for their own restaurants.

Even more crucially, although they rank the restaurants when they vote, the ranking is used to decide on positions only if there is a tie.

So if 100 people vote for Nahm as their choice for No. 7, and only 50 people vote for another restaurant as their No. 1 choice, Nahm is still No. 1 after the votes are counted.

Another reason is that the majority of voters, who are the same people voting for the World's 50 Best Restaurants, are from Western countries. Thailand is a popular Asian destination for Western travellers, so it is understandable that more of these voters would have been to Bangkok in the last 18 months and dined in restaurants often featured in the Western media - namely Nahm, Gaggan, Bo.lan and Sra Bua. Not many would have eaten in a local restaurant such as, say, Somboon Seafood, where the food would probably be too fiery for Western palates.

And probably not as many would have dined at excellent but small restaurants in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, which would explain why they received fewer votes.

Is that what happened? Or do the voters really think Nahm is the best restaurant in Asia?

I certainly do not.

ahyoke@sph.com.sg

Do you agree that restaurant rankings should not be taken too seriously? Send your comments to stlife@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 1, 2014

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