‘1881’ reasons to reconsider dining in a shopping mall

COCONUTS CRITIC’S TABLE — There’s something deeply unsexy about shopping mall food. The sterile sushi of Fuji, the forlorn meat patties of Chester’s Grill, the apocalypse in pizza form made by The Pizza Company – if they were to vanish suddenly from this planet in some culinary version of the Rapture, few would shed a tear. A standalone restaurant can have character, history and a distinguished clientele. You won’t get those at a Sizzler. To take a first date for a meal in a mall is to show you possess all the romantic allure of a blobfish.

It seems the Central Group hopes to change this. At the end of last year they launched “Groove,” a new section of mega-mall Central World dedicated to gourmet dining. They’ve coaxed – sorry, “curated” – openings from a variety of local and international brands, including French bakery Fauchon, Parisian bistro Maxim’s and London-based Italian eaterie Chicchetti. There are also local offerings by Ian Kittichai’s gastro-pub Hyde & Seek, import beer bar HOBS, Greyhound Cafe, the dreadfully named Wine I Love You and Supanniga Eating Room. So a mixed bag, really, with some interesting propositions and some dross. I’ll leave you to decide which is which.

What excited me most, though, was the new Water Library outlet, “1881.” Strangely for a gourmet restaurant chain, Water Library seems to make a point of opening its branches exclusively in malls. Its various outlets can be found in Chamchuri Square, the 39 Boulevard complex, Grass Thonglor and, lately, Central World and Central Embassy. I sometimes feel like I go on about the Water Library a little too much in this column – and I probably do. But I can’t shake the memory of the first time I tried Haikal Johari’s expertly tuned Eurasian cooking at Water Library’s Thonglor 10-seater. It was sublime. If anyone can make Bangkok mall dining sexy – or at the very least, delicious – these are the guys.

1881 is a much more down-to-earth affair than the branches at Chamchuri and Thonglor. You may well sigh to hear the decor described as “industrial chic,” a style which is surely not much longer for this world. Here, though, the look is realized with more aplomb than most. The designers have eschewed the brushed concrete which has long been a godsend for stingy restaurateurs in favor of brick. Faucets hang from the ceiling holding dim energy-saving lightbulbs, like creatures herding together for warmth. There are leather banquettes, piping and plenty of candle light, which reflects off chrome surfaces to pleasant effect.

“I don’t feel like we’re in a mall now,” I told my dining companion, who I’ll refer to as “Refugeesus” for reasons we won’t go into here. “Really,” he said, looking out the window with a grimace. “I’m staring at an escalator.” Turning round, I saw bag-laden shoppers smoothly levitating to a higher floor. “Authenticity” always depends on your point of view.

All that was forgotten, though, when the food began to arrive, most of which was exemplary. Double Duck Mesclun (THB270) was a perfectly balanced salad of smoked duck, sous-vide duck egg and fresh mesclun leaves, with a bright soy citrus dressing and, adding a satisfying crunch, black olive crumbles. This was how salad should be: light, but with enough guts to make you feel you’re eating more than a bowl of leaves.

Even better was Japanese Tuna Tartare, one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in months.

Smoked fish flakes and raw tuna sat on a firm and glacial wasabi panna cotta, the flavor of the mustard being present but not overwhelming. Just a wonderful dish, and, at THB250, a bargain, considering what that would buy you at some of the more pedestrian kitchens in the city – and, indeed, elsewhere in Groove itself.

Chicken Ravioli (THB260) was good, too – delicate parcels filled with what I assume was chicken liver, and finished with lemon butter and shaved parmesan. Slow Cooked Pork Neck (THB390) was a thick slice of meat that tasted almost as it does when grilled at a som tam stall, but served with creamy celeriac mash and crunchy chopped apples and hazelnuts. We felt the pork itself was a tad fatty and wondered if it might be presented with more finesse, but the dish was otherwise executed well.

Least successful of the mains was “Eggs Benedict ‘Nuri'” (THB490), an interesting take on the dish with eggs cooked sous-vide, rather than poached. There was nothing especially wrong, here, but we weren’t convinced the thicker yolks improved on runny ones, and the hollandaise was a little too tart. The dish apparently included “frozen foie gras,” which we barely noticed under the sauce, and which thus added little to the dish but a couple of hundred baht.

The desserts we tried were, across the board, superb. The best was modestly titled “Another” Lemon Tarte (THB290) but proved to be more than its name suggested, with a sturdy lemon curd spoom, bright raspberry sorbet, boulders of crumbled cookies and a subtle finish of black and Sichuan pepper, which left the mouth tingling after the plate was clean. Macadamia Brownie (THB180) was squidgy and luxurious and faced off with a sour passion fruit extraction, sour cream and a dusting of macadamia powder. We made short work of these two and couldn’t resist ordering a third sweet: an excellent White Chocolate Panna Cotta, with orange jelly and coffee crumble.

Bangkok features plenty of outfits charging far more for food executed far less skilfully than here. And, with the exception of Water Library’s other branches, I’m willing to say this was the best food I’ve ever eaten in a shopping mall. When faced with the competition, of course, that’s not a big claim, so I’ll go further: 1881 is excellent. Tell a date you’re taking them there, put up with the suspicious looks, and when they taste the cooking, accept their apologies. You’ll be getting laid tonight, blobfish.

Coconut’s Critics Table reviews are written based on unannounced visits by our writers and paid for by Coconuts Bangkok. No freebies here.

FIND IT:

1881 by Water Library
Groove
Central World
11am – 1am, Monday through Sunday
Rama I Road

Dan Waites is the author of Culture Shock! Bangkok, a guide to the culture, customs and expat life in the Thai capital. Follow him on Twitter: @danwaites

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