Great expectations at Bangkok’s Bo.lan

When it comes to dining out, expectations are everything. Two Bangkok chefs who know this all too well are Dylan Jones and Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava, the husband-and-wife team behind Bo.lan, one of the city’s most ambitious Thai eateries. The restaurant combines traditional recipes – many taken from old cookbooks and funeral memorial tomes – with the trappings and service expected in Western fine-dining. It’s a formula that pulls in a mix of Thai and foreign customers, each group with differing expectations of what a meal involves, how it should be eaten and what they should get for their money. This can cause headaches.

Take the Luxe-guide farang who wants his tom saep – a fiery, herbally infused broth from the Northeast – as an entree. (Unaccompanied. On an empty stomach. Probably with a bread roll.) Or the Thai customer who can’t understand why Bo.lan costs so much more than her favourite provincial restaurant. (Clue: the ethically farmed organic produce, stylish setting and laborious preparations have a lot to do with it.) Such things are all part of the challenge of running a restaurant like Bo.lan: part pleasure palace, part church of slow-food evangelism.

In its latter guise, Bo.lan plays host to “Eat Responsibly Day”, a monthly farmers’ market for provincial producers who hawk everything from chorizo sausages – artisanal, naturally – to organic lemongrass. So it’s no surprise to learn that Bo and Dylan apply rigorous standards to the produce used in their own menu: organic where possible, ethical, local. It doesn’t come cheap.

“Our food cost is probably just the same as any Western restaurant,” Bo says. “Our dried prawns are 750 baht a kilo. They’re the best ones we can find. But you can go to Klong Toey and buy them for 100 baht a kilo,” Dylan says, referring to the famous fresh market of Bangkok’s largest slum. “So that’s what people automatically assume dried prawns should cost.”

This difference in the real and perceived prices of the produce can leave some Thai customers disappointed. “Thais are like, ‘This is Thai food’,” says Dylan, “They’re comparing it to their favourite khao kaeng [rice and curry] stall or their favourite restaurant in the provinces or what their mother cooks at home.” Adds Bo: “They either love it or hate it.”

To offset this effect, Bo.lan’s set menu features what might seem to Westerners like an enormous quantity of food. A five-dish amuse-bouche plate, five-dish spread of mains and not one, not two, but three rounds of dessert. “That’s a deliberate decision on our part to make it so much food. Because if you don’t do that, the Thais feel like they’re getting ripped off,” explains Dylan. “If they don’t have food left over that they can take home and they can feel like ‘there’s too much food for us to eat’, they’re not happy. So for them it’s value for money.”

In with the old

For Canberra-born Dylan, cooking Thai for Thais – an intimidating task for anyone who knows how seriously this country takes its food – was “not something I ever thought I’d be doing”. Thai-born Bo came to cheffing relatively late, then studied on the University of Adelaide’s gastronomy program. Both apprenticed at David Thompson’s renowned London restaurant Nahm – where they first met.

As with Thompson’s place – recently voted one of the world’s 50 best restaurants – many of Bo.lan’s recipes are plucked from old tomes like the Mae Krua Hua Pa, known as Siam’s first cookbook. Others are resurrected from the funeral memorial books of Siamese aristocrats, which often featured the deceased’s best recipes.

You might cynically wonder: If these old dishes are so good, why did they fall out of favor in the first place? Turns out it’s to do with labor. “You need more time to prepare these dishes, which people these days don’t have. And most of the books you can assume have come from wealthy families,” says Dylan, pointing out that the large coteries of servants at such households made more ambitious preparations possible.

A casualty of this shift in culinary trends has been the use of fruit, which used to provide the sweetness essential to Thai dishes. Its use died out, at least partially because it was harder work to prepare. “It’s not like a carrot, where you peel it and then the whole thing is good to go,” says Bo. “With fruit you have to peel it, pit it or stick it in saltwater and it’s a lot of effort. And people just got lazy.”

One of Bo.lan’s best dishes is a salad of tender slow-cooked beef with mangosteen and mint dressing. It came from an old recipe book. “It jumped out at us because it’s so different,” says Dylan. “The lime juice, the toasted kapi [shrimp paste] and the coconut cream all in the dressing. So we thought, let’s try it.” There are other excellent fruit-laden dishes too, including a fabulous dessert-like amuse of rice salad with dried prawn, pineapple and coconut cream and creamy curry with meaty prawns and tart pieces of santol fruit.

The reaction of some Thai diners to these dishes is interesting. Many don’t believe they’re eating traditional Thai cuisine. “In the old days they put the fruit in to give it the sweet element, because sugar in the old days was hard to come by. It was expensive. But when we put fruit in their salad and their curries, they think it’s fusion,” says Bo.

Farang to feed

And then there are the troublesome farang. At Bo.lan, diners are encouraged to share a range of dishes in the Thai style, balancing the sweet, salty, sour, bitter and fatty elements that define the cuisine. “We want to educate people on how Thai food should be eaten. We don’t do courses. Not in the Western sense,” says Dylan. Some foreign customers, perhaps in Thailand for the first time, have trouble getting their heads around this concept. They want their own dish – and it ain’t for sharing.

With such guests, Dylan has been known to leave his kitchen in a bid to teach foreign diners how the cuisine should be eaten. “I’ll come out to the table and say ‘Listen guys, you’re a table of eight and you’ve ordered six prawn curries and two tom saeps. It seems to me like you’re going to eat them individually.’” He will then explain that “the best way” to enjoy the meal would be to order eight different dishes are share them.

Sometimes that’s enough. With more recalcitrant customers, drastic measures are required. “We send free dishes out to try and educate them and show them that actually if you put a salad in the mix it’s going to be more fun and more interesting… Sometimes they appreciate it, other times they think we’re being too strict. But you can’t please everybody so there’s no point trying.” (You heard it here first: for free food at Bo.lan, order as cluelessly as you can.)

As with every Thai restaurant with farang customers, spiciness is an issue. What separates Bo.lan from most others, however, is its refusal to water spice levels down to suit the customers. Instead, fiery dishes might be swapped for others more appropriate to a customer’s spice tolerance. “We don’t alter dishes to spice levels,” Dylan says emphatically. “We won’t do a tom yam without chilli. We won’t do a jungle curry without spice. If a dish is meant to be spicy, it’ll be spicy.”

This brings its own challenges. Take a customer who orders nothing but the spiciest dishes on the menu. If the restaurant suspects they don’t have the digestive fire-proofing to cope, it has a cunning strategy up its sleeve. The kitchen will send out, as an amuse, a particularly spicy dish. The reaction of the customer tells the kitchen if they’re likely to be able to cope with their mains. It’s the dish recast as sensory device. “Then we can say, ‘That’s not as spicy as these dishes you’ve ordered. Would you like to change your order?’” explains Dylan.

So now that Bo and Dylan’s old alma mater, Nahm, has come to town – a branch of Thompson’s restaurant opened at the Metropolitan in 2010 – are there more headaches on the horizon? “We’re just glad because we got into Bangkok before him,” Dylan laughs. “That’s probably our smartest move,” adds Bo. And is there any rivalry? “Our view is pretty similar to David’s,” says Dylan. “The more top quality Thai food there is in Bangkok the better it is for Thai food, the better it is for Bangkok and the better it is for this restaurant scene. Because competition means quality.” Let’s hope so; Bangkok expects.

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