The entrance on Charoen Krung Road is fairly typical of a two-story shophouse: naked concrete walls, a simple entrance, and a doorbell. The only obvious indication that this isn’t just somebody’s home are the three golden letters S.D.C. — Small Dinner Club.
On the ground floor, Small Dinner Club sports a moody, dark setting with funky Isaan music in the background. Upon entering, you’re asked to wait for all 12 visitors to join for dinner at 6pm. Once everyone has gathered, the staff show diners to the second-floor dining club where they are seated by nametag. The staff hand a piece of paper filled with clues and inspirations for the dishes and encourage everyone to discuss them as the meal progresses.
Like other fine dining establishments in Bangkok, it’s all about redefining concepts and creating a stage for something familiar to become something special. At the Small Dinner Club, owner Sareen Rojanametin takes this seriously.
“There are many local ingredients that people may overlook or even try to avoid,” Sareen said. “What I’m attempting to do here is to give them a proper stage where they can shine and to give you all the courage to try something new.”
Most of the dishes served in his 13-course experience only give diners a tiny hint of what they actually are, and even upon serving, names and appearances can be deceiving. A dish called Crying Tiger, for example, arrives in a charcoal tart-like dish with herbs. Too Many Italians, Only One Asian is recognizable as a pasta dish, but it’s not pasta.
“It’s just like how designers make a new font,” Sareen said, crediting his creative background in Melbourne where he worked for several years as a photographer and art director at an advertising agency.
“Normally they adjust the design of the existing letters to appear more sleek and modern. We are trying to compose brand-new letters to create our own food language and expand the boundaries of what we can create. Here, at the Small Dinner Club, we simply start with the question of ‘why’ and then ask…‘why not?’”
The dish draws references from Sareen’s first cafe-slash-restaurant in Melbourne’s Italian district of Nora.
“Our cafe was somewhat of a black sheep compared to other Italian places, so we wanted to do something outrageous, something extremely Thai, but still had a bit of nostalgic sense of comfort food that everyone can understand.”
Apart from its appearance — thinly sliced greenish “pasta” and crunchy toppings — the dish is totally different, with a fresh but pungent tang and consistency of som tam.
“There is nothing Italian about that dish. In fact, what you’re tasting is a condensed combination of Thai ingredients. You might say it’s authentic Thai pasta,” Sareen said. “It’s about digging deeper and taking a step back from our identity and asking ourselves what it means to be Thais.”
His other dishes follow similar concepts. The tom yum, for example, is divided into three theatrical parts, dubbed Looking at Tom Yum Prawn from Far Away Part I-III. The first section sees the obvious flathead lobster shell with vegetables; the second and third parts barely relate to tom yum at first glance: an ice-cold orange cake, sour but with spicy kicks, and green nam kaeng sai (Thai shaved ice) with a grassy flavor and succulent egg yolk.
Equally fun is the Daft Punk is Playing in My Mouth dish. The plate arrives at your table covered in powdery white snow and a ruby red rectangular shape with what resembles Japanese tuna. The snow is unexpectedly fiery, and the red substance underneath is sweet, a contrast of spice and ice.
Another music reference is the Crying Tiger. “It’s actually the title of the song from a Thai band called Apartment KhunPa. Its lyrics capture the experience of how many Thai-Isaan people have to leave their hometown to settle their lives in Bangkok. Most of the ingredients I use for the dish are from Isaan: pork jowl and wild sweet herbs. I want to prove that something often overlooked has much more meaning than it appears.”
The aesthetic appeal here also lies with how diners get to share their thoughts about the food. Since different guests have their own unique references, the overall experience helps people understand one another.
Asked if food descriptions spoil the experience, Sareen said that surprise may be part of the fun, but the major appeal of Small Dinner Club is still the food itself.
“We don’t want to make food in the same way as design for design’s sake. At the end of the day, the purpose of a restaurant is to serve delicious food that satisfies the belly.”
1109 Charoen Krung Road, Si Phraya, Bang Rak
Open 6pm-11pm, Thursday through Sunday