Longan-filled lobster topped with coriander and pretty pansies. Next to that, red curry ice cream tucked in a bed of foam. The waiter pours a pitcher of dry ice into the dish, and wisps envelope the table.
“Ooooh. Ahhh,” say the diners.
“Frozen Red Curry” (900 baht) is one of the dishes that first gained Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin its Michelin Star in 2018, which it retained the year after. Helming the restaurant located in Siam Kempenski Hotel are chefs Henrik Yde Andersen and Chayawee “Berm” Sutcharitchan, who draw upon the curious recipe of Danish inspiration and Thai cooking methods to play skip rope with the line between savory and sweet, frozen and liquid – all in a high-end setting of modern cuisine.
With price tags to match, the nine-year-old restaurant is an established favorite of loaded foodies and affluent tourists.
“As a farang, when I see Thai food, I don’t have a Thai mother or built-in flavours to defer to. I don’t go, ‘No, my mom didn’t make it that way,” Andersen said. “I’m free of tradition.”
Henrik and Berm
Andersen, 49, is credited with both earning Bangkok a coveted Michelin star and bringing inventive Thai food to his home in Copenhagen.
Andersen first experienced Thai food when he visited in 2000 – he promptly found himself crying at the spiciness of chili in Krabi. A 10-day vacation turned into five years of food training.
Back in Denmark, he opened Aroii Thai – a takeaway venture selling pad krapao and stir fries – before opening Kiin Kiin in 2006 in what is now the hip Norrebro neighborhood. Back then though, the area was the “slum of Copenhagen. I had to chase the junkies out.”
He substituted traditional Thai ingredients with Danish vegetables he could source locally.
“It was hard to be snobbish in the area,” Andersen said, even though he was trained in the French culinary tradition. “At a snobbish French restaurant in Copenhagen, someone can pay 10,000 baht a head for a meal, and still nobody’s smiling. I thought, ‘There’s something wrong with that.’”
Then one day in 2008, a man came into Kiin Kiin, ordered a table for one, and demanded to see the kitchen. Andersen protested, saying that the floor was too wet. The man took out a card, said that he was from Michelin, and the rest is history – Kiin Kiin received a star.
Andersen opened Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin in 2010, his only restaurant in Thailand after 17 Thai restaurants in Copenhagen. There’s unconventional fireworks, he admits, but one can’t build avant-garde dishes without mastering the traditional recipes properly.
“Authentic is good. But I also love to mess around a bit,” he said.
While Andersen visits Thailand about four times a year to gather food-spiration and oversee the kitchen, the man running the day-to-day operations is chef Chayawee “Berm” Sutcharitchan. Berm exudes a quiet, shy, hardworking humility.
In another improbable pairing, Berm studied Computer Science at Texas A&M University before switching his keyboard for a ladle. For eight years, he worked as a chef in several high-end Bangkok hotels until taking up the head chef mantle at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin in 2014.
“We want to give everyone a new experience. There’s a lot of authentic Thai food already. We want to be memorable,” he said. “Every dish has to be consistent.”
A Dip into the Lotus Pond
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin shakes up their full eight-course dinner seasonally. Their current Summer Journey (3,200 baht not including a 7 percent tax and 10 percent service charge), will take up a leisurely three hours.
It all begins with amuse-bouches inspired by street food snacks. The whimsical presentation is an engaging icebreaker: an edible plastic bag made out of algae filled with salted-and-sugared cashews, a bag of laksa hidden under fake sand, and a ceramic shell filled with tempura.
“Yellow Curry Cornetto” rolls yellow curry ice cream in a fried wonton sheet, while the “Magic Box” is a box of sesame seeds that the waiter shakes before guests pick out a salty soy meringue. The dishes play games with the salty/sweet boundary, but there’s nothing so offensive as to put off even those very new to modern cuisine.
The snacks close with a traditional miang kum leaf wrap with passionfruit and pineapple, wheeled out on a cart and wrapped by a chef before you.
“For a foreigner, this dish is crazy. It’s salty, bitter, sour. There’s nothing I can do to improve it,” Andersen said. “A meal is like a movie. If it’s too serious, you’ll fall asleep. There needs to be some action, some set changes.”
The presentation of dishes is adventurous enough to cause some dinner table buzz. But to a local tongue, the zesty extremes of Thai cuisine may taste sanded off into inoffensive five-star hotel fare.
That potential anti-climax is captured by the first main: a bowl of hot tom khlong spicy tamarind soup, which comes with a syringe for piping tofu noodles. Fun, but not a mouthgasm. The soup is served with a grilled lobster head and prawn cracker.
Next, halibut ceviche is marinated meticulously according to an hourglass in front of you, before being served into passionfruit cups topped with cotton candy. The server spoons passionfruit sauce over the cotton candy, which melts over the fish to form a sweet glaze. Dry ice is poured over the plate, decorated with lotus blooms.
The impressiveness slightly dips over the next three courses. The “Squid Krapao” consists of egg yolk circled by squid and fried holy basil. Sure, it reminds one of kra pao, but in this case the artistic representation fails to temper a longing for the real thing. The “Larb Duck Salad” is a slightly bland, regular larb, save for some foie gras fattiness and confusing cucumber spheres. The “Sea Bass with White Five Spices, Fennel” has exquisitely cooked fish – but is the white foamy sauce, smelling of only star anise, enough to top a regular palo soup?
Next is the degustation’s most divisive dish, capable of making one either love or hate Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin: a deconstructed tom ka khai consisting of a half-sphere of chanterelle mushroom flan in a lake of coconut milk and coriander oil, served with a chicken skewer.
Thankfully the desserts are lovely. “Flowers of Thailand” is a delightful butterfly-pea ice cream on a bed of crunchy jasmine foam, while “Leaves of Thailand” serves three blocks of ice topped with ice cream made from yuzu and kaffir lime, oolong tea and earl grey, and pandan and pistachio.
You’ll have to hunt for your petit-fours – chocolates shaped like chilies, black and white pebbles, and cinnamon sticks come served to you mixed with the real thing. Good luck and hope you don’t bite into one!
Stars in Thailand
Although certain expats saw the arrival of Michelin stars in Thailand as corrupting some culinary essentialism, Berm said the rankings spur him to self-improve.
“It really woke me up. I was motivated to be more creative, and to make better dishes,” Berm said, smiling. “The pressure is the most intense between getting the first star and retaining it for another year.”
“Over the last decade, lots of young Thai chefs have been experimenting as well, not just cooking exactly what their teacher told them,” Andersen said.
For Andersen, inspiration often starts with street food, and he continually roams the city looking for ideas. But the chef understands that the street cooks ladling the city’s best pad thai aren’t just a touristy backdrop – it’s grueling work on the roadside for the people actually performing it.
“It’s not cooking from the heart. They’re helping their parents work very, very hard, living hand to mouth, day by day. Their sons and daughters aren’t going to take over that hard labor,” he said.
One solution he sees is the creation of hygenic, orderly facilities that gather renowned street food vendors into one spot – similar to hawker food centers in Singapore.
“That sustainable development is what I want to see, not more and more people eating at 7-Eleven,” he said.
Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin is open everyday for lunch from 12pm to 3pm and for dinner 6pm to midnight. It’s located in Siam Kempinski Hotel, right behind Siam Paragon and reachable on foot from BTS Siam.