At Bo.lan, the chefs will pleasurably force you to focus on the moment by nailing you in your seat, pulling you into the dinner with your tongue, and flying you from one height and experience to the next. Knowing even a little Thai food history, you quickly recognize that your trip goes not only from flavor extreme to another, but north to south, street to palace, ancient historic food to childhood to now. If you visit Bangkok, you must eat at Bo.lan.
What stands Bo.lan apart from most other Thai restaurants is the care and attention they put into all they do. Their recipes and menus are selected, developed and tested after deep research. Their flavors shine because they make everything, like curry paste, from scratch. Many of their ingredients are adventuresome and unique.
Bo.Lan was started by Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones, partners in life and in kitchen with a deep love of Thai food and food history. Trained in Western cuisine, Bo became interested in Thai cooking during her stay in the UK. Dylan had already knew how to cook Thai food before he met Bo. To further his knowledge in Thai cooking, he took up Thai lessons so that he could research Thai food.
A prix-fixe menu is 1,680 baht per person, roughly $56USD. In Thailand, this represents the top of the range for Thai restaurants, similar to French Laundry type pricing in the US when compared to the average national income. Dinner for two would be comparable to a half month's wages for an average Thai.
At the surface level, Bo.lan takes obvious pleasure in engaging of all the senses; sight, smell, taste, texture and mouthfeel. Each dish was creatively plated and paired and had challenging, dynamic flavor combinations. The scent alone let me taste the dish even before it reached my mouth. Where Bo.lan delivers also on the deeper meaning of the food and its place in the Thai cuisine, a great meal becomes a true shared experience.
We chose the prix-fixe menu because the variety was broad and deep and it allowed for substitutions so that we could try a dish with one of our favorite ingredients, stinky beans. Below is a chronicle of our 3 hour dining experience. While it might look like the entire menu, it was actually one prix fixe meal. Yes. One meal.
The appetizer course proved their pleasure and creativity in exploring unique Thai ingredient couplets and combinations. The main courses proved that they are sourcing their dishes in Thai history extremely effectively and creatively pushing the boundaries of those dishes, always being respectful of the ingredients and the flavors. The desserts showed the precision and play of their execution.
Our pre-meal started off with rice wine with black Chinese keys (believed to be an aphrodisiac), served with sour fruits; green mango, Thai sour olive (madun) and Christ's thorn (มะม่วงไม่รู้หาว มะนาวไม่รู้โห่) Most Thais associate Christ's thorn with a folktale (พระรถเมรี). In the story, a giantess, disguised as a beautiful woman, marries a king and lures him to get rid of her competitors by asking for the fruit to save her life. Christ's Thorns, much like Crab Apples in the west, are traditionally never served in a restaurant, let alone found at markets. Kudos to the chef to try it and serve it with the traditional peppered salt (salt, sugar, chili pepper). These fruit took me back to my childhood when I roamed my grandparent's 2 acre garden picking and eating from random trees, like Christ's Thorns, at will. The liquor was a harsh, strong, spicy, somewhat crude flavor that awoke your tongue. With a cleansing followup of the sour fruit. It was such a strong shock that just a few sips and nibbles, my taste buds were ready.
Next to the table were an assortment of cocktail sized appetizers and snacks. Tong pub is a crunchy crepe made with flour and spices, folded as the Thai name suggests. Tong pub can be sweet or savory. This tong pub was savory with the kaffir lime leaves aroma.
Kow yum was hot like how Southern food should be. It was a bit too hot for me. I love Southern food but cannot always stomach the heat.
Rose apple with hot dip: The rose apple was cut creatively to show the beautiful pinkish texture. The sweet and crunchiness of the fruit contrasted with a hot and mushy dip to make a great combination.
Shrimp Salad with Sour Mango: The two main ingredients, shrimp and sour mango have similar texture but different flavor. The mango was extremely sour, complimenting sweet shrimp. The shrimp and young lotus root salad that came in a spoon had a great balance, flavor and mouth feel. The texture and flavor of the soft shrimp was perfectly balanced with crunchy lotus root. I only got a spoonful but I wanted more.
Gang Khii Lek served with pickled mustard: The young leaves and blossoms of cassod tree (khii lek) are so bitter that you must boil them to get rid of the the bitterness before cooking. Bolan gang khii lek was right on target with fragrant curry paste and creamy coconut milk. The bonus was the pickled mustard. I have not seen pickled mustard accompanying gang khii lek; pickled shallot was more traditional. It was an interesting combination between complicated taste of curry and a rather simple pickled mustard.
Stir fried prawn with stinky beans (sataw- a key Southern ingredient), cha-om and pickled garlic: Because of just the right combination of the different ingredients, this dish was a star of the night. Stinky beans taste similar to cha-om (Thai acacia) but they complimented each other and combined together like the wall of sound. I had stinky beans stir fried with prawn but never stinky beans, cha-om, clear noodles and pickled garlic. The sweet pickled garlic compliment the nutty, strong flavors of sataw and cha-om. The prawn was cooked just right. When I think of our meal, this dish, and the grand desserts were the stars.
Stir fried pork and morning glory with shrimp paste and dried shrimp: We didn’t order this dish, but it was one of the core prix fixe dishes. The server made a mistake when we were substituting different dishes. The dish didn't stand out or compliment other dishes.
Lohn goong Jom (small fresh water shrimp pickled in salt, cooked rice for a few days): the pickled shrimp is cooked with coconut milk and shallots. I was impressed with the depth of selection of assorted vegetables (edible flowers, Thai eggplants, winter melon, chayote shoots, string beans, white turmeric) that accompanied the dip. Each vegetable was very Thai and represented the type of preparation care and high quality that you only get when you don’t worry about economies of scale. You simply never see this breadth and quality of assortment in a Thai restaurant setting.
Tom klaong is one of my favorite dishes that my mother makes. I love mine loaded with herbs and spices (lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, dried chili peppers, holy basil and sawtooth corriander). The dish is seasoned with tamarind and fish sauce. At home, we use far more tamarind, so I found that the tom klaong at Bolan is not as sour as I prefer.
The grandest courses of all must be the presentation of sweet snacks and desserts at the end of the meal. Our main courses ended with mango and lychee with sprinkled jasmine, a surprising combination. Jasmine's sight and scent iconically represents everything and anything Thai. From weddings to daily activities like scenting hair or drinking water or giving offerings to monks to funerals Jasmine plays a special role in Thai life. Consuming the desserts with my eyes and tongue while jasmine perfumed my nose tripped me into the unique experience that is Thai history and culture.
The mango, I was told, came from Rachaburi Province. The last tree of its kind, praya lauem foua, not a common variety. The fruits were served with a traditional dipping mixture of salt, sugar, ground chili pepper and accented with seville orange zest. The zest pushed the dip up a notch taking what's familiar and giving it a nice twist.The sweet and cold dessert followed (tub tim grob). Tub tim grob came with gayasart (another great play on texture and mouth feel!) The tiny pieces of Chinese water chestnut were covered with food coloring and tossed in tapioca flour. The cooked flour turns them clear, giving out pinkish appearance similar to ruby and pomegranate. Tub tim grob is refreshing and crunchy while gayasart is filling and dry.
Bo.lan's gayasart is one of the best I have ever had. It is light and crispy with an ideal texture. Gayasart is made with crispy rice (sticky rice), rolled rice, peanuts, sesame seeds, sugar, honey, sugar cane juice (per my mother, if you want it light and crispy, use sugar cane juice instead of sugar). Traditionally, it is made for a Thai holiday, when offerings are made to monks in honor of the deceased, at the end of the 10th month on Thai lunar calendar- around September.
Then a tray of sweet snacks appeared, served with home-brewed tea. The grand tray was so beautiful at first you just want to eat with your eyes. The snacks included Thai candy, kanom chun, fried banana, gluay guan, fruit gelatin (woon), sumpani, rice cracker, fresh fruits (rose apple and guava), and sweet basket (Sita's basket - Sita as in Ramayana's Sita) with jasmine. The jasmine fragrance and the gorgeous snack arrangement were such a treat. I felt like I was a kid again eating an infinte plate of sweets.
This was the April-July 2011 menu, which is now over. That having been said, Bo and Dylan have proven themselves to successfully deliver interesting, sophisticated, creative traditional Thai dishes in a dynamic and challenging format. While your dishes will be different, you can be assured that you will find consistency in the capabilities of the chefs to challenge and delight you.Bo.lan Address: 42 Soi Sukhumvit 26 (Pichai Ronnarong Songkram) Klongteoy Bangkok Phone: 02 260-2962Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays 6pm - late, dinners only, closed on MondaysGettting There: Take BTS(SkyTrain) to Prompong Station, take taxi to Sukhumvit 26. Go straight until the road turns left. You will see the Four Wings Hotel at the turn. Then turn immediately right. The restaurant is right behind the hotel.