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Roasted whisky duck breast with sweet and sour kale

"I want to dig deeper. I want to be the guy that moves things forward.” It’s Friday afternoon, just three days after 80/20, an old-school fine diner on Charoenkrung Road, ranked joint ninth in Thailand Tatler’s 2017 roundup of Bangkok’s best restaurants and executive chef Napol Jantraget is talking about his plans for the near future. He’s midway through introducing the restaurant’s summer menu—and he’s already hitting his stride.

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Napol and staff in a moment of concentration

First out of the kitchen was something simple: a refreshing green curry granita, served in a hollowed out coconut shell with chilled fermented prawn and cubes of coconut jelly. And now he’s picking things up a notch with a crab salad that resembles a zany cubist sculpture—thin shards of sour mango poke at skewed angles out of a base of local pak toon. Fortunately, it’s lurid looks are matched by some superlative textures and flavours: the moist and spongy, lettuce-like crunch of the pak toon marries well with the minced crabmeat and a shallow pool of piquant mango vinaigrette.

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Local crab salad with pak toon terrine

It strikes me that these dishes aren’t Thai fusions but rather bold and expansive forays into the future that contain echoes—some faint, others loud—of the kingdom’s culinary past. Napol, who is wearing a branded 80/20 cap, agrees. “Many people come here and say that the food is different—that it looks really new. But when they try it, they say it reminds them of this or that. For me, that’s proof I did something right.”

The 33-year-old believes his spirit of produce-driven experimentation—his knack for finding new ways of deploying old flavours and for innovating with reverence—can be traced back to his Canadian training. “I worked with a Portugese chef there who was really into the classic French stuff: the stacked plates, the red wine jus. But as well as making me learn the classics, he also encouraged me to find new ways of doing things.”

(Relevant: Thailand Tatler Best Restaurants 2017 Presents Top 10 Awards)

 As 80/20 nails its second year, Napol’s new way of doing things entails dreaming up a new menu every few months—and making as much inhouse as possible. In the far corner of the dining room is a glass pantry full of artisanal ingredients and works-in-progress. “We ferment a lot of stuff,” he says as he emerges brandishing a jar of nam pla. He unscrews the lid and lets us enjoy its smooth, salty, milder-than-expected scent. “I make my own miso and fermented prawn sauce, or nam goong, and I’m really into koji bacteria,” he adds excitably.

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80/20’s knickknack-filled dining room

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Preserved white prawn with green curry granita

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Executive pastry chef Saki Hoshino’s creative riff on rice

He’s also a sucker for unusual ingredients that have been neglected or not fully tapped yet. An example of this is a rendition of northern fermented pork, or naem, dusted with minced insects. “We fry, then grind, crickets to give them a thin crumble-like texture,” he explains. “It adds a toastiness to the dish, a nutiness that isn’t really there.” Providing an unlikely foil to the naem is a chamuang leaf sorbet, the bitterness of which has been reduced to a sweet, kiwi-like zing.

This is an adventure that doesn’t falter. As we enter the closing straight, the slim summer menu reveals yet more surprises. Among them is a crisp duck breast that’s served sans sauce, but doesn’t really need one, as its ageing in local Regency whisky for 10 days has resulted in a commanding gaminess. And there are two spectacular desserts by 80/20’s Nagoya-born and Canada-trained executive pastry chef, Saki Hoshino, including a many-textured paean to rice featuring rice balls and a fermented sticky rice ice cream.

Napol reveals that the six international brains behind 80/20, including Canadian chef de cuisine Andrew Martin, have designs on creating an all-singing, all-conquering hospitality company in the near future. Part of those plans include two new restaurants in the vicinity, one dedicated to the street food of Napol’s childhood, the other offering chef ’s tasting menus. The former is set to open in the next four months, he adds. And as for 80/20? “We’re hoping to raise the bar here a little higher than we have already,” he says.

Mixed Feelings

80/20’s bartender offers strong drinks and strong opinions

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Tanavut appears to have a bartender's secret

“I hate sweet cocktails.” In a city where most cocktails come mixed with tooth-tingling amounts of sugar, the opinion of 80/20’s Tanavut Kosolwongse is refreshing. And so are his drinks. A self-taught bartender who learnt his trade using books and YouTube videos, he works closely with the kitchen to ensure 80/20’s offerings don’t clash with the food. “They shouldn’t detract from what’s on the plate,” he says. His Sunburnt G&T is a very drinkable case in point. Infused with charred young pepper and burnt citrus and topped with fresh coriander seeds, its faint spicy kick throws you at first but soon settles down. It enhances, rather than overpowers, the flavours of the food. Cocktail know-it-alls take note.

80/20, 1052-1054 Charoen Krung Rd, Bangkok; 0-2639-1135; facebook.com/8020bkk

Tags: 80/20, Charoenkrung, Thailand Tatler Best Restaurants 2017