“Opening a restaurant in Bangkok is easy—no worries,” says chef Alessandro Frau as a plate lands on our distressed wood table at La Casa Nostra. It’s a bold statement that would seem arrogant, big-headed even, coming from a greener chef. But Frau—neat stubble, short pony tale, an endearing Italian lilt—has restaurateur chops: for years now he’s been the chef owner of one of Phuket’s most popular restaurants, Acqua, a sleek white, upscale Italian where guests devour steaming guazzetto and handsome ravioli while eyeballing the Andaman sea. “If you can succeed in a tough market, you can succeed anywhere,” he explains while adding a dash of balsamic to my bresaola salad, “and Phuket is a lot tougher than Bangkok because of the seasonality—there are over six months a year when you have very few customers.”
One can hardly begrudge Frau a soupçon of self-satisfaction. La Casa Nostra—his first Bangkok venture, and probably not his last— is fast establishing itself as a choice spot to enjoy affordable wines, and even take some home with you if the mood strikes.
And it looks the part, too. If Acqua is, to steal a phrase from it’s website, “trendy without being gratuitously chic,” then this understated yet spacious wine bar, occupying a converted house on Soi Goethe, is rustic without being gratuitously hipster. While there is cast iron cutlery, handmade glassware and tables that have that ubiquitous salvaged wood look, there’s not, thankfully, an over abundance of exposed brick or statement- making, vintage-style light bulbs. “We wanted the general ambience to have that rusticity and everything that’s tactile to feel authentic and unique,” explains Marc Bittner, La Casa Nostra’s other partner.
Bittner, it transpires, is an hotelier and sommelier with a sideline—he runs boutique wine importers Global Vineyards. As a result, the mark up on all bottles is only 500 baht, even the eye-wateringly expensive ones, he insists. In the wine cellar by the entrance, you can browse the bottles, most of them old world, as a sommelier tells you about each vineyard’s eccentric owners or terroir.
They also offer an impressive selection by the glass, one that changes weekly thanks to something called the Coravin, a revolutionary machine that uses a needle to extract wine from a bottle without popping the cork. “The goal is to get people experiencing something they wouldn’t have normally,” he says. “This evening we’re offering a 1998 Saint Émilion by the glass, for example, which is something you don’t find in too many establishments.”
How does food fit into this convivial equation? Pretty neatly. On the day of our visit, Frau’s head chef Nino Scognamillo, himself an accomplished talent with stints at Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Kitchen and Union Jacks under his belt, rustled up a preview of the Christmas specials. The general theme: rustic simplicity executed with carefully-curated artisanal ingredients, most of them imported, and a clean-lined modern touch. There was a picture-perfect bresaolo salad, its thin, dark- red slices of salted beef dressed exquisitely with slivers of pear, parmesan flakes, balsamic and caviar. The swordfish carpaccio with orange slivers and fennel was equally stunning, as pretty as it was packed with flavour. Other highlights included a pumpkin ravioli in a rich caciocavallo cheese sauce, and swordfish tagliatelle with saffron.
La Casa Nostra’s early-doors popularity— “On weekends we’re getting 80 or 90 people a night. It’s crazy,” says Frau—begs a cynical question: can it last? Bangkok diners, for all their hard-won cosmopolitanism and open-mindedness, are a fickle bunch—Insta- gramming the life out of their pasta one week, off checking out some other flavour of the month the next. But Frau is adamant they know quality when they taste it, and have the appetite to boot. “Phuket residents, especially Thai ones, don’t eat out like the ones in Bangkok do,” he says excitably, with clear relish for what the new year might bring.
La Casa Nostra, 22 Sathorn Soi 1 Yaek 2 (Soi Goethe), Bangkok; tel: 0- 2287-2402
The Italo Christmas: What do picky Italians eat on this special day?
Christmas in Italy is celebrated much like elsewhere, albeit with lots of solemn religiosity as well as hearty regional food that reflects the season and the environment. Think pastas in hot broths and, of course, roasts. “We do pork roasts, veal and, of course, we do turkey,” explains Frau. “In Sardinia, where I’m from, we also do suckling pig...it’s all about big roasts that you can have with the famiglia.” And at La Casa Nostra? Here, the Christmasy feel will reach its apex with two dishes worthy of mamma’s spread: a turkey breast with parma ham, saffron mash and a black truffle sauce—“We roll it and bake it in the oven,” he says—and a porchetta, or pork roast, with wild mushroom stuffing, sautéed friarielli and garlic.