It began with the best kind of phone call: a random one. In late 2015, Garima Arora was in her third year of employment at Copenhagen’s Noma, then widely considered the world’s number one restaurant, when her phone buzzed. On the line was someone she’d heard of but never met: Gaggan Anand, the progressive-rock loving wunderkind of molecular Indian cuisine, was calling from Bangkok. “I honestly thought it was a prank call,” she recalls with a grin, “but we ended up having an hour-long conversation in which he said he’s looking for somebody for a project in India; he shared his ideas, I shared mine and we kind of clicked.”
A year and a half on and Gaa, Arora’s debut “modern eclectic” eatery, is up and running in a stylish, stripped-down space just across from Gaggan’s restaurant—and bookings flying in thick and fast. Initially he had wanted her to helm a restaurant in Bombay but, for a litany of reasons, it fell through—and Arora, who hails from Mumbai and, prior to Noma, trained at Le Cordon Bleu Paris and worked at Gordon Ramsay’s Verre, is fine with that. “I was kind of glad Bombay didn’t happen,” she says. “It just didn’t make economic sense to open a restaurant there at the moment, not the kind that we were planning to do anyway. Meanwhile, Gaggan had this space here and some ideas.”
And just how involved is the molecular maestro? “Gaggan has absolutely zero input,” she replies, a tad irritably. He’s apparently the hands-off sort of backer, happy to let her and her pan-global team of 27 staff get on with it. “He came in once when it was under construction but I haven’t seen him since.” But while it mightn’t owe much to the restaurant opposite, Gaa does, by Arora’s admission, owe a lot to the restaurant that most shaped her and her cooking. “The flavours are not Noma, but my training is from that restaurant and there’s no shying away or denying that fact. I proudly wear that badge.”
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Indeed, the neo-Nordic influence is writ large. Right at the start of our 12-course tasting menu meal, a chef appears holding a bowl of organic young corn. He then proceeds to explain its origins and how best to eat it. Not long after, he appears again, and this time sets about explaining that the twist on a traditional Indian cracker in front of us comes topped with crayfish, pomelo, cilantro flowers and “an extremely rare fruit from the border with Laos that chef found on her travels.” He adds that “we now have local farmers sending us all of them.” And so the chef as eloquent host schtick, something that Noma devised and popularised, repeats.
Another Noma hand-me-down is the juice pairing option. Glasses of a slightly earthy strawberry kombucha (fermented tea) or a not-too-sweet nam krajiab (roselle juice), among others, are served in three- or fivecourse options and their arrival timed so that you sip them between bites of certain dishes. But surely most Noma-esque of all is the approach to ingredients and the alchemy Arora and her team perform with them. “Nothing— NOTHING—is imported,” she explains, clearly echoing Noma’s world-famous penchant for foraging and sourcing very close to home. “We also make everything in-house. We make our own garums, our own ferments, our own nam pla, our own butter. We’re not making life easy for ourselves, that’s for sure.”
While some Indian influence has trickled in, such as the way they ferment and churn butter, Gaa’s dishes are rooted in the here and now, particularly the seasonal Thai produce plucked from plain and mountain in the north and northeast. “This menu tastes the way it does because we are smack bang in the middle of Thailand. If I was making it in India or anywhere else in the world it would have been completely different.” Currently the most clearly Thai-influenced dish on the menu is a take on kanom la, a melt-in-the-mouth snack from Southern Thailand. A caramelised web forms a light, crisp taco shell around a piece of fresh-grilled grouper—to delicious, softcrunchy effect. Another substantial dish, the sous-vide pork ribs, come rubbed in peaso, or fermented peas, and topped with a layer of diced onion, pomegranate glaze and coriander. Dessert is currently a scoop of butter-smooth jaggery and coriander seed, tumeric and toasted safflower, or beeswax and wild honey ice cream served in a toasted whole wheat, black sesame or bee pollen cone.
There is still some way to go here before Arora’s mastery of Thai ingredients and ambition for them find a happy equilibrium, but then this iteration of the menu, by her admission, “barely scratches the surface.” She hopes to create disconcertingly different yet delicious fare, and within strictly locavore parameters—no mean feat, even for a local, let alone someone still finding their feet within a new country. “When was the last time you tried something for the first time? That’s what excites us in the kitchen,” she says before passing on much of the credit for the ingenuity on display to her team. “Leaving people with an ‘Oh, this is good, but what is it?’ kind of feeling is what we’re all about.”
Gaa, 68/4 Lang Suan Road, Bangkok 10330; 09-1419-2424; fb.com/gaabangkok
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