How Well Do Fine Dining Restaurants In Thailand Cater To Plant-Based Diners
If a meat-eating steak lover walked into a vegan restaurant and asked for beef tartare with all the trimmings then he or she may be told politely they have come to the wrong place. And if they phoned the day before and asked, they would be given the same short answer.
So, is it reasonable that plant-based diners should expect to enjoy the culinary services of the kingdom’s finest chefs? Or should they be confined for now to the (admittedly increasing in number) establishments that serve nothing but vegan food? Or is there a middle ground—a place where carnivores and herbivores can enjoy each other’s company in fine dining establishments while also enjoying a meal.
Let’s take it as given that dining at a fine restaurant is as much about the social side as it is about the food. Who does not want to pampered by the most knowledgeable wait staff, partake of the finest beverages and enjoy the kudos of dining within the domain of a world-renowned chef? These establishments are mostly not cheap and once seated surely one needs to feel that on the food side, one’s presence is being taken seriously, meat and plant-based diner both.
Over the past 20 months, since I stopped knowingly eating animal products, I have often sat patiently watching my fellow diners tuck into a full plate of seafood delicacies while I prodded at some vegetable fried rice. Or watched as a beautifully prepared meat or lamb dish, with an array of fine accompaniments, was enjoyed by others as I teased a selection of side dishes fried in olive oil rather than butter. Then watched as an egg and milk-based dessert followed by a selection of fine French cheeses was devoured as I tucked into a hastily put together fruit plate. I become less patient admittedly when the bill arrives and I am expected to pay an equal share.
As I do not have enough plant-based diners as friends as yet, I have therefore made it my standard operating procedure to dine with meat-eaters but to always phone ahead before setting out for a top restaurant to ensure that they will make a decent effort at putting something attractive on my plate too. Many restaurants when forewarned can pull out all the stops, others make a decent effort, while a few frankly should have been more honest and have said up front, "we really do not want you here." None that I have spoken to in the past few months have said you are not welcome, but I suspect that is more to do with not wishing to turn away a table of paying diners rather than a desire not to hurt my feelings.
This then is my experience over the past few months with 10 restaurants that I think might all be worthy of a star or a Tatler Thailand top 20 ranking. In all but two occasions I phoned well ahead and was assured that my diet could be perfectly well catered to.
First is Acqua Phuket by chef Alessandro. I dined with three guests who each took the non-vegetarian tasting menu. Acqua has a vegetarian set menu and the Chef created a plant-based tasting menu for me based on that (mostly removing the cheese). I could see in the open kitchen that he was as hard at work on my plates as he was my guests. The food was excellent; I hardly noticed any discrepancy in creativity and enjoyed the service from start to finish.
Star plant-based dish: Chickpea soup with sauteed spinach and spiced broccoli.
In Phuket I also dined at Age restaurant at Layan residences. This is a proud steak-based restaurant but I wanted to enjoy the stunning views and so I asked the hotel manager a day ahead if I could be accommodated along with my three guests. The answer, after apparently checking with the restaurant staff, was “no problem at all sir”. Sadly, it appeared that no-one had actually informed the chef and the best that could be offered was a buttered leek starter with olive oil as substitute. The main course was a choice of side dishes again with olive oil replacing butter. All in all, an expensive, disappointment for a plant-based diner. I should have been told they could not cater for me but then they would have missed out on the check from my three meat-eating guests.
Star plant-based dish: None. But go for the views and have a cocktail at sunset.
3/10 Blue by Alain Ducasse
Another restaurant with stunning views and a world-renowned chef's name on the door, this time in Bangkok. My guest took the seven-course tasting menu and I ordered the six-course vegetarian option that had been customised to vegan (I think on the night). It was a decent effort mostly but not very inspirational in all honesty and when an empty plate was placed in front of me, so that I would not feel left out while my guest ate his one extra course, it all seemed a little comical. My guest had recently dined at Blu and raved about his earlier experience. To be fair this is a restaurant that prefers meat-eating guests and puts all the effort into that experience.
Star plant-based dish: Nothing stood out.
80/20 offered a 10-course festive vegan experience last December and I took three guests—two from New York—with all four of us at the table eating the same menu. My guests, long-time vegan, raved about the food and claimed never to have enjoyed a better dining experience. It seemed to me that the kitchen team had split into meat and plant-based teams at separate ends of the kitchen. There was not a single dish that had left anything to be desired including the flurry of dessert dishes at the end. Truly remarkable. But do phone ahead as the menu changes with the season and not all seasons seem suited to vegetarians.
Star plant-based dish: Yum ank wa, which contained mung bean, banana blossom with coconut vinegar and more (currently not available a la carte).
Haoma in Bangkok, true to its Indian coastal origins, offers plant-based tasting menus. I mention here that the vegan menu is a little less expensive than the meat menu, as it should be, given how little the ingredients might typically cost compared to meats and cheeses sourced internationally. Chef DK admitted he loves guests taking vegan options as his markup is “astronomical” compared to the animal option—honest man. His 10-course plant-based tasting menu is imaginative and beautifully presented.
Star plant-based dish: Bhelpuri, which has coconut heart, peanut, tamarind and chervil with spiced basil.
Also in Bangkok, I dined at R-Haan recently with five guests. Thai food is made to be vegetarian with so many incredible spices and flavours, and chef Chumpol puts his heart into creating great looking plates. No complaints here at all. Meat and plant-eaters were treated equally in terms of quality of food and value for money and incredible service. There is always a vegetarian tasting menu on offer and with a day or two notice, chef Chompol and his team can customise that to fully plant-based.
Star plant-based dish: Five kinds of organic mushroom with chili dip.
Keller in Bangkok offers a vegetarian set menu. It contains some egg, milk and cheese elements, but if you inform the chef in advance, he may be able to customise more to plant-based. The vegetarian menu is as strong as the meat menu but for fully plant-based diners removing the non-plant elements from the vegetarian menu leads to a little loss of lustre. Keller is in a luxurious yet comfortable setting and has a strong offering of organic wines.
Star plant-based dish: Carrot, parsnip, green pea velvet dumplings.
Back to Phuket, I recently dined with two friends at Pru, the first starred restaurant on the island, housed in Trisara resort. They offer a simple five-course vegetarian menu which introduces new interpretations of traditional Thai cuisine, each plate beautifully presented. Again, phone ahead if you require a fully vegan experience.
Star plant-based dish: Trisara Forest, a fishtail palm tree and wood sorrel fruit salad.
Back to Bangkok again, Mia recently introduced a vegan tasting menu for the month of October which has been extended to year end due to popular demand. Here meat and plant-based diners can sit together at a table knowing that the chefs are putting equal energy into every plate that leaves the kitchen. I was told that one-third of diners are choosing plant-based, which perhaps shows where things could be heading in the future.
Star plant-based dish: Cauliflower three ways with grapes, bergamot and green curry.
10/10 Le Normandie
Let me finish with one meal that was prepared without advance knowledge to the chef. Chef Arnaud of Le Normandie invited me and my two colleagues, after shooting a video interview with him, to stay on for a quick lunch with his compliments. I thanked him but said I preferred plant-based dining these days. He said he would do his best for me. I stayed and enjoyed one of the most incredible set of four dishes over the next 90 minutes, with my colleagues also in awe, taking little tastings as they could not believe how good my food looked and tasted.
Star plant-based dish: All of them.
My main take-away from this is that market forces will eventually determine just how widespread predominantly plant-based dining becomes in Thailand’s fine dining scene. Right now, there is still some way to go. I have full respect for any fine dining venue that says honestly “thanks for asking but we would not be able to cater to a plant-based diner at this time”, and less for those that say they can but then make little effort to deliver. I can understand, too, that it is hard to turn away a booking for six diners when only one is vegan. But I do want those restaurants that accept a booking for a plant-based meal to at least make the effort to satisfy everyone at the table equally.
No doubt before too long a fully vegan restaurant will it make into Tatler Thailand’s top 20 or earn a star, to prove that Thailand is taking notice in the changing world of food consumption and restaurant dynamics.
Related: My First Year On A Plant-Based Diet