Photographs by George Apostilidis.
Travel, they say, broadens the mind and, in my case, unfortunately, it also broadens the waistline. Oh well, you take the rough with the smooth. I envy the kind of traveler for whom arrival in a foreign city means a run ’round the local park to blow out the cobwebs, or a workout in the hotel gym to restore the circadian rhythms, but that’s never going to be my way. No sirree. For me it’s a quick shower and a change of clothes, then a cry of “Taxi!” as I head for the nearest temple of gastronomy, with any luck in time for a serious, full-blown lunch.
Of course, if there’s a decent watering hole on the premises, so much the better. Saves time for one thing. Which is why it was always going to be love at first bite between me and the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s legendary grande dame hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya river. It has eight of them — restaurants that is — and that’s not counting the legendary Bamboo Bar, where Louis Armstrong and Mick Jagger have both hung out in their time, or the Verandah terrace, where I’m reliably told all of Bangkok’s really big deals are struck — usually on a handshake.
The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok is no ordinary hotel. Its history is palpable. Nijinsky danced here, Fabergé found inspiration for those famous eggs here, and Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward and just about everybody else who wrote, wrote here. Next year, the Oriental (as everybody in Bangkok still calls it) will celebrate its 140th birthday, but, until recently, a visit to this venerable hostelry was one of the great gaps of my traveling life.
A couple of months back, I was privileged enough to put that right. What was on the menu when I got there? What wasn’t! At Lord Jim’s — the hotel’s seafood restaurant, named of course, for the great maritime novel of redemption by Joseph Conrad, another devotee of the place — they do an iced shellfish tower with scallops, crab claws, tiger prawns and oysters, so pingingly fresh it makes anything you may have eaten in or around Boston look rather dreary by comparison. And their lobster thermidor cuts the mustard, too. The hotel, by the way, gets through 350 pounds of rock lobster — to say nothing of a ton of freshly squeezed orange juice every day.
Statistics come thick and fast at the Oriental. In the hotel’s Le Normandie restaurant (currently closed for refurbishment but due to reopen later this year), with its achingly lovely views of the “River of King”’ and often touted as the finest French restaurant in Asia, they fly in 700 kilos (or 1,543 pounds) of duck every year from France. That may not be ecologically sound, but as Chef Arnaud Dunand Sauthier is on record saying, “If you don’t have French products, you can’t make French cuisine.” That’s one argument I won’t be getting into — at least not here. All I will say is save a confit de canard for me, along with a Grand Marnier soufflé, because although, like Dolly Levi, I’ve stayed away too long, somehow, when Le Normandie reopens, I know I’ll be back.
A three-minute ferryboat ride across the river, housed in a sumptuous pavilion, the hotel’s Sala Rim Naam restaurant is where you come for exquisite Thai food — lavish lunches and exquisite dinners against a backdrop of classical Thai dance. True, crossing a continent and then an ocean for a green curry with Siamese eggplant, no matter how superlative, might be deemed aberrant behavior, but if so, I’m guilty as charged. I’m guilty, too, of overindulgence at the China House, another of the hotel’s restaurants, this one inspired by Shanghai’s Art Deco period.
But of all Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s myriad eateries, the one I lost my heart to was its most emblematic — the Riverside Terrace, with its famous “international buffet,” so unpromising a name but so extraordinary an adventure, with its Chinese woks and Indian tandoori ovens going full tilt, its Lebanese mezze, Thai curries, Japanese sushi and teppanyaki, salads, seafood, steaks, chops and desserts — ah, those desserts — all served up to the rhythm of a live jazz band, with a big heart and that most vital of ingredients, passion.
Of course, there are many hotels in the world with a slew of restaurants to call their own, situated on divine terraces and with illustrious guest lists as long as your arm. But few can claim to have been doing it quite as long as the Oriental, or with such pizzazz. Yes, belts will be worn a little slacker this summer, to misquote a line from “The Philadelphia Story,” but the memory of the Oriental and the joy of its cooking will stay long in my heart.