In charge of Bangkok’s first beer pairing fine dining restaurant, the good people at Upstairs Mikkeller Bangkok have a difficult task at hand. Namely, how to get the beer enthusiasts that frequent the downstairs Mikkeller Bangkok beer bar to head upstairs for a 10-course fine dining experience, and convince Bangkok’s food enthusiasts that fine dining doesn’t equal wine.
Up for the challenge is Chef Dan Bark. A Korea native who grew up in Chicago, Dan Bark spent some five years under Chef Curtis Duffy, first as a stage at Avenues (now closed) at The Peninsula Chicago, where they received two Michelin stars. A desire to open his own restaurant brought Dan to Bangkok that same year.
Using local and imported ingredients and a great dose of technical skill, Dan Bark creates innovative and often surprising flavour combinations.
“The world is so small now and with technology you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it. We want to support local produce but I am not going to be limited by that. If I can get amazing beef from Japan I will get it from there. If I can get great seafood from Denmark I will get it from there. We don’t put ourselves in a box.”
The chef’s no-holds-barred attitude shines through in the first dish, a celery root dip topped with salmon roe, pickled shallots, lemon curd and toasted baguette. A somewhat rare find on Bangkok menus, the celery root is a welcome change and the addition of toasted baguette and salmon roe gives the dish texture and a refreshing saltiness.
The next dish, a flavour and colour explosion in the form of taro custard with truffle vinaigrette, pickled mushrooms, beer poached pear, taro chips and shaved root vegetables, follows the same unconventional route.
It is evident that Bark has spent time in highly professional kitchens. Despite having traded a fully equipped Michelin-star kitchen in the middle of Chicago with the back room of a converted town house in a quiet residential street in Bangkok, he is able to churn out highly complex dishes using the latest technology.
The potato leek soup is a prime example. At first sight perhaps a simple, classic dish, the process that goes into its making is anything but.
“A lot of people cook the potato, milk and leek together and blend it – but then you get lumpy, fibrous soup,” says Dan. “If you use the core of the leek where it is really pungent and you steep it in the milk and strain it out before cooking the potato in it, you get this silky, luxurious soup. So we go that route. It takes extra steps and extra time but it is worth it.
“Then we blanche the top of the leek, blend it in ice-cold water to shock it and extract the chlorophyll, then we strain it to remove the fibres. To make the purée, we thicken the resulting bright green tea with Ultratex, which is a modified tapioca starch.”
The result is indeed pungent and luxurious, helped along by a generous helping of shaved parmesan, lard and bacon strips.
Few would realise the amount of work that goes into the potato and leek soup and, not one to blow his own trumpet, Dan is probably one of the chefs in Bangkok with the most technical skill and the least recognition.
The two regularly have customers asking for wine. “People surprisingly think they know wine better than beer,” Jakob says. “A lot of people see wine as the sophisticated choice, but whenever we have done training or tasting events, people really don’t know about beer.
“They think it is something yellow, foamy and fizzy that you drink on the beach or at a football match; it is something you hydrate yourself on. So the biggest problem is people can be open-minded to wine because they think it is more complex when in reality, beer is a lot more open than wine can ever be because you can add more ingredients.”
A good example is the Spontancassis lambic. It is paired with a duck consommé, which, using an old-fashioned coffee siphon, is for a brief moment mixed with lime peel, kaffir lime leaf, coriander root, mint, chilli, ginger, lemongrass, fennel seeds, star anise and Thai long peppercorn. The blackcurrant in the beer gives it a fruity and slightly sour taste to complement the herbaceous flavour of the soup.
“Would we pair it with Heineken or Leo?” asks Dan Bark. “No, because that is not a fine product to me. It has to be a fine product and to be a fine product is when someone is willing to give their life to it. Just like I’m willing to give my life for my food. I don’t care about hurting other people’s feelings – the most important thing is putting out the finest food that I possibly can.”