Dining out in Bangkok

As aquaculture industry executives prepare to descend on Bangkok next week for the Global Outlook for Aquaculture Leadership conference, held 30 October  to 2 November, attendees may be looking for local seafood restaurants where they can taste their way into Thailand. The three we highlight here range from grocery store-like operations to fine dining establishments, though seafood is as readily available from the carts of street vendors selling whole, fried pomfret as it is in restaurants.

A meal at the Seafood Market in the Khlong Toei neighborhood is mandatory, if only to explore this novel concept and how popular it is, both among locals and visitors to the city. Opened 35 years ago, the 1,500-seat restaurant's slogan is "if it swims, we have it." That's exaggerating the truth more than slightly — the day we visited there were 37 species of fish on display, each one priced per kilogram and laid out on ice as if in the seafood section of an American grocery store.

Diners troll the long row of iced seafood pushing a cart, select the species they want to consume and have restaurant staff cut the portion sizes they desire. Adding the raw fruit and vegetables they want to accompany their meal — including ready-to-stir fry packaged veggies — they head to the cashier for the first of two payments for the meal. We paid THB 277 ( USD 9.23) for two soles and a plate of stir fried vegetables, before anything was cooked.

The amount of the second payment varies between THB 80 (USD 3) and THB 140 (USD 5) depending on how you want your seafood and vegetables prepared: Broiled, deep fried, grilled or steamed, and according to the portion size you selected. The market operates separately to the kitchen and many locals come just to purchase seafood and prepare it at home.

It may sound an odd way to operate a restaurant, but the Seafood Market attracts between 600 and 1,000 diners each day, meaning its kitchen staff of 80 is kept pretty busy during its hours of operation, 11:30 a.m. through 11:30 p.m. daily.

The day we visited, species on display included snowfish, Maine lobster, cuttlefish, sole, tube squid, silver pomfret, black boned trevally, halibut, grouper, red snapper, rock lobster and freshwater prawn. There were cockles, mud egg crabs, baby clams, oysters and sea cucumbers, many displayed before large tanks containing live fish. Prices per kilogram range from THB 250 (USD 8) for shrimp cakes to THB 1275 (USD 42) for live grouper, with lobster the priciest at THB 2850 (USD 95) and halibut and sole averaging at THB 345 ($11). Reservations are recommended, call (02) 261-2072 or www.seafood.co.th/. The restaurant is located 4 miles from the Shangri La Hotel Bangkok.

For a more intimate dining experience head to Sukhumvit's Soi 11 district to Melo Kitchen & Lounge, a 40-seat eatery with a Mediterranean-fusion culinary focus. The one-year-old restaurant owned by Stanley Chun Wong is a sister restaurant to the highly popular Seven Seas Restaurant. Just over half the menu consists of seafood, including black tiger prawns, river prawns, silver pomfret, mud crab, sea bass, mackerel, salmon, tuna, scallops, crab and shrimp. The atmosphere is casual and contemporary, and the main strip nearby, a favorite among tourists, is a great place to see vendors selling all sizes of fried, flavored bugs and bars operating out of renovated VW vans.

Melo succeeds by using Thai ingredients for authentic flavor in dishes reminiscent of its location, but less intimidating. Among Chef Tony Egger’s dishes is prawn pad thai; stir-fried mud crab with poached pear and tuna sashimi with soba noodles, to name a few. "We're trying to combine Western and Thai dishes with a fresh, healthy approach," says the restaurant manager.

Located opposite the Villa Market, Melo is open daily from 5 p.m. to midnight and is 4.2 miles from the hotel. For reservations call (02) 6510137 or visit www.letseat.at/melo.

For a fine-dining seafood experience, Lord Jim's restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel is the place to be. The 136-year-old hotel is one of Bangkok's jewels, an opulent establishment with a strong sense of austere tradition and a dress code not to be messed with. The weeknight we arrived a violin quartet played classical music in the lobby and massive baskets of flowers hung from the 30-foot ceilings.

Lord Jim's is located in the River Wing of the hotel, which opened in 1977. The 120-seat restaurant, named after a seafaring character in one of Joseph Conrad’s novels, has a 16-meter aquarium as its centerpiece and a “waterfall” light consisting of imported crystals. Open for lunch and dinner daily, its seafood buffet lunch is a popular choice. There’s a Japanese and salmon counter serving gravlax, smoked salmon, sushi and sashimi, and a hot buffet offering grilled Asian blue river prawns and fish and crab dumplings. Cold compositions include carpaccio of silver snapper and poached white sea prawns. One of its menu highlights is the iced seafood tower, consisting of rock lobster, tiger prawns, a selection of sushi and sashimi, fish tartar, oysters, mollusks, crab claws, scallop ceviche and smoked salmon. The restaurant is less than half a mile from the Shangri La Hotel. For more information, call (02) 659-9000 or visit www.mandarinoriental.com.


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