by Margaux Salcedo | First Class, Philippine Daily Inquirer | 29 May 2022
There are dining experiences that are just impossible to replicate at home, no matter what fancy kitchen tools you invest in. One of these is the exemplary Thai culinary experience that is Benjarong.
Benjarong is now on the ground floor – at what used to be the lobby cafe – of Dusit Thani Manila in Makati. The high ceiling allows for good ventilation and the very socially distanced seating comforts germophobes like myself to take off our masks to eat. After two years of quarantining, a sense of space is now also a sense of security for diners!
This has always been my favorite Thai restaurant in Manila with its consistently excellent delivery of classic Thai cuisine but equally impressive and worth a try today is the Möet-paired degustation menu by resident Chef Ja which gives traditional dishes an elegant modern touch.
Chef Watcharaphon Yongbanthom or Chef Ja hails from Chiangmai and often gives a nod to her hometown in her menu but she has also honed her culinary skills at the kitchens of the Bangkok Marriott Resort, Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok, Golden Tulip Mandison Suite Bangkok and at the Shangri-la Rasa Ria Resort in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. A master chef in her own right, she was also a Guest Chef for Iron Chef Thailand.
She brings her A game to the restaurant’s 8-course tasting menu that is paired with champagne! And there is much to celebrate as each dish honors tradition and Thai culture while showcasing the chef’s keen understanding of fine dining in the cosmopolitan world.
You are welcomed with – what else – a flute of Brut. If you go for lunch on a hot day, this is just perfect to settle down.
This goes perfectly with the amuse bouche of Pha Pla, a dainty cone of tuna salad with just a dabble of ginger, herbs and lime to wake up your senses, laid out on a gorgeous tuile that piques your curiosity. “Can you eat this? What is it made of?” “Coconut, apparently!”
It truly is a perfect bite, in which the chef definitively says, “Welcome to Benjarong.”
Once you have relaxed, she takes you to Chiangmai and introduces you to Northern Thai cuisine with Sai Oua or northern sausage made of pork cheek, pork tenderloin and pork belly. Also on the plate is a slither of pork belly that very much resembles chicharon and an adorable popsicle of sticky rice. You are to eat the aromatic sausage with chili paste and the sticky rice, as they do in Chiang Mai. A beautiful ode to her hometown by the chef, taking the guest to the streets of Chiangmai while feeling like a king of the Lanna kingdom as the sausage is paired with Möet Brut!
You are then eased into the salad course that is duck and herbs in a little basket. But what makes an impression is the watermelon sherbet this comes with. It does not come in a glass but in the shape of a miniature slice of watermelon. Then on top there is a sprinkling of dried snakehead fish, as appreciated by the locals of northern Thailand. It is not only refreshing but also a wonderful conversation starter, introducing us to the gastronomic culture of Thailand to understand how they balance salty and sweet.
The soup is, of course, Tom Yum. This version is the Tom Yum Pu Ma Prao On. The chef is keen to explain that the soup base is pure coconut water seasoned with coconut milk, lime juice and chili paste. It is made indulgent with balls of crab.
The next course is Panaeng See Krong Kae. This is lamb rack with rice noodles in a red curry sauce. This is just enough to wade you through before the main course Khao Phad Tom Yum, a gorgeous and heavy river prawn served with tom yum flavored fried rice.
After that crescendo, you are offered a pre-dessert called Ka Nom Tom, a ball of coconut with palm sugar inside. And then as a final note, the chef serves something that is quintessentially Thai: mango. But this is no ordinary mango. I-Tim Ma Muang is mango ice cream: i-tim seems to be a phonetic translation for ice cream while muang means mango. Again, this is not served in a cup but it arrives encased in white chocolate that is made to look like a green mango. And when you bite into it, the sweetness of the white chocolate against the gentle tart sweetness of the mango is just the perfect ending to this elaborate degustation. This was paired with Nectar Imperial of Möet & Chandon which is a beautiful note even on its own.
If you have not yet had the courage to leave your house and are looking for where to begin, this Benajrong experience comes highly recommended for a celebratory splurge. It has the flavors of royalty, the warmth of home, the cultural experience of destination travel, the safety measures you can expect from a five star hotel and, with this menu, the delight that always comes with bottles of bubbly.
Truly a five star experience. Champagne cheers!
Benjarong at Dusit Thani Manila. Call +63 7238 8888 for reservations.
For this degustation, 2 days notice is required. There are options for champagne pairing and wine pairing. Wheelchair accessible. Major credit cards accepted.