It may all feel a little cloak and dagger at first, walking down the narrow back streets of Chinatown toward POTONG restaurant, among the random knick knack shops, gold and gem stores and skinny men with burly strength throwing enormous parcels onto the back of dusty 4-wheelers and determined women in weathered aprons rolling steel trolleys that narrowly missing your toes! It’s probably the most thrilling and alive you’re going to feel of late, since most of us haven’t gone beyond our couches and neighbourhood cul de sacs since the various lockdowns in Bangkok.
POTONG artfully integrates into Chinatown-backstreet scenery, surely the impression is grand but it’s former glory is reflected subtly and respectfully into its surroundings. The same could be said for the entire restoration project. 5 floors of magnificent architectural design and craftsmanship. Not to bore you with the details but an undertaking such as this takes time – almost 3 years in fact – among passion and commitment along with a healthy and robust budget.
Not without its authentic roots, the lineage of Chinese descendants who worked and resided in this iconic Chinatown building are none other than Chef Pam’s, Chef and proprietor of POTONG, ancestors. Chef Pam is a Thai-Chinese-Australian and 4th generation of Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine producers (中草药制造商 – zhōng cǎo yào zhì zào shāng). Her mission has been to restore and revive this family institution, to keep age-old methods, traditions and memories alive.
Starting from the open entrance and ground floor is the 100 year old Chinese medicine dispensary-cum-POTONG SINO Bar, then up to the second floor main dining room where Chef Pam serves her Progessive Thai-Chinese cuisine, supplemented by an duck aging and fermentation room with shelves lined with jars, alive with organic substances soaked in golden-hued liquids.
On the third floor is a dimly lit room, heavily draped in burgundy and a shrine portraying 8 hidden tigers plus a quaint patio, fit for private aperitifs. The fourth floor features, entirely of one illustrious bar opposed by leather-lined banquet seatings and is aptly named OPIUM BAR which pays homage to its past – you guessed it – a place where people would lay on day beds and smoke copious amounts of opium when it was still legitimised.
The most superb floor awaits at the very peak (don’t worry they have a lift) and one that makes me anticipate the country’s reopening, just so I can show it off to visitors like it’s my own little secret. The rooftop is where Pam’s past relatives would congregate to socialise and enjoy the glorious view and one could only imagine being right there amongst them; star-gazing, smoking and sipping on homemade brew. Suffice to say, the dream should soon become a reality, and guests will be able to enjoy the rooftop with crafted beverages supplied by the OPIUM BAR.
But we came here for the food didn’t we?! The feat of this project and sublime beauty of the building deserved it’s long-winded introduction and frankly, one could simply come to enjoy a drink and bask in all it’s glory without dining but that would be a shame considering it’s the beating heart of POTONG.
Chef Pam’s cuisine is indoctrinated by a 5-ELEMENT philosophy, “Salt, Acid, Spice, Texture, and Maillard Reaction”, from our personal experience it’s as if umami came to town with a bunch of other really cool friends.
Written into a postcard written by Pam to her ancestors lies the answers to the menu storybook. Over 17 courses, Chef Pam guides you into a world that is her own but the taste may trigger a self existence in a different time and place. Especially if that place is somewhere in Asia and that time ‘before’, was when the old corner store snacks was the center of your culinary universe or your family would serve home cooked meals on mismatched floral ceramics and communication was done at the table verbally and not through symbols on touchscreens.
That’s not to say Pam’s interpretation of Progressive Thai-Chinese food could not be understood by others without a nostalgic connection to Asian cuisine but in-fact could open up a whole new world of foreign and exotic tastes unlike in the past or even in the present.
The meal begins with ‘Dear’, Kombucha chocolate balls which emulate oranges or mandarins, an auspicious Chinese fruit, in this case, POTONG hang the sweet and refreshing treat delicately on a plant’s branch which diners receive the plant, soil, pot and-all to the table. It was a perfect citrusy and bitter sweet start to the meal.
The following ‘great great’ bite was among the stand-out items. Pam relays to us that the lamb, charisu with honey is inspired by ‘salabao’, a Thai-Chinese bun typically filled with veg and meats and a part of almost every school kids diet, in Thailand and China.
Then came Chef Pam’s version of Chinese Corn Soup, the ubiquitous yellow soup ingrained into every Chinese menu except Pam’s corn mousse aesthetics imitates a creme brulee using all parts, from “husk to silk”. Crack the thin sheet layer to reveal a premium treat, pieces of black truffle. Gentle, creamy, custardy, this dish is delicate and mildly sweet but not disregarding the signature kick of Chinese white pepper.
Interestingly titled ‘Thai-Chinese’ was one of the most refined dishes which felt more French than the rest but still very much in Asian theme. A “Catch of the Day ” plate, Chef Pam serves a Silver Pomfret, grilled oh-so succulently and delicately and served alongside fermented bok choy, fresh sea grapes, fermented radish shrimp paste and mala sauce. To me this dish is one which best represents her 5 Element philosophy best, “Salt, Acid, Spice, Texture, and Maillard Reaction”, the toasty Pomfret being the Maillard component but most elements embodied more than one element.
Another dish or more a bite true to the 5 elements form was the ‘Sacred’. The street cart grilled squid egg on a stick was once commonplace in Chinatown and the streets of Bangkok but with the world evolving comes the scarcity of these old skool favourites and this sacred-foods theme carries on throughout the POTONG experience, like the pillowy salted plum dessert inspired by the hard and shrivelled dried plums some of us spend our adolescence licking and taking tiny bites with clenched sour-faces.
Show-stoppers, designed for show and tell and also for exotic taste is the ‘Forgotten’, inspired by a Chinese Black Chicken dish which soup is revered for its antioxidant properties while the chicken itself is tasteless and often discarded. Chef Pam turns this dish on its head by making the night-black chicken complete with claw, the star! The Black Chicken Chinese Kombu is cooked to tenderisation with double digits of herbs and spices and served along with a “koa dom haeng” which is a dry rice soup, an oxymoron in itself, that’s cooked in a pork’s bladder with charcoal powder.
This dish along with the grand dessert finale, an elaborately designed miniature set made from transparent acrylic representing the streets of Yaowarat’ or what we know as Chinatown Bangkok will be destined to become the most instagrammed and talked-about for foreigner visitors but apart from Chef Pam’s Progressive Chinese-Thai creations of 5 taste elements, it’s the extraordinary 5 sensory experience which makes PATONG truly majestic.
422 Vanich 1 Samphanthawong, Samphanthawong District, Bangkok 10100
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