My $750 dinner: why it was worth it

I rarely eat dinner out, and even more rarely do I eat at “fine dining” establishments when I’m at home in Melbourne. This is due to a number of factors, including a husband who works evening shifts. But mostly, it’s because I don’t feel I get good value. I come away thinking I could do better at home for a fraction of the price. Or, I feel the food is too fussy, too rich, too laden with oil and sauces.

I’m not talking about your cheap and cheerful eatery that provides tasty and filling food for a few dollars and to which you go for a quick meal, not a big night out. Melbourne has a plethora of these wonderful establishments, as food blogs such as Consider the Sauce show.

I’m talking about a full-on restaurant at which you sit for two or three or more  hours as a social occasion. For a two- or three-course dinner for two with wine in Australia, where wages are some of the highest in the world, I would expect to pay $Au 150-300*. And usually, at the end of the night, I would arrive home thinking, “It wasn’t worth that”.

So how is it that, on my recent trip to Thailand, I was happy with a bill of 24,000 baht (about $750) for dinner for two at the Lebua Hotel’s Sirocco Restaurant at the Dome on the 63rd floor of the State Tower building? Well, just check out the view, for a start (CLICK on the image to get the full view and caption):

The spectacular view from the Sirocco restaurant and its Sky Bar. Image courtesy of Lebua Hotels and Resorts

They claim to be the highest rooftop restaurant in the world.

A colleague said to me the other day “I would never pay that much for dinner, no matter how good it was—in fact, it couldn’t be that good”. I want to address here some obvious reasons against paying this much for one dinner:

  1. Yes, of course the money would be better given to charity. But I work hard, pay my taxes at home, recycle goods and redistribute excess wealth.
  2. This is just another example of western capitalist decadence. Well, decadence, anyway, since there were plenty of Thais and other non-westerners there. Yes, agreed, but it provides work for a lot of people, including live musicians. I think it’s only decadence if you do it all the time.
  3. You should never pay this much for dinner on principle. I know, and I agree, most of the time…

But not this time. I can say without a doubt that $750 for dinner for two at Sirocco was worth it.  At the end of the night, I knew it would be a location I would remember forever.

The view from our table. Picture by Gordon Dann

The photographs don’t do it justice: the open-air restaurant on the 63rd floor has panoramic views of the enormous city of Bangkok, which extends in every direction as far as the eye can see. I have spent years of my life in this city, but never have I viewed it this way. It’s truly breathtaking and one of the most impressive sights I’ve ever been confronted with. In keeping with the theme of this blog, sitting at a table on the 63rd floor, I rediscovered a city I thought I knew well, because this view gave me a completely different angle on it.

We started with a dozen Tasmanian Pacific oysters au naturel and dips at a hefty 2480 baht ($75). This is probably at least twice as much as I’d pay in Australia for the same, and the irony that I was eating these Australian oysters in Thailand did not escape me. However, I can say that these particular oysters were the best I have ever eaten. How can that be? I don’t know. Perhaps it was something in the air over Bangkok that night.

We opted then for the six-course chef’s tasting menu, which at 4500 baht a person ($140) was reasonably priced for what it was. Although it was nouvelle cuisine, it wasn’t overly fussy, tiny or otherwise ridiculous. The fusion of Japanese and Mediterranean influences worked seamlessly. So, simplified slightly from the menu, this is what we had, each course delectable and each served by impeccably trained staff who were attentive without being fussy or over-bearing:

Cured salmon cannelloni, sesame, lemon gel

Alaskan diver scallop with squid ink sauce and ossetra caviar

Porcini risotto

Chilean seabass with white miso, seaweed, and candied walnuts

Wagyu beef sirloin with porto sauce and confit of pork belly

Mint brulee, chocolate crumble and sorbet, meringue

The food was 11,480 baht ($380), the drinks 8590 baht ($268), leaving 3930 baht ($123) for service charges and VAT.

So, let’s say we would have to spend an average of $200 for two people for dinner at a fine dining restaurant in Melbourne— more for a degustation menu. Typically, this might be somewhere with no view, good food but indifferent service. Was Sirocco four times better than that? Yes it was.  Thus, it was worth it and I rest my case.

* All $ values are in Australian dollars.

The Lebua Hotel in Bangkok by day. Sirocco is just below the dome.

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Travel theme: Liquid

A rainy day on Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai

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In response to Where’s My Backpack? blog’s call for entries on the theme of liquid, here’s a picture I took a couple of weeks ago on Doi Suthep, the mountain 16km from Chiang Mai. It’s most famous as the location of the historic temple Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, but this picture was taken at the entrance to Phra Tamnak Phu, the royal family’s winter palace, about 4km from the wat. It’s free to visit the beautiful gardens that surround the palace. When we arrived, it was overcast, but as we neared the end of our walk, suddenly—in that familiar tropical style—there was torrential rain. After about 10 minutes, it stopped long enough for us to make a dash for this row of shops at the entrance, and shelter there for another 15 minutes while we watched as sheets of water hit the pavements.

In keeping with the theme of The Crayon Files, such a heavy but short-lived downpour is typical of life in the tropics and reminded me of the many I was caught in when I lived in Thailand in the 1990s. I’ve waded through floods in central Bangkok, been stuck in traffic jams for hours and hours, and been given a lift home on a motorbike down roads so flooded, I had to tuck my legs up by the seat. There was an old house opposite my apartment in Sukhumvit Soi 11 then, and it always flooded in the wet season, looking like a house boat floating on a lake. It was one of the last remaining traditional houses in the area and the land would have been worth a fortune. I guess it has gone now. Here’s what it looked like (unflooded) then (photos taken from my balcony):

Back to the present and Phra Tamnak Phu: here are some shots of the gardens, taken a few minutes before that rain started:

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The way we pack


Here’s my little bag all packed for my return to Thailand, October 28-November 11. I say “little bag” because what I travel with these days is much smaller and easier to get around with than in the days of those big, shallow, oblong suitcases. When I arrived in London in 1998 with an enormous bag and then had to travel on the Tube at rush hour, I vowed I would never again travel with a bag I couldn’t manage on stairs, escalators and the street.  I see so many people, though, who are still travelling with enormous bags. The old advice to “take half the clothes and twice the money” as you think you’ll need is the best I’ve heard. Even so, my bag weighed 11kg going and 12kg coming back. Can I get it down to 10 next time?

Note: that’s not a book in my case (I travel with a Kindle). It’s a pencil case and it holds my mini art kit (see my previous post on Chiang Saen for a picture).

Travel theme: Mystical

This post is in response to this week’s challenge from the blog Where’s my backpack?, which you can link to here.

We woke on the last morning of our stay at the Golden Triangle, near Chiang Saen, Thailand, to find the view from our hotel balcony obscured by thick fog. So thick was it that most river traffic stopped, though a few brave (aka foolhardy?) souls were still plying the waters, sounding their horns as they went. 

The fog gave the place a mystical, otherworldly quality, a totally different view to the one we had woken to at dawn the previous day, which looked like this:

With fog or without, this is an enchanting area to spend a few days. From the delightful and aptly named Serene Hotel, where we stayed, and which seems to be the only hotel on the river in this village about 7km from Chiang Saen. One of my aims while we were away was to do a painting on location, so here is my effort:


I’m relatively new to painting, having taken it up early last year. I loved art as a child, but never quite knew what to do and was never able to get my ideas successfully onto canvas. Now, I paint most nights. I travelled with a miniature art set, including an ingenious and tiny watercolour paint set, which I housed in a pencil case:

 

Introducing The Crayon Files

I’m Caron Eastgate Dann, a writer, journalist and academic based in Melbourne, Australia. This blog investigates rediscovery, from old books to childhood hobbies, from discussing favourite recipes to travelling back to favourite destinations. It’s not a nostalgic trip down a clichéd memory lane, however: rather, it will discuss how aspects of the past can be very much part of the present and can be integrated with new media and 21st-century ideas. I started thinking about this a few years ago when a technician was doing some work on my computer system. I asked if I needed a new modem, because the one I had was quite old. “Actually, it’s fine,” he said. “Not everything old has to be thrown away”.

If you’d like to know where the title The Crayon Files comes from, find out here.

Back to Bangkok

Bangkok, 1992: the infamous Asok-Sukhumvit  crossroads. Lane upon lane of cars, trucks, motorbikes turning in, turnout out, turning all about, it seems. No crossing lights or lines for pedestrians, no indication of how one should get across the seemingly impenetrable traffic ocean. But I have done this many times before since moving to Bangkok in December 1990, and I know just how to go about it. As I ready to step off the curb, a plaintiff Irish voice sings out, “How the be-jaysus do you get across here?” I laugh and say simply, “Follow me”. And he does. Like the Red Sea parting, as we step out into that rabble, it somehow makes its way round us, and we arrive, miraculously unharmed, at the other side of the road.

Bangkok, 1991: view from the Tara Hotel, Sukhumvit Soi 26/1

Cut to Bangkok, 2012: the infamous Asok-Sukhumvit intersection looks as daunting as it did 20 years ago. Only now, I am viewing it from above, serenely gliding by in air-conditioned iciness on the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System) Skytrain. It’s my first trip to Bangkok in 11 years, though I passed through on my way to Phuket in early 2005 to report on the aftermath of the tsunami.

Bangkok 2012: view from the Landmark Hotel, Sukhumvit

The skytrain and other transport systems completed since 1999 have changed not only the face of the city, but the nature of what it is to live in or even just visit Bangkok. There are walkways everywhere now, up to stations and across major roads.

The trains are packed night and day, but Thais are ever polite, making way for others, giving up seats for those they deem might need them, and allowing people to exit the train before they enter. And even if you don’t have anything to hold on to, it’s hardly necessary, the ride is so smooth. In a week of catching trains all over the city, I saw no drunks, no thugs, no menaces, no rude people, no graffiti, just people going about their daily business. At 20-40 baht per ride, the train is not cheap for the average Thai (though it is cheap compared with public transport in Australia), but it certainly beats any other mode of transport across the city.

There is also a quick, efficient and cheap train service from Suvarnabhumi International Airport. However, there is a major problem: you will need to connect with a BTS or other train in the city, where most stations don’t have elevators or escalators, and you find yourself having to lug your bag up and down flights of stairs in the heat and humidity. The BTS has been much criticised for the lack of disabled access. So if you are elderly, unfit or in any way disabled, you’d still be better to take a cab.

And if you have a child in a stroller or pram, you’ll need to be travelling with another adult to manage. This hasn’t changed. Another memory I have from the early 1990s is on Sukhumvit Road, a major shopping, apartment and hotel area, when I came across a young English woman with her baby in a pram. She was standing on the curb, crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I’ve just moved here, and I just can’t see how I’ll ever get across this road”.

While I note that the landscape of the city has changed markedly in the last 20 years, and that you can readily buy western food and drink such as a cappuccino or a British sausage, in essence, Bangkok has hardly changed at all since I lived there in the late 1990s: I was still addressed as “Sir”, a term of respect, interchangeably with “Madame” (pronounced in the French way); my rudimentary street Thai was still needed to negotiate prices and times and to give street directions; the smells of lemongrass, fried garlic, basil and chilli still competed with nameless less pleasant ones; goods for sale in the markets looked like the same ones that had been on sale in 2001 or 1991.

There is one major change to daily life that I noticed: that is, I hardly walked on the streets. I used to walk everywhere from my apartment in central Bangkok, because taxis and tuk tuks were too slow. I knew every shop, market and clean toilet within a 3km radius.

This time, from the skytrain whizzing along Sukhumvit, I saw with pleasure that the small tailor’s shop where I used to get clothes made from 1997 to 2001, Mr Lucky’s, was still there. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go in: I was too busy going other places fast. Last time I was there, the proprietor, Mr Lucky (naturally), had recently been back to India to marry a bride selected by his parents. I hope his life has lived up to his name, and that perhaps I will have time to drop by next time I am in Bangkok, which, I vow, will not be as long as 11 years from now.