If a memorable meal is all about contrasts then Gaggan Anand – perhaps the world's most celebrated Indian chef – couldn't have chosen a better spot for his eponymous restaurant.
Like much of Bangkok, Langsuan Road is a minefield for pedestrians. I stroll at a deliberate pace, trying not to sweat all over my frock as I dodge food carts, note warning signs about bag snatchers and, finally, spot a break in traffic and dart to the other side. I've spied the discreet blue sign at the entrance of the soi (or side street) that houses Gaggan. I follow a couple dressed in their finery up the dead-end street and stop, mouth agape, when I reach the fine-diner that takes much of its inspiration from Indian street food.
It turns out the restaurant, which has topped Asia's 50 Best Restaurants list for the past two years, is a thing of great beauty. Gaggan sits within a whitewashed, colonial-style, double-storey timber house sporting two ultra-modern additions. Diners enter via a glass-walled walkway that's more avant-garde art gallery than restaurant. My eyes are also drawn to another see-through addition that resembles a glasshouse. The natural light still flooding in at this early hour illuminates the second-storey tableau: an enticing scene of dark-suited staff bustling around early diners. "I want to sit there," I think to myself and, as it turns out, I do. This new dining space, known as the lab, opened in August and it looks nothing like the rest of Gaggan, which is all white wicker chairs and high ceiling fans. The lab isn't the chef's table – that's downstairs, separated from the main kitchen and the multicultural culinary team by a large glass window. Rather the lab, with its freeze-driers, is where Anand carries out experiments in the same molecular vein as his one-time mentor Ferran Adria.
Twelve diners, including American honeymooners and a pair of Melbourne sisters, are assembled at a U-shaped table bent around the lab's stainless-steel benches, watching sous chefs prep the first of 18 courses. The first 10 – labelled "bites" – must be eaten with our hands.
The introductory dish, pickled cherry soda, signals the fun that infuses the entire Gaggan experience. Thrust into a tiny bucket of ice is a single pickled cherry and a test tube of cherry-flavoured soda. Two gulps and I turn my attention to what's next: namely, Anand's signature "yoghurt explosion". The sphere of spiced yoghurt sits on a silver spoon, looking as fragile as a just-poached egg. There's nothing for it but to tip the entire slippery bite into my mouth and wish there was more than one.
Bite No. 3 is "edible plastic spiced nuts" – a package of nuts that you consume, plastic bag and all. "It's supposed to dissolve in your mouth – if it doesn't, blame them," jokes one of the staff, hoiking a thumb at the chefs.
The bites keep coming – the uncooked curry cookie and pork vindaloo are standouts – and eventually the mad scientist himself rolls in. Anand, it turns out, was stuck in Bangkok's infamous traffic so he abandoned his car and ran. At least the pony-tailed 38-year-old is in the right footwear – a pair of favourite Onitsuka Tiger sneakers from Japan – for pounding the pavements. After switching the lab's music to a soundtrack that swings from Eye of the Tiger to One Night in Bangkok, he gets busy whipping up smoke to accompany the first of our dishes-with-utensils, the cryptically named "charcoal". When we lift the smoke-filled glass domes from our plates, what's revealed indeed looks like an inedible lump of charcoal (it's sea bass and potatoes).
It's a pleasure to watch the master at work at this close range as he tweezers tiny mushrooms and leaves into place on his magic mushroom course. When Anand notices the leaves abandoned on my plate, he reassures me they're edible (I feel like mum has just urged me to eat my greens).
It's impossible to pick a highlight – not when you have Anand standing before you whisking powdered tomatoes into a comforting soup in a humorous play on the Japanese tea ceremony. And who wouldn't smile as a stack of tiffins is unpacked to reveal chicken kofta curry, minced lamb masala and rice, with naan bread on the side.
Anand has announced he'll close Gaggan in 2020 to move to Japan. Foodies who want to see what all the fuss is about in Bangkok should take a (slow) stroll to Gaggan as fast as they can.
Gaggan serves dinner nightly, with sittings from 6pm and 9pm. The 18-course degustation – known as the Gaggan Experience – costs 4000 baht plus a 10 per cent service charge and 7 per cent VAT (about $180). Online reservations must be made at least a week in advance.
Gaggan is at 68/1 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini, Phathumwan, Bangkok. Phone +662 652 1700. A taxi ride at peak hour can be excruciatingly slow; it's smarter to take public transport. It's a 10-minute walk from the Chit Lom BTS Skytrain station and a two-minute walk from the 174-room Hotel Muse. See www.hotelmusebangkok.com
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Gaggan