Between a handful of high-end restaurants and a bustling street food scene there was a canyon of mediocrity.
Supply of quality ingredients was patchy and service, perversely for a culture that prides itself on its warm hospitality, was often gauche, even in the big hotels; the latter is still something of a problem, and may be one reason Michelin has taken so long to get to Bangkok.
But in 2009-10, Australian David Thompson opened Nahm on Sathorn Road, and his protégés Dylan Jones and Bo Songvisava started Bo.Lan off Sukhumvit, forcibly (and sometimes tactlessly) reacquainting Thai diners with their own culinary heritage.
And everything started happening at once.
Restaurateurs suddenly realized there was an untapped supply of locals and expats who were serious about good food, whether it was Thai or foreign.
Thai chefs, stung that an Aussie was telling them how to cook their own food, raised their own game in a spirit of healthy competition.
Some smart Western chefs, refugees from the recent economic crisis, showed up in Bangkok and began swapping ideas and inspirations with their Thai counterparts.
Into the Michelin-shaped gap stepped the mystery jurists of the World’s 50 Best operation, who started to notice that some of Bangkok’s restaurants were now offering just as much quality and inventiveness as the big hitters in Tokyo or Hong Kong.
Gaggan Anand, with his conceptual, molecular take on Indian food, has topped the Asian rankings for the past three years.
Which Bangkok restaurants are star-worthy?
So, who’s going to be on the list?
Nahm and Bo.Lan look like safe bets, as does Gaggan.
I’d also put a small wager on Sühring, a project by a pair of German identical twins intent on freeing their native cuisine from its stodgy reputation; Le Du, where the dangerously talented Ton Tassanakajohn seems to reinvent Thai food every few weeks.
For more traditional takes on local dishes, Issaya Siamese Club and Paste should also be quietly confident.
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon will get a nod, because, hey, it’s Robuchon, and he attracts Michelin stars seemingly without trying.
Le Normandie at the Mandarin Oriental and the venerable Blue Elephant should get some love for having been beacons of quality in the lean years when nearly everything else was a bit crappy.
Chinese and Japanese could be represented by M Krub and Sushi Masato respectively.
It’s not just about starched tablecloths, though.
One tendency of Michelin’s recent Asian guides has been to get down and dirty with more humble establishments, investigating the street food and holes in walls where real people eat.
And the Michelin announcement comes at a time when Bangkok’s legendary street food is back in the news again, with the authorities scrambling to rebut rumors that all traders are going to be swept from the sidewalks and placed in anodyne, Singapore-style hawker centers.
But even if there are carts left for Michelin to contemplate, some critics have argued that these ventures can be tokenistic, plucking a few decent places almost at random to represent a whole cuisine — certainly the proprietors of the starred outlets often seem to be as dumbfounded as anyone by their new-found fame (but not so shocked that they don’t remember to raise the prices).
It’s a fool’s errand to guess who’s going to take the honors here; I would have said Somtum Der, purveyors of an addictive spicy green papaya salad, but the restaurant’s New York sister earned and then lost a star of its own over the past couple of years, so maybe the advantage of surprise has been lost.
It also needs to be said that Thai street food isn’t the only humble cuisine being taken to new heights here. A nod for the Neapolitan pizzas of Peppina or the burgers at Crying Thaiger would be a nice touch.
Of course some of the choices will be perverse and plenty of armchair critics will say that Michelin has missed the point and doesn’t get Thai food and at least one chef will have a very public hissy fit at being excluded (which will probably get his restaurant more publicity than some of the places that earn a star or two).
But above all, a Red Guide of its own would help to convince the doubters and haters that Bangkok is a truly global city, worthy of being taken seriously.
Which is a good thing. Isn’t it?