It was back in 2018 when I first came across the name Sorn at one of the dinner events I’d gone to with a bunch of well-travelled foodies. They sounded so excited that they finally got a booking at Sorn: one would fly in from Tokyo, another one from New York, and a few from Europe too. I said I would pass this time since Sorn wasn’t a name I recognised from Michelin or the World’s 50 Best list, and making a big trip for a southern Thai restaurant… nah. Then a year later when I was planning a trip for the Michelin launch event in Bangkok, I received a list of “must-go” restaurants in Bangkok from my local restaurateur friend. Sorn was at the top of the list. My immediate thought was a panicked one – how could I get a booking especially when I was only there for 3 days? After some Google work, I realised that there wasn’t even an official website and all I had was a local phone number; no one picked up the phone, and even if they did, I would have struggled with the language barrier. I knew I was up against a challenge and wasn’t setting my hopes too high. Well, at this stage I assumed there was no choice but to carry on with my trip planning.
I arrived in Bangkok – still without a booking at Sorn – but the Michelin announcement day was the turning point because Sorn was awarded a Michelin 2-star (which made it even harder to book but even more important on my “must go” list)! The chef went on-stage for a speech and I knew this was the person to talk to at the post ceremony reception. I indeed managed to get a hold of him and got his Instagram; he asked me to send him a message to let him know when I wanted a booking, but also mentioned he couldn’t guarantee anything. After doing that and waiting for a day, there was still no reply so I had to trouble my restaurateur friend to give Chef Ice a call. It worked! I received a reply to confirm my booking. Of course, I rearranged my prior eating plan and freed up my eating slot for Sorn without hesitation.
I discovered Chef Ice’s background through this culinary experience – he had grown up in southern Thailand, studied in the UK, and loved the flavours of food his grandmother cooked so much that he wanted to share it with the world. I was quite surprised when the taxi dropped me off at the location. Contrary to what I expected, it wasn’t a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, it was a small luxury mansion. The first impression I got from the dining room décor, the serviceware, and the long tasting menu on the dining table was that this was a proper fine dining experience.
On that day, there was a big group on the ground floor, a few more tables upstairs, then us on a table right at the entrance area (which I suspected was an extra one set up just for us). I realised they don’t serve many diners each day, and this explained why it was so hard to score a booking. Chef Ice was actually onsite during lunchtime. He came out to greet us and said all he needs to know is if we have any food allergies and our preferred spice level (Southern Thai is known for very spicy food), and that he will take care of the rest. We were immediately excited and knew we were in for a treat.
Chef Ice explained a bit more about the menu while he was there. 99.9% of the ingredients in Sorn are from 14 regions in Southern Thailand and they use clay pot, a traditional cooking technique, to cook most of the food. In his Michelin speech, he said he cried when he witnessed farmers in the South burning excessive mangosteen because there wasn’t enough demand in the local market. Meanwhile, many restaurants in Bangkok were paying lots of money to import ingredients from Europe. I can see why he was so against using foreign ingredients.
The experience was greatly enhanced with his presence as he was like a lecturer explaining the background of each dish with a backdrop of a map of Thailand on the wall next to our dining table. He kept his serviceware as traditional as possible, including a course served on banana leaf. I get his philosophy… it’s not a meal to showcase luxury ingredients, it’s not a meal to demonstrate modern techniques, it’s not a fusion cuisine with western ingredients, it’s simply home-cooked Southern Thai food using local ingredients, cooked at its best, and nicely presented.
From salad to seafood to dessert, every ingredient was carefully cooked. You could savour the flavour of the turmeric and coconut curry, the juice from the crab claw, the richness of the lobster head tomalley, and the tenderness of the grilled beef; This restaurant is not just about storytelling, they can actually cook, and did so amazingly. I have to say this was a very aromatic meal as well… ginger, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, sun-dried fish, shrimp paste, stinky bean, and the lovely hint of charcoal from the clay pot rice, all heightening the tasting experience along with rustic plates with colourful patterns which played into the traditional presentation. Encountering ingredients that are rarely found in fine dining is always fun: jackfruit, mangosteen, pomelo, longan, sweet potato, palm sugar, dried date, condensed milk, molasses, the list goes on and on.
In summary, enjoyable is an understatement to this meal. They had the great story of using single region ingredients, they created an elaborate 20+ courses tasting menu, they assembled an experienced kitchen team who cooked traditional food very well, they had a beautiful house with a top-of-the-line wine cellar installed, and behind it all is this passionate young owner and chef (probably in his early 30’s at most), Michelin 2-star chef, educating us about southern Thai food.
This restaurant certainly has all the elements to be very famous, if it is not already, but something that I found mind-boggling as I walked out from the restaurant was how someone at such a young age, have the experience and financial resources to create a world class restaurant. I mean, it takes lots of fine dining experience to know how fine dining should be done, and he really got every aspect spot on. What I later found out from my various sources is that when he was in Europe, he was well travelled and well fine-dined. Pretty much all the top restaurants that I could name, he would have been to, and multiple times. So money doesn’t seem to be an issue. He got back home and wanted to start a fine dining restaurant. Of course he must have done lots of research on ingredient sources and is very intelligent in order to create and deliver a world class dining experience. I am sure he will continue his success – it is definitely a place that I will revisit, if I can get a booking again that is!