By Kaye Estoista-Koo
Back in 2014, a popular website came out with a list of top 10 best places for Thai food in Manila. This 2017, old favorites like Benjarong Dusit Thani continue to be on the list.
Pinoys have that love affair for Thai food, where phad Thai from resto one is pitted against phad Thai from resto two.
Benjarong, with a colorful 15-year history inside Dusit Thani, has seen many a Thai restaurant come and go and, this last quarter, it will itself experience some kind of a makeover. While Benjarong never really closed, they are calling this month’s event a reopening. That is because from its location on the mezzanine floor, Benjarong can now be experienced on the ground floor, located to the left side of the lobby as you enter.
Top bestsellers like chicken curry, pomelo salad, catfish salad, phad Thai, tom yum, and mango sticky rice retained their place on the menu. With Benjarong’s updated looks, however, also comes an updated feel to the menu.
General manager Bruce Cristol calls it menu engineering. They reviewed the menu from top to bottom. Coming from two years experience in the existing Benjarong on the mezzanine floor, Watcharapon Yongbanthom or Chef Ja, 34 years old, is now the Thai chef de cuisine. She was notably a guest chef in Iron Chef Thailand 2014. “We wanted it authentic, even with the new look and new menu of 45 dishes,” explains Chef Ja. “We had to see which ones were bestsellers.”
Other bestsellers like lapu lapu fish, grilled beef salad or yum nuer, tom tah kai, tab tim grob or a dessert made from water chestnuts, and khanom tako (a top dessert awardee) made it back as well.
Chef Ja clarifies that while everything will be new and the presentation will be more modern, “it will still be authentic.”
Cristol is excited with the possibilities of having such a young Thai chef de cuisine leading Benjarong. “The usual Thai chefs are in their 50s, 60s,” he says. “She is just 34, looks 25, but has worked for 13 years already and with Iron Chef Thailand.”
Chef Ja has also worked in a four-star hotel as head chef in Thailand. Cristol adds that the ‘new’ Benjarong “will have a different touch in the food, in the presentation, in some of the ingredients as well. But we keep about 20 to 30 traditional dishes. We also changed the noodles in phad Thai and we changed the green chicken curry. It is about keeping the authenticity and heritage of the Thai food we first brought to Manila.”
Chef Ja is up to the challenge of bringing Benjarong, which, open for 15 years, has been favored by a loyal clientele, into the Millennial market’s consciousness. “I want to make all of the guests like my food also,” she says.
Benjarong, frequented by the 18 to 45 years old group since 15 years ago, has since seen its core market get older. “It is time we adapted,” says Cristol. “But we also want to tap the younger crowd. The 20 to 35 years old now who want drinks.”
They installed a cozy, small, and sexy bar which has 20 to 30 seats designed for cocktails or essentially a ladies bar for girls’ night out. Naturally, the cocktails are all Thai-influenced whether it’s in the use of herbs or spices.
The new Benjarong also has private rooms for 10 people, with the old Benjarong being kept open for the function area. The Thai kitchen was kept as well. Benjarong will now have 110 seats, ranging from banquet to communal tables.
The intention of keeping Benjarong that close to the lobby is simple. “We have a market of guests walking into the lobby, who want noodles at 10 in the morning when they check in or at midnight when they are hungry,” says Cristol. “We want to be that option. Being on the ground floor is better.”
The old Benjarong was hued in purples, greens, and gold with expensive chandeliers made in Chiang Mai hanging from the ceiling. Cristol says they did not touch those. “We made the new one more modern and the colors are gold, beige, with some black, yellow,” he adds. “It is contemporary, cozy, and not so bright.”
Ever since, Benjarong has been about offering value for money. This time around, they intend to give diners a pleasant surprise when, because it’s inside a hotel, there is a pre-conceived higher price point. Instead, Benjarong will have readjusted prices that are sure to make people come back for more.