Culture with a spicy kick

Tum som Loso.

The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre at the Pathumwan intersection has been opened since 2008 but it's only now that its shopping zone has achieved a full complement of tenants, most of them artsy boutiques and restaurants that offer an interesting alternative to the neighbouring malls.

Spread over the first to fourth floors, most of the shops are run by artists, designers and independent enthusiasts and are great places to while away the hours even with anti-government protesters blowing whistles in the street outside.

You can browse limited-edition art books at Hardcover or stock up on paint supplies at Goon Studio. You can also create your own silver jewellery from nano silver clay at Shannta or shop for eco-friendly accessories fashioned from detergent and fabric softener containers at Green Thai Product.

And in between, you can munch on everything from Thai and Western fusion dishes through inventive Isaan eats to ice cream designed as a medium-rare steak. Alcohol beverages are, however, prohibited.

Last year, Hof Art Gallery morphed into Hof Eat and Art and opened two connecting bistros on the second floor -.Krua Khun Kan and Good Tiew Johnny Be Good. The Chiang Mai artists collective Yonyang: Retracing Aesthetics and Friends recently handed over the reins to chef, painter and interior designer Nat Panchangkakul who turned them into the Painter's Table.

An old hand in the restaurant business - he's been running the popular Phranakorn Bar and Gallery on Rajdamnoen Klang Avenue for the last 14 years - Nat welcomes guests to the Painter's Table as if it were his own home and happily chats with diners while tossing their orders in his wok.

Among the dishes are such authentic Thai delights as spicy mackerel soup with garcinia and Isaan-style long bean som tam with pork crackling, plus an interesting fusion of hot and sour salmon soup with bamboo shoots, Indian-style yellow curry with chicken and Western-style bacon spaghetti. The menu changes according to what's in season and Nat's mood though patrons are invited to tell him in advance what kind of foods they can't eat and which ones they prefer.

The Chumphon-born multi-tasker was taught by his mum how to cook Southern dishes and also spent time in the kitchen at riverside Praya Palazzo Hotel in Bangkok learning Western techniques while working there as the interior and landscape designer.

"Phranakorn Bar and Gallery will close soon and I had planned to stay home painting and writing a cookbook. When the owner of Hof Art proposed I take over this space, it felt like an excellent idea," says Nat, who graduated from the College of Fine Arts.

"I love mixing and matching ingredients. I don't serve my Southern-style, stir-fried sator, which is sometimes known as the stink bean, with fresh prawns but with bacon cooked in spicy dried shrimp sauce and pickled garlic. I use curry paste from Rayong mixed with curry powder from Myanmar for my yellow curry with chicken, which is cooked in fresh milk."

He also substitutes tapioca flour with arrowroot for his hoi tod or fried mussel pancake, frying the mollusks in a seasoned batter to obtain a crispy texture and pizza-like look.

Part of the Painter's Table serves as a temporary gallery and the works are changed every two months. On view until Wednesday is "Living Ink", a series of tattooed portraits of people from all walks of life by lensman Jaturong Hirankarn. Nat is also planning to offer cooking classes.

The French-sounding but very Thai eatery Le Pla Daak, which made its name as much as for its funky decor as for its delicious Isaan offerings on Kaset-Nawamin Road, has opened a branch on the fourth floor of the BACC and serves a variety of som tam and spicy dishes.

Smaller than the mother branch but no less funkily kitted out, Le Pla Daak is filled with old collectibles from radios, zinc trays, enamelware to clocks, lamps and ceramic chickens. Owner Wiphanada Kunsujarid hails from Udon Thani and brings in many of the ingredients from her home including moo yor (steamed ground pork sausage), fermented fish, pla som (sour fermented fish) and chilli paste. Other ingredients like rock salt, herbs and ant eggs are sourced from her husband's hometown of Ubon Ratchathani.

She offers a variety of som tam (without fermented fish) and tum som (with fermented fish) and you can choose your favourite degree of spiciness from kindergarten level with just one chilli to doctorate degree - a blow-your-socks off combo of dried, Laotian and Thai chilli peppers.

"Som tam and Isaan dishes are not just street food. They can also be haute cuisine. I'm careful to select only the best ingredients - many of them from our hometowns to support the local economy. They're like a water source while we're the river mouth," Wiphanada explains.

The glutinous rice is organic and comes from See Kai village in Nong Khai. "The rice planted in the Mekong delta gives full body to the seed," she explains. The peanuts are slowly roasted in a charcoal stove while the boiled eggs with their large, reddish yolks, are laid by the ducks at a free-range farm.

The food is usually served on a zinc tray covered with a banana leaf. The tum som Loso is a perfect combination of crispy and shredded unripe papaya, fermented fish, baby prawns, moo yor, corn and crispy pork crackling while the som tam Le Pla Daak - a Central Thai-style salad with crabs from the rice paddies - is ideal for anyone who doesn't like fermented fish. Le Pla Daak also has shrimp wonton in spicy herbal soup, larb moo yor over rice and sun-dried squid served with glutinous rice wrapped in a banana leaf.

Also on the fourth floor is IceDea, where owner Prima Chakrabandhu Na Ayudhya happily turns even the most mundane of dishes into an ice cream. Her ices, which mimic flavour, scent, appearance, texture and colour, include a scoop with the sharp bite of wasabi, the sponge cake-like Tokyo Banana, apple crumble and the Thai dessert-inspired khao tom mud (steamed sticky rice with banana) and tako (mung bean flour pudding with coconut topping).

You can also sample a medium rare steak made of brownie ice cream and pie that's served with Parmesan cheese toast, crispy caramelised banana resembling French fries, and cookie-and-cream ice cream that looks like mashed potato. There is also a banana fillet steak made of Tokyo Banana ice cream.

Well worth trying is the Tonkatsu, where vanilla, green tea or brownie ice cream is coated with breadcrumbs before being deep-fried and topped with chocolate sauce, to mimic gravy.

Inspired by the Thai dessert of khanom bueng (crispy pancake stuffed with sweet egg threads), Prima offers a crispy waffle pancake stuffed with your choice of two scoops of ice cream - foi thong and vanilla flavours are recommended - topped with raisin, foi thong, and whipping cream.

And always one to turn crisis into opportunity, Prima has a collection of ice cream whistles in flavours ranging from cheese pie, lemon soda, yoghurt cheesecake to yakult pepo and strawberry sherbet.

For something more mundane but no less delicious, the popular bar and restaurant Brown Sugar is now offering pizza and spaghetti in the newly opened Art Cafe.