Karmakamet Diner’s traditional Chinese medicine apothecary décor, and below, Chef and co-founder Jutamas Theantae

Bangkok’s Secret Gourmet

They say that all good things in life take time, and if this is to be the case, then Karmakamet Diner, a charming restaurant and cafe hidden away in the heart of Bangkok, certainly is miles ahead of the competition.

Actually, there really isn’t any competition, as Karmakamet Diner is a completely unique world unto itself. Start with the restaurant’s location, hidden behind a fountain and foliage down a dead end lane behind the Emporium shopping mall. Stepping into the dark and moody interior, one is immediately transported into a bygone world, one full of old hand-cranked machines, glass potion vials, and rows of medicine drawers. Set to look like a traditional Chinese medicine apothecary, it’s both chic and nostalgic, and yet delve a little deeper and you’ll find it isn’t done just to impress.

Chef and co-founder Jutamas Theantae

Chef and co-founder Jutamas Theantae | Photograph: Courtesy of Karmakamet Diner

Some three decades ago, Chef and cofounder Jutamas Theantae sat on a porch stoop with her best friend Natthorn Rakchana and the two dreamed of one day owning a restaurant together. Theantae went off to study art in India and later found her way into kitchens in San Francisco, setting off a career that led to stints in prestigious Relais and Chateaux properties, the Dhara Dhevi in Chiang Mai, the classical Eugenia in Bangkok, as well as teaching cooking at the Vatel Hospitality Management School and at Silpakorn University’s International College. Meanwhile, Rakchana went on to found Karmakamet, a purveyor of essential oils and aromatic products that has become a renowned brand throughout Thailand. Years later, their dream came true, and Karmakamet Diner was born.

The Chinese medicine shop décor comes from Rakchana’s memories of his grandfather’s house in Hainan, China. Old perfume grinders and bottles give a past-era warehouse feel, and there is plenty of attention paid to detail, perhaps coming from Chef Theantae’s past lithography and printmaking training as an art student. Old newspapers serve as placemats, and even the coasters have meaning, done up as reprints of old letters sent between the two friends as they grew up.

Many who come here linger long over the décor, as well as the restaurant’s charming desserts which have become hugely popular amongst the young and trendy Instagram-loving crowd that can’t stop clicking over dishes like strawberry shortcake completely concealed by a balloonsized mound of rainbow cotton candy. Google the diner, and you might come away thinking that it is merely a brunch café and not at all serious about fine dining, but don’t let those reviews fool you, as the best of Karmakamet is found in its serious foodie intentions.

Karmakamet Diner - Tournedos Rossini

Tournedos Rossini | Photograph: Courtesy of Karmakamet Diner

Karmakamet Diner - Pan-seared Red Snapper

Pan-seared Red Snapper | Photograph: Courtesy of Karmakamet Diner

While Karmakamet Diner bills itself as serving European-inspired fare with an Asian twist, Chef Theantae’s talents really shine when it comes to her French-focused training. On a recent visit, my partner and I were wowed by the Tournedos Rossini, a grass-fed beef tenderloin served with seared foie gras and bone marrow glaze on an English muffin, as well as the Pan-seared Red Snapper that is served with ratatouille, white bean stew, banana prawns, bacon, and delicious olive tapenade. Not only were the presentations themselves astounding, but the ingredients of the highest quality and the aromas accompanying the arrival of each dish being only topped by the palate reactions which followed.

Karmakamet Diner - Oyster Kiss

Oyster Kiss | Photograph: Courtesy of Karmakamet Diner

There are odes to local Asian cuisine as well. The Oyster Kiss features a #1 Irish heritage oyster that is marinated for 18 hours in rice vinaigrette and served with a crisp duck egg pancake, homegrown sprouts, and chili-garlic sauce served on a sculpted ice ball. If you can manage it, you’re supposed to put the entire concoction into your mouth all at once, with the resulting combo of flavors simulating a fancy version of Thai hoi tod, the popular mussel and oyster fried crepe found at many a street food stall. The Rayong pici noodles pay homage to another Thai street staple, guay tiao noodles, here served instead with homemade thick Italian pici noodles, fish ravioli, and Rayong crispy fried shrimp cakes.

Karmakamet Diner - Old Fashion Donut

Old Fashion Donut | Photograph: Courtesy of Karmakamet Diner

It’s best to opt for one of the various five-course tasting menus that are on offer, which allow one to sample the range of Chef Theantae’s repertoire, and these menus change every few months, meaning there will always be something new to try. The tasting menus come with four starters/entrees, and then close with one of the signature desserts, although they tend to be on a more serious note than the much photographed rainbow cotton candy. Our dessert was a homemade old fashioned donut served with Camembert cheese and vanilla ice cream, sending us home satisfied and sated. Fine wines and champagnes as well as well mixed cocktails are also a staple at Karmakamet, with a selection of wines recommended for pairing with the tasting menus.

I asked Chef Theantae how she balanced being an Instagram-darling amongst the lovers of trend with her own focus on creating serious food for those who come wanting fine cuisine. She said that at first she worried about this, but then realized that at the end of the day, nothing was better than the happiness of every guest, regardless of why they were there, and that Karmakamet Diner welcomed both the
trend followers and serious gastronomes.

You really feel like you’re having an intimate meal with old friends at Karmakamet Diner, which probably falls in line with Chef Theantae’s creed. A quote of hers on the restaurant website says, “I believe in a perfect meal with people I love. I guess it explains the relationship we have.” Step into this welcoming secret world and you may find yourself coming back for more.

Karmakamet Diner
30/1 Soi Methi Niwet, Khlong Tan
Tel. 02 262 0700

Dave Stamboulis is a travel writer and photographer based in Bangkok, Thailand. His photos, represented by Alamy and Getty Images, have appeared in publications around the world. He is the author of Odysseus’ Last Stand, which received the Silver Medal for Travel Book of the Year in 2006 from the Society of American Travel Writers. In addition to working as the updating writer for Fodor’s Guidebook to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, he is the "Bangkok expert" for USA Today's 10Best website, and a regular contributor for publications throughout Southeast Asia such as Silver Kris (Singapore Airlines), Asian Geographic, International Traveller (Australia), Virgin Voyeur, Tiger Tales (Tiger Air), Bangkok 101, Look East, Tropical Magazine, Get Lost (Australia), Sawasdee Thai Air, and Bangkok Post among others.