Of the 48 listings in the Phuket section of MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021, only a select few restaurants serve non-Thai cuisine. The ebb and flow of visitors to the island presents its own challenges to establishing a consistent international fine-dining scene. And the situation has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Phuket faced lock-downs and other restrictions, one internationally acclaimed chef managed to maintain. And now, with the island opening up to international visitors again, his business is expanding beyond Phuket.
Italian restaurant Acqua boasts a healthy blend of local customers across the island, Thailand’s foodies, and global MICHELIN-mapping tourists, due to the steely Sardinian resolve of Alessandro Frau. The owner-head chef, and former winner of Iron Chef Thailand, is renowned for his fresh ingredients and creative flair, and a restaurant that has become a meeting spot for the local community.
We visited Acqua Phuket in March on the weekend before the third COVID-19 outbreak hit Thailand. The restaurant was filled with Thais and expats. Families shared pizza and platters. And couples sampled the treasures of the tasting menu paired with international wines.
An internationalist with proud Sardinian roots
Frau has that uncanny Italian ability to appear fashionable while wearing his chef’s uniform – jet-black hair tied back in a ponytail, trimmed beard, healthy Mediterranean complexion, and charming confidence. While describing his career path that brought him to Acqua, he speaks with such enthusiasm that his eyes sparkle like the Sardinian waters from back home.
His journey began in London in the 90s where a 19-year-old Frau worked as a commis waiter. Back then, working in a kitchen was considered a dirty profession in Italy. But Frau was impressed by the glitzy London scene and the famous celebrity chefs.
For the next 10 years he developed his skills as a chef in various kitchens, from Mexico to Europe, before landing in Phuket in 2004. A year later, at 28 years old, Frau was appointed Executive Chef at Sheraton hotels, managing 12 restaurants and 140 chefs for the brand.
“It was very tough,” he says. “Training, purchasing… too much management and not enough creativity. And not enough contact with the customers.” So finally, after four years, he embarked on his own project.
The evolution of Acqua’s Italian cuisine
Frau wanted to create a truly authentic Italian restaurant with his own personal touch. He did this by embracing both the traditional and the modern – combining conventional dishes with new cooking techniques and artistic presentation.
However, it was difficult to establish a regular customer base for the first few years, and turning a profit was particularly challenging. He felt at times that Phuket wasn’t ready for the fine-dining scene. It was a time before restaurants needed social media marketing and review websites.
So, Frau focused on an important cultural feature common to Thailand and Italy – a dining experience centred around sharing. The degustation menu offers sophisticated dishes and creative expression. But he has crafted a menu that is also popular with groups who prefer to share simple dishes like home-made pastas and wood-fired pizza.
Some 60% of Acqua’s dishes are traditional Sardinian. The Mediterranean island is famous for its sausages and salami and is one of the biggest producers of pecorino cheese. Sardinians also consume a lot more seafood. Their cuisine is lighter compared to the heavier, buttery, and creamy dishes from the north of Italy.
An artistic expression of nostalgia
The degustation menu is a journey through Frau’s childhood memories and Italian heritage. It begins with lighter, more subtle dishes that make the palette pause for thought. Each small mouthful demands your appreciation for the nuance of flavours.
The best example of this nuance is in the octopus and fennel salad; a kaleidoscopic floral flourish for the eyes, and a sunny melange of flavours for the taste buds. Frau imports the majority of his ingredients from Italy. But undoubtedly, he says, the best octopus comes from Spanish waters. He marinates the tender meat in vinegar and garlic to retain its vibrant colours. It’s a taste from his heritage, but using modern techniques so that he can maximise its colours and juices.
From the lighter starters, on to the earthy, rich, and comforting mains. The sumptuous wood-fired roast suckling pig with crispy skin is served with saffron and violet potatoes, broad beans, and sauce from those savoury drippings. Layer upon layer is deeply flavourful and epitomises Frau’s philosophy in the kitchen.
“The perfect contemporary dish,” he explains, “must be more than just beautiful. It combines the chef’s memories and culture with superior cooking techniques to achieve a balance of sophisticated flavours.” This may be difficult to accomplish for every plate, but the design of the degustation menu is another medium through which the chef can express themselves and tell their story.
Memories of Fiore di latte
When Frau was a child, his mother often took him to a coffeeshop in Sardinia to enjoy soft-serve ice-cream. He can remember the sights, sounds and smells as if it were yesterday. The shop. The staff. And the ice-cream machine.
When Frau opened Acqua, he was determined to share this taste of childhood with his guests. It took him six months to recreate a memory from more than three decades ago.
In his reinterpretation, the milk semifreddo and gelato is served with gelatine, a zesty lemon sauce, and an acidic foam. The foam makes each spoonful especially interesting. You can sample a little of each, enjoying different combinations, textures, and sweet, tangy flavours.
“It’s the same taste that was inside here,” he says, pointing to his heart, “as well as up here,” he says pointing to his mind.
MICHELIN Guide’s arrival in Phuket
Frau acknowledges that it’s harder to attain a MICHELIN Star when catering for a broad range of food lovers, fine dining enthusiasts, groups, and families. But this is the business model that works in Phuket.
Since he was awarded a MICHELIN Plate in the 2019 edition, he has noticed a marked increase in customer bookings, many of whom arrive with the famous Red Guide in hand. “It has been good for the island,” he says. “It has helped to bring attention to some restaurants we didn’t even know existed.”
However, the big international names in the restaurant business only really consider Bangkok when moving to Thailand. This, he believes, is due to the seasonality of the tourist flows and only three or four months of steady business a year.
Acqua is coming to Bangkok
For this reason, Frau decided to open a second branch of Acqua in Bangkok. It took him four years to find a building that has, what he calls, the wow factor. The beautiful villa, designed by an Italian architect, is centrally located on Soi Somkit, behind Central Chidlom. They made several alterations to the interior design, brightening up the fixtures and fittings, and moving the kitchen from the back to the middle of the dining room.
When international tourism does return, the Sardinian hopes to make a big impact on the capital’s gourmet scene. Guests will enjoy the same signature dishes as Phuket, including the slow-cooked egg on cheese fondue with black truffle and crispy pancetta, the poached lobster, and the tuna tartare topped with burrata cheese.
But there will be no pizza.
The focus will be on authentic Italian dishes and achieving a stylish flavour symmetry using the freshest ingredients. In a country of intense flavours and lip-smacking spices, Acqua's menu may just take you on a refreshing exploration of Italy’s treasures, and an edible pilgrimage to Frau’s homeland.
Hero photo: © Acqua