Charoenkrung in Bangkok’s Old Town wasn’t always the artsy district it is today. Even on most nights now, it’s likely you’ll find illicit dice games happening in the alleys if you look hard enough. Or you might find JUA, the modern izakaya with a particularly interesting food offering, first. Then again, the building in which it’s housed was formerly an illegal gambling spot for more than 20 years.

The name “JUA” serves as a playful reference to the game of Siamese blackjack, or pok daeng. Designed by Sean Dix Design & Architecture in Hong Kong, the space is a thoughtful mix of Thai and Japanese modernism.

Against the backdrop of rugged buildings that have seen better days, this two-storey shophouse manages to blend into the riverside neighbourhood, but with more refined confidence. Walk past the rustic metal-rimmed doors into the brightly-lit minimalist bar area, decorated with a few statement pieces. There are more seats and a private room upstairs, but this is where the action happens — plus, there’s a nice collection of sake to admire.

Driven by innovation, JUA’s food offerings revolve around the season’s pickings, taking ordinary ingredients like baby corn and eggplant and amping them up a notch. The owners are a creative bunch themselves. Chet Adkins, who helms the kitchen, was previously the executive chef at Ku De Ta (now Ce La Vi Bangkok), and Jason Lang is a published photographer from California.

The Yellowfin Poke (THB280) with creamy sriracha sauce and tobiko is more flavourful than your typical poke bowl.

We get some plates to share: Baby Corn (THB70) is grilled over a bincho-tan till charred and accentuated with fragrant garlic butter and a lot of togarashi. Inspired by Malaysia’s tempoyak, or fermented durian, the Prawn (THB220) is slathered with durian butter that’s been fermenting for a week. It’s not as pungent as it sounds — the creamy butter has a miso-like taste with just a hint of the spiky fruit.

When we look at the framed photographs on the wall, it’s obvious that yakitori and kushiyaki is a thing here. Asparagus (THB70) is wrapped with juicy thick-cut bacon and grilled next to skewers of Chicken Thigh (THB80) and leek. There’s also a robust Angus Beef with daikon (though it goes for a high THB250), Chicken Wing (THB80), and Pork Belly (THB120). With the exception of the latter, which comes with gochujang sauce, the rest are minimally seasoned with nothing more than salt, kampot pepper, and a bit of tare.

The muted walls behind the smooth terrazzo counter is filled with large prints of Jason Lang’s photography. These change up from time to time in a sort of mini-exhibition.

The simplicity extends to most of the menu, though you can afford to be a bit more outrageous with the Uni Pasta (THB800), a rather creamy blend of fresh uni, uni butter, ikura and nori. The ear-shaped orecchiette pasta cups everything nicely. We wash down the decadence with alcohol. The Umeshu Highball (THB350) is light and mellow, and you get very palatable acidity and sweetness from the plum ‘wine’. There’s also a Shochu Negroni (THB350), where rice shochu replaces gin in the cocktail classic together with sweet vermouth and Campari. It’s simple yet complex, with a warmth and smoothness you don’t get in traditional recipes. Or just order sake by the 100ml glass: a Bijofu Yuzu Schwa (THB300) or Kirinzan Honjozo (THB280).

See? Not bad for a former gambling den.

JUA Bangkok is located at 672/49 Charoen Krung 28 Bangkok, Thailand 10500, p. +66 91 796 0808. Open Mon-Sat 6pm – 12am, Sun 6pm – 10pm.