Pity the endlessly self-righteous, exquisitely refined agony of the Thai-food snob. Or, to be more precise, the New York City Thai-food snob. I once asked one of these noble, tortured souls where I might go in the city for a really good bowl of larb nuar (cold beef salad). She gave me an anguished, slightly aggrieved look, like I’d just kicked her in the shins by mistake. “Take a cab to JFK,” she said, “then hop the next flight to Bangkok.” Or L.A., she might have added, or anywhere else in the USA where Thai immigrant communities are flourishing. Good Thai food is predicated on freshness and authentic, high-quality ingredients, so to thrive, it needs a base of constant, homegrown nourishment and support. Occasionally, a decent Thai restaurant will open in New York (Thai on Clinton, and Sripraphai, in Woodside, come to mind), but the talented chefs who wash up here generally move on, leaving the city to subsist on limp chicken satay and warmed-over servings of pad Thai at homogenous, newly proliferating Southeast Asian restaurant chains like Spice and the Lemongrass Grill.
But with the opening a few months back of a new restaurant in Soho called Kittichai, relief is at hand. Or at least this is the fervent hope of the Thai-food snobs I know, who have been chattering about the reputation of the restaurant’s eponymous chef, Ian Chalermkittichai. Mr. Chalermkittichai hails from Bangkok, where he served, most recently, as executive chef at the Four Seasons Hotel. The boutique hotel 60 Thompson isn’t quite the Bangkok Four Seasons, but for their new chef, the proprietors (who also own Indochine and Republic) have attempted to create a kind of mini Soho facsimile. The darkened, feng shui–approved room has been sheathed with tasteful wood frames and swags of Thai silk. Luminous bottled orchids decorate the front of the room, along with many auspicious Buddhas and a glassed-in birdcage housing an exotic population of goldfish. The dining room is centered, more or less, on a limpid reflecting pool, floating with lit candles and water lilies that the wait staff keeps pushing back and forth, possibly to give the impression that we’re all drifting down the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, on some grand royal barge.
This regal impression evaporates a little with the appearance of disposable Japanese chopsticks at every table (Thais mainly use forks and spoons), a fact that doesn’t necessarily blunt the impact of the fine house fish cakes, which are stacked, here, like blocks of sugar and served with a tangy red-onion chutney. These fish cakes are part of an opening salvo of Thai-style “tapas,” which include less-delicious balls of rubbery, toothpick-skewered monkfish (wrapped in pandan leaves like water chestnuts in bacon, with a thick sweet-and-sour chili sauce for dipping) and diver scallops bundled in little blankets of egg (“egg nests”), topped with lemongrass leaves and salmon roe. The inventive, appropriately melting, “chocolate back” ribs (aside from chocolate, the baby back ribs seem to have been caked with A1 sauce) have a similar internationalist influence, and so do the braised short ribs, which come to the table floating in a bowl of spicy green curry.
“None of this is very Thai,” said one of the Thai snobs in a resigned, saddened voice, “although it is Thai-influenced.” True Thai or not, a lot of the food at Kittichai tastes awfully good. The gingery galangal-chicken-and-coconut soup could have been more spicy and sour and less sweet (in deference to the local palate, chef Chalermkittichai seems to skew most of his recipes toward sugar, and away from heat), but my bowl of that elusive cold beef salad dish was exceptional. This is a northern specialty in Thailand, and here it’s made with slices of tender, marinated flank steak, fresh green beans, and a dusting of roasted rice powder (crushed peanuts have been banned from Kittichai in deference to local peanut allergies), which gives the dish a pleasing crunch. Among other Thai specialties, two that everyone enjoyed were the wok-fried chicken (a gourmet version of Sichuan chicken and peanuts, only with cashews, bits of green onion, and pieces of hot chili) and the standard whole crispy fish, served atop a sweet-and-sour sauce infused with forests of coriander and basil.
A few of the other entrées weren’t quite so successful. The Nobu-inspired Chilean sea bass I tasted was bouncy and dry, and the Chiang Mai honey-glazed duck looked less like an unusual delicacy from the north of Thailand (it’s cut in Western-style slices and dressed with mango) than something from the kitchens of an ambitious fusion restaurant in southern New Jersey. The braised loin of lamb (it includes round Thai eggplants and a very un-Thai-like dollop of foie gras) was superior, however, and so were the short ribs. I couldn’t find a recipe for grilled sirloin steak in any of my Thai cookbooks, but chef Chalermkittichai manages to instill the taste of his homeland into this very Western dish by splashing his beef with sweet fermented black beans and a dash of Mae Khong whiskey. Ditto the very good Cornish hen, which is similarly transformed by being deboned, cooked in a densely flavored turmeric emulsion, and dusted with a coating of crisped shallots.
I suppose you could call Kittichai a “scene” restaurant already, and even if it’s not, the ingredients are certainly in place. The bar space consists of two cramped outdoor areas the size of hog pens, and a small indoor lounge where, late in the evening, loungers can lounge on low-slung settees and preen over their multicolored cocktails (try the ginger-lemongrass highball, made with ginger, lemongrass, and gin). The restaurant’s desserts are equally showy, in a crowd-pleasing sort of way. Simple sliced mango is placed on a wedge of sweet, sticky rice, and served in a big druid’s hat made of banana leaf. There’s a kind of lemon tart made not with lemons but with Kaffir lime, and a fairly tasty approximation of flourless chocolate cake, steamed in banana leaf. The most authentic Thai dessert is something called a “Thai Ice Cream Sundae,” which seems to be a hodgepodge of sweet Thai tastes (litchis, loganberries, tapioca) thrown together, with a scoop of coconut sorbet for good measure. It’s not Bangkok, exactly. But the next time you’re rambling through Soho late in the evening, and have the urge for a decent bowl of larb nuar, it will certainly do.
Ideal meal: The chocolate back ribs, Thai beef salad, pan-roasted Cornish hen, and pineapple fried rice, with a Thai sundae for dessert.
Note: Lucky coins are taped under many of the tables.