This year I was lucky enough to have my formal birthday dinner at brand new uber-chic Thai restaurant, Kittichai. I don't really have a strong desire to eat at of-the-minute, trendy and intimidating restaurants (like Spice Market, which I did for James's birthday in May), but I do like trying innovative and/or upscale takes on S.E. Asian food because I'm crazy fixated on the cuisine and use special occasions to check out what's going on at the higher end of the spectrum.
I wasn't so concerned about the scene (apparently, it has been closed on Sundays so people like Alek Wek can throw parties), but had read an article in an Oct. 2003 Saveur about Bangkok chefs including Ian Chalermkittichai, who is the chef at this Soho restaurant using half his surname. I was fascinated by the idea of a Thai celebrity chef (in Thailand, I mean) and that he was the first-ever Thai executive chef (as opposed to the usual European choices) at a Bangkok five-star hotel, the Bangkok Four Seasons. (What I havent been able to figure out is why Jean-George took the name Spice Market for his MePa [I'm joking, I'm joking, like I'd ever seriously acronym Meatpacking District] restaurant, when that name is already used and associated with one of the restaurants in the Bangkok Four Seasons. I didnt have a chance to try it, having reached my quota for fancy dining with Blue Elephant and Celadon) Plus, his recipe for poo khai kem, a take on Singapore chile crab, peaked my interest. It's not the sort of Thai food you really get in NYC, so I was curious.
I was pleased to sample their cocktail of calamansi juice (I told you the fruit was going to be the It citrus of 2004), coconut milk, Grand Marnier and Skyy vodka. It was tart and creamy without being cloying. A very refreshing summer cooler. And I'm still not sure what the difference between tapas and appetizers is. The prices are similar and the portions seem close as well. We tried a tapa of Southern Thai ceviche with diver scallops, caviar and lemongrass in an egg nest, which while tasty didnt really highlight the scallop. It was more tangy and eggy. The crispy rock shrimp, grilled eggplant with chili lime appetizer was right on. My entre of short ribs in green curry was a nice choice. It was traditional in a good way, while using an atypically Thai cut of meat. James chose the special of dorado, which was cubed, dusted in tempura batter (they made the point of saying it was dusted, not heavily coated) and presented between the head and tail with a sweet chili sauce. I loved the accompanying fried basil and lime leaves, but then, I'm a sucker for fried herbs (or fried anything, really). For dessert we shared the kaffir lime tart with coconut ice cream and palm sugar syrup, which was enjoyable. The grated lime rind (I think that's what it was) added a nice punch of color to the little rectangle.
I thought the food was to be served family-style, this is what I'd heard, and we were both given small plates before our food arrived. But when it came to the table, our plates were removed untouched and the large bowls were placed in front of us, according to whom had ordered what. I wouldve preferred to share, though this seems to irk some people.
None of the food is terribly spicy, despite the slinky waitstaffs unnecessary warnings. And thats where I'm unclear. I'm not sure how upscale Thai food is supposed to be spiced. I know people have the tendency to equate authenticity with heat level, but not every dish is meant to eat the glaze off its artfully crafted ceramic plate. I felt disappointed with much of the fine hotel food we ate in Bangkok, it seemed tame, and one of our waitresses at Celadon confirmed that the menu was "for tourists." (Though that didnt stop a table of Middle Eastern men to choke and yell for water.)
The most amusing aspect of the evening (apart from James sharing the rest room with Mario Batali) was being seated next to the May/December table. First, it was the classic couple: a 50-ish guy with a super tiny, large breasted, early-20s blonde who drove me nuts because she called the kaffir lime key lime. They were replaced by German equivalents. They were more subtle, the Euro female had simple, chin length brown hair and minimal makeup (and thankfully since she wasn't speaking English I couldn't deduce if she was mangling the pronunciation of ingredients). She was wearing a ribbed white tank top that covered her up to her collarbones instead of a low-cut lacy camisole top like the other trollop, but after sneaking a few glances, I did note that it was quite snug and that she also had quite large breasts in proportion to the rest of her body. It must be nice to have a sugar daddy to woo you through costly coriander and lemongrass concoctions. It sucks that that my much older boyfriend never, ever ate (seriously, he had some intestinal problem–the guy had a 27" waist).
Kittichai * 60 Thompson St., New York, NY