Fit for a Thai King (or Queen):
Sumptuous and Divine
Kittichai, at 60 Thompson Hotel in Soho, is one of the most remarkable restaurants I’ve been to in a long time. Chef Ian Cholermkittichai calls his cuisine “authentic modern Thai.” But it’s more than that: It’s the sort of food you’d imagine being served if you were at a banquet in the imperial palace of Thailand’s royal family. Even though this restaurant had been open for only two weeks when I first came here, the kitchen turned out the best Thai cooking I’d ever had.
On a fine evening, candelit gazebos are set up on the street in front of the hotel. People lounge on ottomans over mango martinis and ginger-lemongrass highballs, leafy bamboo screens shielding them from the street. At the front door of the restaurant, a stunningly beautiful young African-American woman stands behind the reservations desk. Next to her sits a golden bird cage. Those coming in for dinner after a cocktail or two outside might wonder about the effects of their seemingly innocuous drinks: Upon examining the occupants of the cage, you realize that they’re neither canaries nor parrots, but rather eight small goldfish having a surreal swim. A feng shui expert put them there to ensure prosperity. (I must pick a few up for my house at once).
Opposite the bar, a wall of back-lit shelves is lined with luminous bottles containing bright flowers, like preserved specimens in a botanical museum. A black-walled walkway engraved with steel Thai lettering leads into a dark, dramatically lit dining room at the back, dominated by a square, limpid reflecting pool that’s the same height as the tables. The water meets the pool’s edge seamlessly and, hovering above it, a cascade of orchids on thin wires float in the air like butterflies. It’s a sumptuous room, draped with gold silk curtains and divided into seating areas by wooden trellises. The banquettes are made of silks in shades of red, orange and yellow, resembling the ancient robes of Thai kings; the tables are bathed in a warm, flattering glow. (The restaurant is designed by the downtown design firm the Rockwell Group.)
Kittichai is the creation of Robin Leigh, of the restaurants Town, Bond Street and Nobu in New York, Milan and Paris. Mr. Cholermkittichai was formerly the executive chef of the Spice Market in the Four Seasons Hotel in Bangkok. He also cooked under David Thompson at Darley Street, one of Australia’s top restaurants. (I had Mr. Thompson’s food at Nahm in London, the only Thai restaurant in Europe to get a Michelin star.)
Our waiter looked like a young Bill T. Jones, and I told him that I found his uniform-a black Mandarin jacket with a subtle orange-red stripe down the side-very cool. He smiled. “I make it look cool because I’m wearing it.”
Mr. Cholermkittichai’s cuisine, which the chef emphasizes is not fusion, is bewitching and sensual, a veritable galaxy of tastes and textures. Each ingredient is allowed to speak for itself. There is never a muddle of tastes, even in the most complex dishes. Here is a chef who is totally in control, with a well-trained and friendly dining-room staff to boot.
The menu has been slightly modified for an American audience-and, of course, their allergies. This means no peanuts; Mr. Cholermkittichai uses cashews instead (I wish airlines would offer cashews instead of those awful pretzel things). His curries are less spicy than they would be in Thailand, but you can order them as hot as you like. (According to the chef, Mario Batali came in one night and ordered his curry extra hot. After dinner he told the maitre d’, “This place is gonna rock!” And he wasn’t referring to his stomach.)
I tried the red vegetable curry, which wasn’t very hot, but an intriguing balance of sweet and spicy and laced with loganberries. Also known more poetically as dragoneyes, these fruits taste like a cross between a grape and a lychee.
The food at Kittichai is served family style-several plates come to the table at once to be shared. But family-style eating here means you have to stay alert: By the time I got around to trying the prawn salad, all the prawns were gone. I was left with the rest of the dish, a wonderful mix of chunks of pink grapefruit with crispy shallots and roasted cashew nuts that tasted great on its own. No matter-we ordered another round.
Banana blossoms-new to me-are to the banana what zucchini blossoms are to the zucchini. The white leaves have just the subtlest hint of banana and are served in a salad with artichokes and a roasted chili vinaigrette made creamy with coconut milk. It’s wonderful. So is the ceviche, which is a southern Thai dish that goes back 250 years, made of duck-egg nests. The chef wraps the frilly “nests,” which are made with cooked beaten egg, around a “modern” filling of diver scallops, caviar and lemongrass. They were so good that one of my guests, out of control, just went ahead and ordered two more. Tuna carpaccio was also great, pounded thin and dressed with a spicy, tart vinaigrette made with oranges, white soy, ginger and red curry paste.
Sweet, sour and crunchy all come together with the seared foie gras, served with a marmalade made of sautéed pineapples with roasted chili paste, and garnished with quenelles made from roasted coconut and cashews-a dramatic foil to the rich, buttery duck liver.
Prawns with glass noodles reflect a Chinese influence. The noodles are baked in a clay pot with scallion, prosciutto, soy sauce, garlic and ginger, with a touch of sesame oil; the prawns are then cooked in their sauce. And like the rest of the food here, it’s very light. Light enough, in fact, that one night, even though we’d had more than enough to eat, we enjoyed the food so much that we ordered another whole round of dishes.
Side dishes include a perfect duck-egg omelet rolled around a filling of lump crabmeat, with a smooth red chili sauce called siracha that’s served separately for dipping, served with excellent jasmine rice scented with ginger and coriander. Wok-fried “morning glory” turns out to be spinach, cooked with salted baked yellow beans and red curry paste with palm sugar (I always thought that was the name for those blue flowers with seeds that make you high).
The desserts are a dramatic finish to the meal-gorgeous presentations with lotus flowers, orchids and banana leaves. There’s not a loser among them. Champagne mango comes with black sticky rice that’s sweetened with coconut milk and palm sugar and has a smoky flavor. It’s light and refreshing and not the least cloying. The flourless chocolate cake, steamed for three hours, is soft and moist and complemented by a rich cherry compote cooked in Thai red wine syrup. I also loved the frozen white chocolate and jackfruit parfait with tropical fruit salad, and the pale, moist kaffir lime tart with coconut ice cream. The sundae is also magnificent, served in a frozen bowl wrapped with a banana leaf. It’s made with Thai tea ice cream and comes with roasted pistachios, loganberries, palm seed, coconut jelly, cashews and heaven knows what else, piled up in a heap like a glorious crescendo to a piece of music.
“I can’t believe this meal is over,” said one of my friends sadly. She looked over at the pool. “That chef walks on water.” Mario Batali was right. This place is gonna rock! No question.