Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Restaurant 13: Kittichai

LOCATION: 60 Thompson St.
DATE: May 2, 2005
FOOD: Family Style Sharing of the following: Appetizers - Chocolate back ribs marinated in Thai spices; Crispy rock shrimp, grilled eggplant, chili lime juice; Salad of banana blossom, artichokes, and roasted chili vinaigrette; Limestone tartlet with Northern Style minced chicken, dried chili and coriander; Entrees – Baked Chilean sea bass marinated in yellow salted beans with morning glory; Chiang Mai honey glazed duck with champagne mango and micro bok choy; Wok-fried chicken with roasted cashew nuts, dried chili and green onion. Sides – Jasmine rice; Pineapple fried rice with sweet sausage and shredded egg.
BEVERAGE: Kittichai lychee martini; Ginger lemongrass highball
PRICE: Unknown – Work related dinner

The buzz around Kittichai is unbelievable. The Thai-fusion restaurant seems to be able to please all diners – the most nitpicking foodies to those dabbling in Thai cuisine for the first time. Before my visit on Monday night, I knew the dish recommendations of everyone from Frank Bruni to random bloggers. The only thing about Kittichai I hadn’t heard was a complaint. Apparently, Chocolate ribs and jasmine rice would have been great for the Rodney King debacle – they seem to make us all get along.

Kittichai’s layout is stunning, a postmodern coalescing of Asian and European influences. However, the architecture is there to work with the food, not to out-do it. Fluorescent pastel flowers, candle lit tables, a bird cage that is really a fish tank – these elements combine to set the mood for innovative cuisine like an Iron and Wine song melds perfectly with the feel of a rainy Sunday.

Extreme cocktails seem to radiate with the same neon glow as the elaborate tropical wall displays. Both of the drinks I had were complicated blends of fruit, alcohol and Asian flavors that worked well as a team. The lychee martini was sweet, but not sickly so (as the Longan juice at Zabb was), and had a distinct lime tartness to downplay the sugar. The ginger lemongrass highball was one of the best drinks I’ve had in New York, a lively fraternizing of gin and Cointreau with ginger and lemongrass. The incorporation of the ginger in a beverage made this special, the result a refreshing oblivion, a temporary reprieve for the tongue from American syrup puckering and straight liquor fire.

As we had a party of nine people, we ordered family style and shared around the table. Of the appetizers, I still can’t get over the Chocolate back ribs. These pork ribs were unabashedly chocolate but definitively Thai spiced. The meat practically fell off the bone and the dark chocolate was tangy and only as sweet as Texas barbeque sauce, which allowed for this dish to start a meal and not immediately end it. Patrick commented that the chocolate sauce was a bit rich and it would be difficult to eat a lot of the ribs. There were certainly multiple pieces of Godiva in the covering and for some, the chocolate might be too much, but as an appetizer, you can have two or three of these ribs and be fine for the rest of the meal. The rest of the appetizers generally were also delightful. The minced chicken was the best of the bunch, similar to Moo Shu Pork (sans Plum sauce), while the coin sized crispy rock shrimp snap, crackle and popped with a fried exterior and a subtle chili tang. The banana salad was an overdone Nicholas Sparks-esque disappointment, all glittery overwrought presentation, but little substance to back it up.

The entrees demanded as much attention as the opening volley of tapas. The table’s unanimous favorite was the sea bass, a dish beautifully simple and seemingly unadulterated yet so dense it flavor I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me. Howard loved the short rib green curry and I have to admit that I momentarily reconsidered my no-beef vow upon witnessing the dish. I was pleasantly surprised by the duck, which I had heard mediocre reviews about. I found it tender and non-fatty, its aromatic honey broth a tremendous coupling. The chicken was similar to chicken and cashews, but with a red pepper spice wallop that left us all gasping for water. The sausage and pineapple rice was a luminous side, encased as it was in a halved pineapple. Scooping out the fruit’s flesh made the rice even more equatorially inspired. I would have liked the sausage to be a bit more prominent, but the rice was more balancing act than pork showcase.

Praise may thicken the air around Kittichai like Bangkok smog, but so far at least the kitchen isn’t resting on its laurels. Kittichai is that rare restaurant that feeds (bad pun I know) on hype rather than succumbing to it. This is all the better for the rest of us, who just have to show up, eat, lick our fingers, and leave the restaurant in a chili-spiced delirium. Let people say what they will.

RATING: 8.3/10

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