A remarkable new Thai restaurant, Kin Khao, has opened in a hotel on the border of Union Square and the Tenderloin. Yes, readers, once again, I’m in love.
Of course we fall the hardest when we don’t expect it to happen, and I had my doubts about Kin Khao’s much-heralded opening. First of all, Kin Khao (which means, “have you eaten yet?) inhabits a seemingly gerrymandered space in the Parc 55 Hotel on the corner of Ellis and Mason, a location I personally could not visualize until I found it (a convenient block away from the Ellis entrance of the O’Farrell garage across the street from Macy’s.)
Second, the restaurant was created by a food blogger, Pim Techamuanvivit. Born in Bangkok, internationally educated and very well traveled, she had never actually run a restaurant, though her partner happens to be chef David Kinch, who owns the 3 Michelin-starred Manresa. She hired Manresa’s chef de cuisine, Michael Gaines, to head her kitchen. She hauled him to Bangkok to show him what she was aiming for. The whole thing smacked of start-up amateur hour, until I took my first bite. Then I changed my tune. Kin Khao is an affordable gem.
Each dish on the small menu is prepared with full commitment to intense, authentic Thai flavor. Every component is made from scratch with meticulously sourced ingredients. This results in Thai food of such unique character and vivacity, it tastes completely new, even if you have eaten in Bangkok. Techamuanvivit says that these dishes conjure her childhood, one apparently filled with home cooking of uncommon clarity and balance. I’ve never really eaten food like it, here or there.
A couple of visits with four at the table can take you through the whole menu. Frankly, I wouldn’t want to miss a dish, but twist my arm and I’ll tell you my current faves. Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine ($10) is a warm mushroom custard served in a little mason jar, a velvety coconut milk mousse infused with hot chillies, lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime leaf. You spoon this spicy, fragrant, substance onto thick, crisp, rice crackers. It’s stunning.
Saeng-wah Salad ($15) is another mind-blower, with astounding contrasts of tastes and textures. A spicy-hot, tart ceviche of wild gulf prawn nestles in a bed of what looks like crumbs but turns out to be crunchy, deep-fried bits of catfish, all covered with layers of shaved raw vegetables. As my friend Niloufer said, “It hits everywhere.”
Pretty Hot Wings ($8) are what every wing eater dreams about– juicy, marinated chicken enveloped in crisp skin glazed with tangy tamarind and Siracha chile sauce. And the wings happen to very handsome, elegant rather than messy. They made me think about the best barbecued chicken I’ve ever had, cooked over a box of coals in a Thai beach village fifty years ago.
The paste for Khun Yai’s Rabbit Green Curry ($24), ground in-house using 19 different ingredients, infuses the coconut-milk based sauce with complex aroma, heat and bright color. Thank goodness you get a whole bowl of it along with the tenderest, juiciest rabbit leg and saddle, spiced marble-sized rabbit meatballs, and marble-sized Thai apple eggplants. The whole thing is sublime, refined but full of life.
Another triumph, Kanah Pad XO Sauce ($10), consists of whole, thick-stemmed branches of Chinese broccoli, steamed to tenderness and then charred on the grill, topped with “Pim’s special XO sauce”, based on shredded dried scallops–better than butter.
There’s incendiary charred octopus (14); house-made Northern Thai pork sausage eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves with young pepper relish, pork cracklings and sticky rice ($15); unctuous caramelized pork belly ($13); and a lovely Thai version of Hainan chicken rice ($16) which only works when you eat all the components–rice cooked in chicken fat, dewy ginger infused poached chicken, Pim’s “secret sauce” and double-rich chicken broth–together.
These days we expect tailor-made cocktails and Kin Khao’s complex potions here tend towards flamboyance, towering with crushed ice and crowned with paper umbrellas. The multitude of ingredients that go into them are top-notch.
But it is the wine list that floors me. Whoever put it together has a gift– for choosing and pairing. One night we drank a haunting ‘11 Clemens Busch Vom roten Schiefer Riesling Qba, ($48) a fragrant Mosel with a dry finish and mineral edge; on another, fruity, spicy, ’09 Glatzer Blaufrankisch, an Austrian red ($44). They both stood up to intense flavors and somehow completed them.
It turns out that the unswerving honesty of the food and the charm of every detail of this operation reflect the original, sophisticated taste of its former food blogger creator. Other ingenious details from Pim: dancy sixties blues bands on the play list; magnificent, thick wooden table tops that radiate tree-ness; a wait staff comfortably conversant with the food and drink. Each time I visit Kin Khao I notice something new that delights me. Kin Khao is worth the challenge of getting to know it.
55 Cyril Magnin Street, San Francisco 415 362-7456 kinkhao.com Open nightly for dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.