Saturday, March 14, 2015


A buzzy new Thai has opened up in the NYU nabe, taking over what was the fast-foodish Cafetasia to birth a sister restaurant to the hyper-popular Somtum Der even further east.  I've never been over to that one, but its popularity seems to have transferred successfully.  Even in these incipient days of soft opening, the tables were enthusiastically occupied, a steady stream of student walk-ins, 8th Street passersby, and a hodge-podge of in-the-know-fooderati and other curious diners.

The room reminds me of Tom Sawyer's fence, thickly white-washed to mask all evidences of it predecessor's clubby black modernism.  A few illuminated Buddha statuettes and distressed mirrors break up the stark, farmhousy feel, but mostly it is the jubilance of the staff that creates the ambiance.   Servers and busboys may harbor some distinct linguistic frailties, but they are quick to fetch someone who can attend to your needs, with beaming smiles all along.  The person they will most likely fetch, too, is the indefatigable floor manager, who guidance was both well-given and well-taken.  I thought he was maybe an owner, but Phakphoom Sirisuwat and Supanee Kitmahawong are a younger, male/female duo, and chef Kornthanut Thongnum (yes, I'm glad they didn't name the restaurant after its proprietors) was certainly busy in the kitchen to be romping about the floor.   But our guide was so endearingly charming, he alone would motivate a return visit, even if the food wasn't alluring enough.  Thankfully, it is. 

We went with quite a few of his suggestions, the first of which he declared his favorite, a fragrant duck soup.  It's a strikingly flavorful bowl, the ruddy broth lurking below a similarly profound layer of vermillion oil.  How he could remain so lithe and consume this on a regular basis remains as mysterious as the nuanced layers of flavor, sweet and floral, bright and spicy, fruity and rich.  I was equally mystified about how to consume it: the oil slick constituted a barrier, to me, between the curry-inflected soup beneath, the hunks of rich duck meat and random fruity bits of loquat and grapes within.  Stirring things up dissipated some of the oil, but it might still be off-putting to the even remotely bikini-conscious.  Also, as the philosophy of the restaurant dictates sharing any and all.... 
How to Eat at Kiin

... so I wasn't sure how the flat plates in front of each of us could be used in divvying up a soup, so we ended just spooning from the same bowl, hoping all that heat and spice were somewhat antibacterial.  The rice we ordered didn't arrive 'til a bit later, too, which helped absorb both  the broth and some of the mounting heat: few dishes here are without punch.  Speaking of absorption, I figured out a way to un-fry food when an enormous bowl of braised chicken-leg curry noodles arrived crowned with a tangled mass of crispy fried noodles atop.  Given enough time in the gravy-like broth, the fried noodles achieved almost the same consistency as the boiled ones underneath, although (of course) adding some of their inherent richness to thicken the broth into a substantial sauce: little of the food at Kiin is rabbity fare, although the brightness,  balance and heat of everything belies some of its caloric impact.  

A good example of the brightness comes in the form of a corn salad, who's fishy funk was initially obscured with tang and spice.  Interspersing bites with other richer dishes, however, unearthed a the bracing smack of dried shrimp, so best consume this refreshing salad before the heat of most other dishes expose your palate to its nuances best left more subtle.   Supple salted eggs, hard-boiled, perch atop and help dissipate the flavors; the crunchy long beans and bulbous cherry tomatoes are left raw for the same reasons.   I feel like this is a good example of "authentic" Thai flavors: they can be an assault left to their own devices, but in convergence with all partnering elements, result in some tantalizing
 combinations.  Less thrilling may have been an offering from the Vegetarian section, tasty a plate of vegs though they were.  Griddled pucks of tofu fortified a sautee of asparagus and shiitakes, not much different than what you might find in any Thai/Chinese/Vietnamese/Pan-Asian joint, but in 
no way offensive.   Our next dish did offer up a bit of an insult- or at least to my taste, those lovely clusters of what turned out to be pickled peppercorns are definitely garnish and not palatable.  Spicy, pickly, fishy and bitter- and really, just plain stinky-  they were only visually appealing: what the menu qualifies as "unique fragrance" might originate from these funky bunches, and they should be left 
to the periphery along with the fibrous kaffir lime leaves .  The rest of the Pad Chaa, on the other hand, was highly edible, aggressively spiced with fiery chilis and garlic, although I think I would've preferred the seedy orbs of eggplant sauteed along with the fat shrimp and tender cylinders of squid,  instead of raw or nearly raw as they seemed to be.  

Hopefully you have come in a group, which is the only way to justifiably attack the most novel dessert option at Kiin: the "Num Kang Sai" Icy Mountain, which is not necessarily that good, yet still something to behold.  A behemoth mound of squiggling creamy ice- not quite sherbet nor granita but something smooth and refreshing just in between, a nice turn of events after all the heat of the meal.  It is flavored with a red syrup flavored from an indigenous Thai fruit that tastes a little (read: a lot) like bubble gum.  Alongside are small cups of accoutrments: a sticky coconut rice that would pair better with mangoes, sweetened red beans that would be more successful as a mochi filling, translucent globules that are apparently palm seeds and are just plain weird (although amusing), and oddly enough, kernels of yellow corn, which are really nothing BUT odd, as dessert, with or without the frozen pink slush.  
  A pot of green tea might be a more sophisticated way to end the evening, depending on your company and temperament.   Served in rough clay mugs with no handles, it allows your hands to appreciate the warm, rough texture of the rustic clay.  It feels simultaneously invigorating and soothing, warm and authentic and sort of Zen, which is much the sentiment I garnered from Kiin itself.  

36 E.8th Street (Between University Place & Broadway)
Tel. 212.529.2363