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Thai food takes New York

New restaurants and chefs are focusing on flavors from Thailand

It looked as if 2010 were shaping up to be The Year of the Italian Restaurant in New York. But this fall it seems to be Thai food that’s in play.

For a while, much of the food and restaurant buzz in the Big Apple was about Italian food.

Michael White’s Italian seafood restaurant Marea won the James Beard Foundation Award for the best new restaurant, and Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Del Posto won a rarified four-star review in The New York Times — the first Italian restaurant to do so in decades.

In addition, Jonathan Benno, Per Se’s former executive chef, launched the high-profile Italian restaurant, Lincoln; Keith McNally imported San Francisco celebrity chef Nate Appleman to run Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria; and the Batali-Bastianich team debuted Eataly, the retail-and-restaurant emporium that’s virtually an amusement park for Italian food lovers.

But then things began to take a decidedly Thai turn.

Kittichai, a Thai fine-dining restaurant, and Pranna, which serves Southeast Asian food, both have hired Thai-food experts to run their kitchens. Harold Dieterle, executive chef of Perilla and winner of the first season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef,” opened a mostly Thai restaurant called Kin Shop last week.

And this week Thai restaurateur David Bank opened his fourth restaurant, Pure Thai Shophouse, a noodle-centric operation specializing in the basic dishes that small-business people in Thailand sell out of their shophouses.

Finally, Feast, NBC’s New York food blog, broke the news that Las Vegas’ Lotus of Siam, which food writer John Mariani has called the best Thai restaurant in the country, plans to open a location in New York in November.

Kittichai, a see-and-be-seen spot at the 60 Thompson hotel, has enjoyed a good reputation for its food since it opened in 2004 with a team headed by Ian Chalermkittichai, who put his career as a celebrity chef in Thailand on hold to open the New York restaurant.

Chalermkittichai has returned home, and Ty Bellingham is taking his place. Bellingham honed his craft working for legendary Thai-cuisine chef and fellow Australian David Thompson, and ran Thompson’s three Sailors Thai restaurants in Sydney before arriving in New York.

Bellingham is updating such classic Thai dishes as tom kha gai — a coconut-milk soup with galangal, kaffir lime leaf and chicken — by using mahi mahi as the protein and adding enoki mushrooms. He has reinterpreted the hot-and-sour seafood soup tom yam by turning it into a hot pot to be augmented with whatever guests like — from shrimp and salmon to little neck clams, Alaskan king crab or even lamb loin.

The northeastern Thai dish of kai yang, or smoky grilled chicken, is elevated by preparing it with Cornish game hen.

Bellingham even gets playful with miang kham, a snack from Thailand’s central plains traditionally made by placing dried shrimp, toasted coconut, citrus, ginger, shallot and sweet tamarind sauce in a betel leaf. A one-bite item, it tastes different each time you chew as different elements land on the tongue.

Bellingham’s version is made instead with smoked trout, caramelized palm sugar dressing and salmon roe, and served on a shiso leaf.

Farther uptown at Pranna, Keith Kornfeld, the new executive chef, also worked with David Thompson, albeit for a 10-day stage at Namh, his Michelin-starred restaurant in London. But he also honed his craft working at hotels in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, and on the resort island of Phuket.

Kornfeld’s hot-and-sour tom yam is prepared tableside, with servers pouring the broth from a teapot over par-cooked lobster with small brown mushrooms, a single de-seeded chile, one kaffir lime leaf and a little baby cilantro.

The northeastern Thai grilled-meat dish nam tok, usually prepared with beef or occasionally pork, roasted ground rice, citrus, fish sauce and chiles, is made instead with tenderloin of young lamb. Banana rotis — a popular breakfast item on Thailand’s backpacker circuit, and often served with condensed milk — is a dessert at Pranna, augmented with chocolate sauce.

Dieterle’s new restaurant, Kin Shop — kin means “eat” in Thai — is the result of his two visits to Thailand.

His first visit was a casual one in 2003, when he was working at The Harrison, a mostly Mediterranean restaurant where, he said, his Asian-inspired innovations were not encouraged.

Then he returned on an organized mission in 2008, with a guide to show him the ins and outs of Thai cuisine.

“Once I got back from Thailand I really started to implement, I would say, slightly dumbed down versions of Thai food at Perilla,” he said. “They were received very well, so it was a natural next step for me to do a Thai place.”

Like Bellingham and Kornfeld, Dieterle’s not going for authenticity in his food. “I’m not a Thai guy. I’ve got a couple of Thai cooks and I’ve had their moms come in, and they were pretty shocked that I was making my own curry paste,” he said, noting that few restaurants do that any more.

Dieterle’s take on Thai ramen-style noodles, or ba mee, is served in not-so-traditional mushroom broth and topped with a poached duck egg. His laab, a northeastern Thai dish traditionally made with chicken, beef or pork, is made with duck, and served with romaine hearts.

Dieterle updates classic massaman curry, a southern Thai dish, by dressing it up with purple yams. He prepares the dish with braised goat, just as many southern Thais do.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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