One of the best things I’ve tasted lately is ho mok. This Cambodian rarity is occasionally offered on the city’s Thai menus, more often spelled "amok." It arrives in a pair of small mason jars, curried fish tidbits in a fluffy, brick-red mousse of coconut milk and duck eggs, with a nest of shredded kaffir lime leaves on top. Damn, it’s good! Find ho mok among a wealth of other unusual fare at Kiin Thai, a new offshoot of Somtum Der in the midst of the N.Y.U. campus — how’s that for hiding in plain sight? The space was formerly the lackluster Cafetasia, a pan-Asian refectory that one always suspected of secretly being a dormitory dining hall. Well, even cursed locations can get lucky sometimes.
"Airy" is a word that might be abused for the umpteenth time to describe the interior, which offers a finger of space with window seating to the left of the front door, while on the right a whitewashed dining room spreads before you, seating about 60 at bone-white tables. The room reminded one friend of ABC Carpet, featuring little clusters of kitschy paintings, random ceramics, and objets d’art hung on the wall and in distressed-wood cabinets. The room is pleasant enough, though you’d never guess Kiin Thai is one of the best Southeast Asian restaurants in the city.
You’d never guess Kiin Thai is one of the best Southeast Asian restaurants in the city.
Compared to the monomaniacal menu of Somtum Der — which concentrates almost to the point of insanity on the green papaya salads, yums, and bar snacks of Thailand’s Isan region — Kiin Thai’s is eclectic. It creeps across the map to include Central Thai recipes as well as noodles from Chiang Mai, a city on Thailand’s border with Burma. An example of the latter is khao soi ($15), a meal-size soup in a rich yellow broth stippled with red chile oil, which also shows Burmese influences. Soft egg noodles lurk in the depths while crunchy fried noodles float on top — as if the cook couldn’t decide which type to use. Khao soi might just be the Siamese dish of the year, since it’s also showcased at Pok Pok and (unsurprisingly) at Kao Soy, both in Red Hook.
Like Pok Pok, which it more than a little resembles in outlook, Kiin Thai fearlessly features dishes from other Southeast Asian countries, especially when they fill in perceived gaps in the Thai menu. Grilled summer shrimp ($10) constitutes a cunning variation on Vietnamese summer rolls. Colorfully served in a series of four shot glasses, each roll features pickled carrots, cucumbers, and good-size shrimp tumbled inside an oak-lettuce leaf, which is further wrapped in sticky rice paper. A dose of fermented fish sauce finishes the accompanying tamarind dip, which is so good you’ll grab it back from the busboy as he tries to remove it from the table.
Who doesn’t love a restaurant that takes chances? Though you might never order it again, the plate-size salad called tum sweet corn with salted eggs ($10) is a tour-de-force of Southeast Asian flavors, with the funky and crumbly eggs lolling in a field of bright yellow kernels that taste powerfully of lime and chiles. Thankfully, Kiin is one place you won’t be asked to select a level of hotness — the dishes come just the way they are and you’ll have to deal with it. Other menu oddities include duck in an oily red curry; the obscene-sounding golden bags (vegetables fried in rice paper); and chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves. Also known as screw pine, these leaves issue from a deciduous tree with a flavor approximating basmati rice; they’re also used in India to goose up the flavor of inferior rice. Gobble the bird and discard the leaves, which are too tough to be edible.
Wonders await around every corner at Kiin Thai. The much-abused pad Thai is here rehabilitated by concealing the noodles inside a thin omelet and putting the shrimp on top. If you want to make it too sweet — as they do in bad Thai restaurants — a small vessel of sugar comes on the side along with crushed peanuts and pickled turnips. My favorite dish on the menu is relished both in Isan and across the muddy Mekong River in Laos. Nham prik ($12) is a bowl of fiery ground pork that comes with an array of dipping implements that surround the bowl like a passel of squalling children around a matriarch. This convivial concoction can be shared by the whole table, who take turns scooping up the ground meat with fried pork skins, carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, sausages, and fish cake. Consider it a test of your dexterity likely to leave your fellow diners in stitches as you try to ferry the dip to your mouth without dribbling meat on your pants. How many dishes can you think of that provide a delicious experience with a side of levity?
Cost: Dinner for two with tax but not tip, with a cocktail apiece, $100
Sample dishes: Ho mok (fish mousse), nham prik ong (ground pork dip), duck red curry, grilled summer shrimp. For vegetarians: golden bags (fried vegetable pouches), nham prik num (eggplant dip, vegetarian except for a small fishcakeask).
What to drink: Thai black coffee, Laos dark beer, or one of the inventive cocktails, especially the pandan old fashioned, which sends the classic scuttering in a new direction.
Bonus tip: Don’t be tempted by the combination lunches, which make Kiin seem like every other Thai restaurant in town; insist on ordering from the regular menu.