Strawberries are rare in Thailand, so it’s surprising that strawberry tum ($12) is the best dish at Rynn — a newish East Village Thai at 105 E. Fifth Street, near First Avenue. Ripe berries are tossed with bright yellow husk cherries and dressed with lime juice and chile paste, with a touch of fish sauce. Rynn’s recipe also brings out the floral flavor of the county’s famous bird’s eye chiles, and as if that weren’t quite good enough, the herb phak paew, also known as lady’s thumb, evokes the smell of soil after a tropical rain.
The strawberry salad is only one of the innovative dishes offered at Rynn, owned by five female partners including chefs Hataichanok Pruksaprawpong and Archara Kittisatho. The interior is clubby, with a bar on one side and tables on the other, and larger-than-life murals of folkloric figures facetiously smoking cigarettes and drinking wine from flutes. As if to signal that culinary history equals fun, there’s la tiang ($15), shrimp and pork bound together in an egg cage with peanuts, an ancient dish commemorated in an 18th century poem composed by future king Rama II. Once you figure out how to eat it, the dish is damn good.
Rynn’s menu also demonstrates the many Chinese and Japanese elements modern Thai cooking has absorbed. Kanom jeeb (“pleated snack”) evokes Chinese siu mai, a fringed dumpling bulging with shrimp, pork, and chicken; while goong chae nam pla ($15) likely evolved from Japanese sashimi. The dish was introduced here 15 years ago by Ayada in Elmhurst, where one of the waitresses attested to the Japanese origins of the dish. But here rather than being left whole, the raw shrimp have been minced. Flavored with fried shallots and dill, they are deposited in green and red endive leaves, making the appetizer easier to eat and adding crunch to the crustaceans.
If you like your shrimp cooked, dive into srang-wa goong, a towering salad of shrimp and micro greens mildly flavored with fresh lemongrass that might be at home on a modern bistro menu. Skip the fried lotus root ($12) dusted with Thai spices, a noble concept in which some of the slices are disarmingly tough. But, aside from the strawberry tum and la tiang, the best starter is an entrée: kai jiaw pu, a wonderful, turban-shaped crab omelet ($20), with eggs fluffy and nicely browned, lots of crab mixed with the soufflé, and a bonus garnish on top. Every bite is heavenly whether or not you bother with the sriracha dipping sauce.
You could also make a main course of wok-fried noodles like kua gai (wide rice noodles and chicken in sweet soy sauce) or soups like tom kha pla tod (featuring fried fish in coconut milk), but two entrees merit special attention. While Rynn generally avoids the classic curries found among older Thai restaurants, ra wang gai is a green chicken curry featuring a sauce that didn’t come out of a jar, and furthermore lacks coconut milk. The result is a dark green gravy so loaded with botanical flavor you’ll be pouring it over your rice after the chicken is gone.
Ped yang is another curry, this time from Thailand’s far south. It tastes very much like a Malaysian dish, featuring a duck leg and thigh rising out of an orange panang curry — served with roti instead of rice. It is irresistible, sweet with garlic, lime leaf, and galangal, and thickened with peanuts and coconut milk; duck with its dark flavors proves the perfect foil.
Rynn offers lots of jazzy cocktails ($17 to $22) featuring such ingredients as lemongrass-infused gin, peanut-washed rum, and orange liqueur, but my favorite beverage to go with the endlessly fascinating and even challenging food at Rynn is Spanish cava ($17), aggressively bubbly and acid-neutralizing.
Desserts are creamy and soothing at Rynn, which helps offset the spiciness of the food like a dose of vitamin C helps you come down from LSD. Skip the Thai tea creme brulee as it’s a little too syrupy, in favor of the banana roti served with butterfly pea coconut ice cream, or the mango sticky rice. The latter is a classic Thai meal-ender that deposits you on fruity terra firma after your dining adventure at Rynn.