Sunday, February 3, 2013

Cobaya Khong

I have never been to Thailand. I've not had the chance to eat from a floating market vendor or a Bangkok street stall. But when Chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn (a/k/a "Chef Bee") talks about preparing the food he grew up eating as a child, I feel pretty comfortable using that dangerous buzzword - authentic.

Chef Bee is the chef at Khong River House, which played host to our latest Cobaya dinner the Thursday before last. As always, our marching orders were simple: cook the dishes that get you excited, that you don't otherwise have a chance to serve at your restaurant. Chef Bee's response was as passionate and heartfelt as any we've ever experienced.  The result was a rewarding meal that provided a view of Thai cuisine we aren't often afforded by Miami's Thai restaurants.

Our dinner started with a trip up the stairs of Khong, named for the Mekong River which winds its way through China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the comfortable upstairs hideaway,[1] a long table awaited, covered with blown-up photos from Chef Bee's trips back home. The bar was also set with some drinking snacks that would set the tone for the meal:

(You can see all my pictures from the meal in this Cobaya Khong flickr set.)

Dak Dae Tod are plump salt-and-pepper fried silk worm larvae. Mang Da Tod[2] are deep-fried water bugs, which chef Bee tossed with five-spice. Of the two, I genuinely enjoyed the former - the silkworm pupae had a pleasingly soft, almost creamy texture, and were as good a vehicle as any for the classic salt-and-pepper flavors. The water bug was more texturally challenging - the kind of papery feel of a shrimp head that's not quite been fried crispy enough to eat comfortably - but had an intriguing, almost floral flavor as you crunched down on its carcass which reminded me of elderflower. Though perhaps shocking to Western sensibilities, both are common Thai street snacks.

(continued ...)

Our first course at the table after being seated involved more entomology: a salad of red ant eggs, tucked into an endive spear - Yam Kai Mod Dang.[3] Chef Bee described how these eggs would often be found when climbing in trees for fruit - mangoes, lychees, longans and others - and then used to prepare this salad, dressed with the typical flavors of fresh chiles, lime juice, fish sauce and fresh herbs. Underneath was a crisp long bean and a little bed of pickled onions. The salad had great flavors - that awesome power chord of salty, sour and spicy, all turned up to eleven. I'd be hard pressed to tell you what flavors the ant eggs contributed, but I wouldn't hesitate to eat them again.

The next appetizer was a take on a treat Chef Bee's mom would prepare for him after school - pork brains wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed (Nab Ong Or Muu Yang), served with sticky rice. Here, Chef Bee rounded out the pork brains (not an easy item to source locally) with more ground pork along with lemongrass, lime leaf and shallots, and steamed and then smoked the banana leaf wrapped bundles. It was rich but not heavy, and I particularly liked how the aroma of the lime leaf permeated and brightened the flavors. One of my favorites of the evening.

Another dish, another story: Chef Bee described for us how, when the rice was being harvested, dinner would typically be a curry of whatever else turned up in the rice paddies: often frogs, fish, eels, snakes. Unlike the heavy, thick coconut milk curries which most of us are accustomed to from the ubiquitous versions of Thai food offered at most restaurants, this Northern-style curry (Yam Gob) was lighter, more brothy, though still heavily spiced. Chef Bee explained how typically frogs would be torched and blanched in a broth of lemongrass, turmeric and galangal to get rid of the fishy smell, then cooked in a new broth, here redolent with roasted chiles, shallots and garlic, lemongrass, herbs, and fish sauce.

From there, Chef Bee shifted gears to a family-style main course service that included nearly half of Khong's regular menu. We usually discourage chefs from serving regular menu items at Cobaya dinners, but I understand and appreciate why they did so here. Given the exoticism of the lead items, I'm sure they were concerned that they didn't want to send any potentially squeamish diners home hungry.

From top to bottom: Sai Ua (a/k/a Chiang Rai sausage), a house-made pork sausage flavored with lemongrass, garlic, chile, cilantro, galanga, and soy, served with typical accompaniments of fried pork rinds (Kap Muu) and Nam Prik Num (a dipping of sauce of fresh chile paste); Goong Tod Gluar Prik Thai Dum, Vietnamese style crispy prawns with chile, garlic and shallots; and Pad Dok Mai Guard Tao Huu, cubes of tofu stir fried with garlic chives and bean sprouts. The tofu dish in particular was a really pleasant surprise, with nice firm tofu that was a great vehicle for the soy and garlic flavors of the stir-fry.

More: Kha Muu Pa Low Mann Tow, a whole pork leg slow-cooked till fall-apart tender in a Northern Thai style with five-spice and oyster sauce, served with punchy chile vinegar, pickled vegetables and puffy steamed buns to make DIY sandwiches; Bahmi Sua, Burmese-style egg noodles tossed with cauliflower and broccoli, dressed in mushroom soy sauce, and with some toasted peanuts and dried chile flakes for contrast; and, not pictured, Gai Yang, a slow-roasted rotisserie chicken stuffed with lemongrass, turmeric, garlic and coriander. All were served with yellow-hued Burmese style sticky rice for an accompaniment.

The choices were representative of the underlying theme of Khong, which focuses on Northern Thai cuisine and bears the influences of those areas connected to Thailand by the Mekong River - Burma (Myanmar, these days), Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.[4] I'm sure even those who didn't gorge themselves on bugs and frogs earlier found themselves plenty to eat among this generous spread.

Desserts followed a similar pattern: some exotic, some accessible. On the exotic side, a rice pudding topped with durian, the notoriously stinky fruit that is banned in many public places in Southeast Asia. I didn't find the aroma nearly as offensive as often advertised (though this was presumably a canned product, not fresh), though it definitely has something of the ripe cheese / well-worn socks thing going on. One of our fellow diners recommended holding your nose while eating it, which does accentuate the creamy, custardy, nutty flavor. But then you miss the full experience, which Anthony Burgess described as "like eating raspberry blancmange in a lavatory." The Thai donuts, drizzled with chocolate and condensed milk, required no nose-holding. I missed a sample of a third dessert, a frothy concoction of jackfruit and coconut milk studded with water chestnuts.

Throughout the meal, sommelier Allegra Angelo offered outstanding pairings to go along with a tricky menu, starting with a cocktail of Cremant de Limoux and yellow Chartreuse, followed by a Reisetbauer sparkling apple cider, a fantastic Kruger-Rumpf 1998 Dautenpflantzer Riesling Spatlese, a soft-spoken Spanish Garnacha from Bernabeleva, and to close, another sparkling cocktail of Laurent-Perrier Demi-Sec Champagne, pomegranate arils, and Marilyn Manson "Mansinthe" absinthe.

We're very grateful to Chef Bee for opening up a window to a side of Thai cuisine that we don't usually get to see; to Khong owner John Kunkel for giving him the opportunity to do so and us the opportunity to experience; to all the crew at Khong for their spot-on service throughout the evening; and as always most of all, to the guinea pigs whose support makes these kinds of events possible.

Khong River House
1661 Meridian Avenue, Miami Beach

Khong River House on Urbanspoon

[1]Khong's space off Lincoln Road used to be Miss Yip, with the Buck 15 lounge upstairs.

[2]The name apparently carries the Thai connotation of a shiftless bar-fly who lives off his girlfriend.

[3]Often alternately spelled "mot daeng."

[4]It is similar turf to that trod by the current New York sensation which started in a Portland driveway, Pok Pok.

1 comment:

  1. Deep fried water bugs, larvae, sock smelling cheese and Marilyn Manson absinthe.... for Miami standards this was truly an authentic experience. Shame I missed it. Great write up as always