Two ambitious new Thai spots are exactly what Manhattan needs. Just not within four blocks of each other. It’s a big enough city.
Understandably, there’s a little neighborhood competition between Kin Shop and Lotus of Siam.
Both are a stone’s throw away from New York University with its noodle-gobbling students, and both take credit cards. Usually devotees of high-end Thai curries have had to make pilgrimages to Sripraphai in Queens with wads of cash.
I’ll stay in Manhattan, at least for Harold Dieterle’s Kin Shop, a very good place to eat that could double as a homeopathic clinic dedicated to sinus-clearing.
Pay close attention to the warning -- four asterisks -- next to the duck laab salad. You are told it’s the spiciest menu item, which means competitive types will compulsively order it to impress their dates.
The dish first tastes of precision. The musk of duck is perfumed by lemongrass; the bird’s fattiness is kept in check with fish sauce. It’s scooped up with romaine hearts, edible spoons whose cool crunch only pretend to quell the ground chilis.
The heat comes first in a pinch, then in a punch. It grows until you feel it in your bones. Sip your Mekhong whiskey and ginger cocktail -- it only fans the flames. You start panting and give up. Take it home and repeat the experience.
This is all another way of saying that Dieterle, who won the first season of Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” competition, doesn’t abide by the Jean-Georges school of tempering powerful Asian ingredients with a dose of European moderation.
Roll Over Mozart
Rather, he challenges diners with flavors that are both unadulterated and balanced. Imagine Mozart at the volume of Metallica. That’s Kin Shop.
The fiery bite of crab noodles has enough heat to cause a brow sweat, yet doesn’t overpower the sweet shellfish.
Squid ink soup is a black bowl of brine; a combustible dose of hot sesame oil heats up the broth like a gasoline fire. Garam masala soup uses cinnamon, cloves, star anise and cumin to leave long, lingering warmth in the stomach, not the mouth.
Pad Thai? Not served here. Rather, we get a stew of firm rice flake noodles, rock shrimp and cauliflower. Is it more American than Thai? Probably. And that’s okay.
Authenticity is always a nebulous concept, which is why Dieterle lets flavors come through with a bit of creativity -- do the Thais really slow cook pork-belly and top it with fried oysters?
Know your curries. French-style seared duck breast seems tame, until you wrap it in flaky flatbread and dunk in a powerful red curry (if only the bird’s fat was more sufficiently rendered). Green curry is gentler; its notes of kaffir lime and cilantro enliven a delicately steamed snapper. Yellow curry is best for beginners; a slightly sour, slightly sweet paste coats tender braised rabbit.
Finish with a galangal ice cream and root beer float. It’s an American junk food approach to Southeast Asia. And it’s probably the perfect foil to that spicy laab salad.
Leaving Las Vegas
The typical pattern of American culinary migration is that restaurateurs set up shop in Vegas after they’ve made it in New York or Los Angeles.
Lotus of Siam has pulled a reverse, bringing its Sin City twist on Thai to the old Cru space on Fifth Avenue. The result: an overpriced takeout joint.
There’s an impressive list of nimble Rieslings to match the spicy fare, a stellar beef tartare that gets a brilliant zing from mint, citrus and roasted spices. The fried Chilean Sea bass is ethereal.
Then there’s coconut milk soup with mushrooms. Tastes fine -- only we ordered the version with shrimp. How about a 30 minute wait between starters and mains? Servers disappear when it’s time for a check.
Pad Thai, a saccharine mix of egg, noodles, peanuts and choices of meat, tastes like any version served at any Thai restaurant, anywhere in New York. Red and green curries lack the complex depth of flavor of those at Kin Shop. Here, they’re about bland, overcooked chicken or pork in scented coconut broth.
Soft-shell crabs (typically an early summer specialty), are as gritty as winter slush in January. Short ribs are under-rendered; fried, stuffed chicken wings recall an overcooked egg roll. The beefiness of rib eye is undetectable in a pungent chili dipping sauce. That’s a $36 mistake.
Skewered chicken satay, the bane of weddings and office parties, is a testimony to the bad buffets of Las Vegas. Lotus needs to do better in our country’s culinary capital.
Kin Shop Rating: **
Lotus of Siam Rating: *
The Bloomberg Questions
Prices: Most dishes under $30.
Sound Level: Loud when full at both, near 80 decibels.
Date Place: At Lotus, if your date likes tame Thai.
Inside tip: Great braised goat at Kin Shop.
Special Feature: Solid desserts at Lotus.
Will I be back: To Kin Shop.
Kin Shop is at 469 Sixth Avenue near 11th St. Information: +1-212-675-4295. Lotus of Siam is at 24 Fifth Avenue at 9th St. Information: +1-212-529-1700.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels):
51 to 55: Church on a weekday. 56 to 60: The vegetable aisle at the Food Emporium. 61 to 65: Keyboards clacking at the office. 66 to 70: My alarm clock when it goes off inches from my ear. 71 to 75: Corner deli at lunchtime. 76 to 80: Back of a taxi with advertisements at full volume. 81 to 85: Loud, crowded subway with announcements.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)