Have you heard the one about the five restaurant critics who walk into a bar?
That was the scene last month, when I traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the Association of Food Journalists conference. My colleagues descended on the city’s restaurants like gourmet locusts, gathering in swarms to sample all of the latest, hottest spots in town.
I found myself without my game stomach on — more interested in catching up with old friends rather than passing around beautiful plates of foie gras and squab, trying to detect the hints of licorice root and bee pollen. I wasn’t going to jump through any hoops to get into the must-visit restaurant.
Little Serow is a dim, brick-walled basement space that barely seats 20 people. In an earlier age, it might have been a jazz club. Instead, it is a Thai restaurant that serves a weekly-changing seven-course menu for $45. It takes no reservations, so customers begin lining up at 4:30 in hopes of getting a spot for sometime in the evening.
I was intrigued because Little Serow belongs to an emerging genre of dining that I’ve started to call “badass Asian.” These restaurants serve dishes that are as often as not whacked-out love letters to Asian cooking as they are faithful examples of Japanese, Korean or Thai dishes. They may be run by Asian immigrants, Asian-Americans or non-Asian Americans: doesn’t matter. Some notable national examples are Pok Pok (Portland, Oregon, and New York), which explores regional Thai cooking, and Mission Chinese (San Francisco, New York), which serves kung pao pastrami, among other dishes.
In Atlanta, we’ve got Octopus Bar — the East Atlanta Village patio restaurant where chef Angus Brown prepares sea urchin pasta, fried river crabs and other items starting at 10 p.m. nightly.
The food at B.A. Asian places promises to be fearless. Every time you walk into one of these restaurants you hear the silent rejoinder to that waiter who tried to steer you away from the not-translated back page of a menu with “Americans don’t like this.”
It may be startlingly spicy, or it may revel in the off bits like gelatinous beef tendon, chewy cock’s comb or bony (yes) duck’s tongue.
At its best, B.A. Asian is instructive, using flavors and ingredients that Americans relate to to show how Eastern cuisines build complex flavors with broths, herbs, chilies and the umami notes of dried and fermented fish.
That’s what chef Johnny Monis at Little Serow does. Monis, who traveled extensively in Thailand to learn the cooking, starts you with herbs, raw vegetables and puffed pork rinds to crunch your brain to attention. He then builds the spice level through the meal; the chilies seem to pry the flavors open. Som tum khao pod — a salad of raw corn and dried shrimp — offers a cheerful, easygoing contrast of sweetness and umami. Laap chiang mai has such a porky, caramel depth to the flavors that you don’t notice the heat has been ratcheted up further. Then comes an explosive dish called khao tod — crispy-fried rice cakes, peanuts and mint — that takes your tongue in many well-plotted directions.
Monis chooses, wisely I think, to take the dare out of the Thai dining experience. You don’t go here to crunch on tiny bird bones or eat blood cakes; it’s all about the layering of flavors. This meal was well worth our efforts — a half hour in line, then two hours cooling our heels in a nearby coffee shop, waiting for a phone text when the table opened.
I think I first became aware of B.A. Asian in a similarly cramped and unprepossessing restaurant several years ago. Before David Chang had a Momofuku empire — with restaurants from New York to Sydney and Toronto — he had one corridor-thin noodle bar in the East Village of Manhattan. At the time, Chang was making a name for his bacon-broth ramen noodles and pork belly buns. I remember going and being so thrilled with strange deliciousness of this place that I came back the next day. Talk about not acting like a restaurant critic.
The noodle bar has since decamped to a larger space up the street, and the original sliver of space has was rechristened as Momofuku Ko in 2008. Customers now gather at the counter for a two-hour extravaganza of 15 or more courses hand-delivered by the chefs. The cost is $125 at night, and you’ve got to jump on the online reservation site precisely a week in advance to score a seat.
I booked a seat for one on my last trip to New York, and found myself starting an epic meal one Thursday night at 9:30, with a nice headhunter from Calgary as my de facto man date.
While the food at Ko is as refined as any in New York, you can still taste its B.A. Asian roots. Beef tartare here comes not with capers, but the saline funk of oyster foam — startling and honestly a little gross at first bite, but then canny in the way it makes you appreciate the dueling flavors of blood and fat in the meat.
A bowl of riesling jelly, pine nut brittle and lychee fruit gets a mountain of frozen foie gras shaved over the top with a rasp. It collapses in your mouth like cotton candy. That feeling of food “happening” is, I think, one of the hallmarks of B.A. Asian.
It ended up being quite a long meal, and by the time the 48-hour cooked short rib with peach and onion came, I felt like I had been there nearly as long. But I appreciated the global perspective of this food and the quietly subversive way the kitchen built flavors. B.A. Asian restaurants are upending the old order.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog