"That was not great," says a matronly woman at the corner table, breaking out of Italian for a moment to address her waiter in English.

"Too spicy?" he asks.

"There was spice?" she says pointedly. She strikes me as the kind of Italian lady who would play a ruthless game of chicken on the narrow sidewalks of Florence, preferring to drive any oncoming passersby onto the street rather than move her umbrella one inch in the pouring rain. As an unsure foreign exchange student, I always ended up in the gutter. Now she turns to her dining companion and switches back into Italian. I expect her to leave in a huff. But no: she lingers over coffee for at least another forty-five minutes, seeming to enjoy the place.

Such is the mystique of Kittichai. We know it's not all it's cracked up to be, so why stick around? For one thing, while the food may not be buonissimo anymore, it still holds its own. It is to Kittichai's advantage - one that is sometimes abused - that there are so few good Thai places in NYC and so many bad ones. In the area around NYU, for instance, you could throw a brick and hit some watery tom kha gai, bland pad thai, and cloyingly sweet curry all in one blow. There is such a proliferation of bad Thai that many people don't even realize it's bad anymore. Kittichai is good by comparison, but it can leave you wondering if it might be "not great."

So how to unravel the mystery of its appeal? There is something extraordinarily pleasing about the space itself. At night, the low lighting gives way to the flickering candles that circulate gently on a square pool in the center of the room. The banquettes all face the main action, which can be interesting, since the restaurant belongs to the hotel 60 Thompson, a convenient stop-off point for celebrities, visiting and local. On the night I visited, Damon Wayans was drinking martinis at one table with two industry suits, while Ingrid Sischy held court at the table next to his. We were lucky enough to have the table right across from theirs, perhaps no accident, since our host is a regular at Kittichai.

On that night, my back is to the wall, the edges of the square room are softened by the drape of raw silk curtains, the view of the pond's surface, the flowers dangling above, the candles, the round tables in the center, and the room itself is clear, yet we are tucked away and thus do not feel exposed in any way. Then it strikes me: I am living in a feng shui fantasy! This place is feng shui'd to the nines - the eights, rather. It is carefully engineered to both excite and comfort, and it's that push-pull that makes Kittichai a sexy dining experience.

Enter the food from stage right. On the Damon-Wayans-Ingrid-Sischy night, sans Italian matron, we order several dishes to share. The salt and pepper rock shrimp is supposed to be phenomenal. The salt and pepper tempura is good, but the shrimp meat itself isn't particularly exciting, and the two elements don't come together the way they should. Tuna tartare is a bit sad and dry, probably because it is covered in dry flaky pastry and served alongside a strange contraption of additional dry pastry shells. The tangy beef salad is composed of excellent seared steak, though the extreme lime-y-ness of the dressing can overwhelm it. The weird-sounding chicken relish turns out to be a delicious peanuty puree of chicken served alongside delicate fried bread crisps. The fatty peanut flavor gives way to the slow fire of hidden chilies.

Onto the main courses. After a brief scuffle between the waiter, my friend and me over the preferred serving method of the whole halibut - filleted or not filleted? - I give way to the pro-filleting side and again end up in the gutter. In deference to Western, bone-shy tastes, the fish is cut into bite size chunks before, not after, it is flash fried, which I didn't realize from the waiter's description, and which means that it does not retain that succulent meatiness it has when fried whole, bone-in. A successful version of a similar dish can be found at Grand Sichuan, where the fish of the day is served fried, whole, head-on, smothered in bean sauce. At Kittichai, I feel gypped, but only because they pegged us for bone-shy Westerners, which, admittedly, some of us are.

The curries are fabulous. They exude a sweet heat that makes me spoon the last remaining sauce over little piles of rice even after the sliced chicken and egg noodles of the light yellow curry are gone, and the short ribs in the green curry are just a pile of bones - mostly on my plate.

We also have a good chili smoked hangar steak, the wok-fried rice with ginger, shitake mushrooms and coriander, which comes very prettily served in half a pineapple, and plain jasmine rice. As all of this is served, our waiter makes sure to point out what each dish is. The steak is steak, the chicken is chicken, and even the rice is revealed to be rice. Eureka! Because I was about to dig into a decorative fried fish head, thinking it was rice.

I return another day at lunchtime, hoping to sample the chocolate short ribs that I later read were amazing and that I had not tried. Sadly, they are not on the lunch menu, but there is an offering of "galangal and chicken coconut soup," longhand for tom kha gai. I consider myself a tom kha gai aficionado, if not a connoisseur. At the slightest sign of a cold, I order tom kha gai, the Thai version of chicken soup. In a warning sign of what may be true New Yorkiness, plain old chicken soup just won't do it anymore for me. Kittichai's version of tom kha gai is creamy, not watery, full of hunks of tender chicken and those whole little straw mushrooms that always remind me of the cutesy cool of Japanese anime. The sweetness of the coconut milk is balanced by the kaffir lime juice and the orange sheen of chili oil on top. For a while, I am enthralled by the tom kha gai. Then I release it back to the attentive waiter, saving some of my appetite for the monkfish.

The staff is attentive indeed. There is a sense you get as a restaurant reviewer, even a blogging one, when you've been made. The hair on the back of your neck stands up, you're looking at them, they're looking at you, and suddenly your water glass is always full. Such is the case at Kittichai the second time around, and this may have been at least part of the explanation for what happens next.

Because here is the fish I was looking for last time. A tender, flaky, filet is doused in an excellent sauce spiked with hearts of palm, sauteed red onion, and holy basil leaves, whose strange yet distinctive taste permeates the dish. This I pick at slowly, because it is worth savoring.

Unlike the Italian lady, I am quite satisfied by the time I get my check. It is only when I'm out on the street, walking further and further away from the restaurant itself that I wonder, how hard is it, anyway, to make tom kha gai? Could I make it myself, using a simple cookbook like this one? But I certainly wouldn't be able to recreate that monkfish without a lot of practice and perhaps some divine intervention. Most importantly, if I tried this at home, I would be denying myself the pleasure of visiting the restaurant itself. Back in that elusive Bermuda triangle of feng shui'd charm, I'm sure I would fall under the Kittichai spell once again.

60 Thompson Street between Broome and Spring Streets


Anonymous said...

Decent/good Thai isn't that hard to find in the city. Excellent, authentic, or superb Thai... that's a different story.