The Alluring Nari
The newest restaurant sensation in San Francisco to open its doors just last week is named for the Thai word for “woman.”
It’s an apt moniker because it was opened by a woman as formidable as they get.
The captivating Nari, which opened in the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown, is the latest endeavor by Pim Techamuanvivit, who holds two Michelin stars, one each at Kin Khao in San Francisco’s Parc 55 hotel, and Nahm in Bangkok. Additionally, she operates Kamin, a fast-casual cafe in the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Techamuanvivit worked in tech in the Bay Area, before becoming one of the earliest breakout blogging stars with her site Chez Pim. Along the way, she wrote a cookbook, then became an artisan jam maker before reinventing herself again as a chef-restaurateur.
In every case, she’s done so with aplomb.
So it comes as no surprise that a day before the official opening at a “friends and family” preview dinner, to which I was invited as a guest, her newest restaurant was already hitting it out of the park.
In continuing with the theme of woman-power, the chef de cuisine is Meghan Clark, who has worked at Kin Khao. The force behind the creative cocktails — all named after prominent females in Thai literature — is bar manager is Megan Daniel-Hoang, formerly of Whitechapel in San Francisco.
The main dining room is actually below ground — but it doesn’t feel like it, thanks to a wall of soaring windows that let in a profusion of light. The decor is modern, elegant Thai with a little edge of industrial thrown in. The banquette seats and balcony fronting the second floor dining area are smooth, warm, unvarnished wood, contrasting with the concrete pillars and exposed duct work on the ceiling. Banquette backs are upholstered in Thai silk. And plenty of green fronds in planters add a sense of lushness.
There are plenty of restaurants in which you wander in, and dine rather mindlessly, all the while getting your fill in a nonchalant stupor.
Nari is decidedly not that.
Instead, it’s a place that jolts your senses from the get-go. Want to quench your thirst? Try the Blue Flower Limeade ($7) that comes to the table opaque like you’d expect a mixture of lime juice, sugar and water to look. But then a server pours in a little something, and tells you to stir to “let the magic happen.” And it does, with the drink turning a vivid blue-purple, thanks to the addition of Thai butterfly blue pea flower.
The cocktails make an immediate impression, too. The Rojana ($14) is a blend of rum, lime cordial, pineapple gum, falernum, and Thai bitters that’s served in a coupe with a dried lime wheel. The first sip will likely make your eyes widen into saucers like it did to my husband. This drink definitely announces itself. It’s a strong yet balanced sip that’s very tangy, with the big warmth of spices and a touch of floral.
The menu is much more extensive than at Kin Khao, owing to the fact that the kitchen is much larger. In contrast, the one at Kin Khao, as Techamuanvivit joked, stretching her arms across a table for emphasis, is not much bigger than four of the four-top dining tables put together.
Everything on the menu is made for sharing family-style. You’ll wish you came with a bigger crowd, too, because after you try one or two dishes, you immediately want to try more.
The Miang ($14) is a must-order. First off, the delicate green betel leaves are beautiful to behold, heaped with bright orange cured trout roe, nectarine and other stone fruit, flakes of coconut, lemongrass, makrut lime, and fish sauce-tamarind caramel sauce. Second, this finger-food, which you fold up and eat in one bite is like TNT on the palate. You smell the pungent fish sauce and aromatic lemongrass when the dish first arrives at the table. But nothing prepares you for the explosion of flavors in your mouth. It’s a potent magnification of sweet, briny, funky, fruity, and salty — all at once.
Crispy veal sweetbreads ($9) are battered, golden-fried little nubbins flecked with red Thai chili slices and tamarind sauce. If you are a fan of Kin Khao’s chicken wings, these are reminiscent with their irresistible tang and spice.
With the mixed seafood curry (khao tung & ngob; $24), I was expecting a bowl of brothy seafood. This was such a surprise with small chunks of salmon, calamari and other seafood in a thick, red, pasty fiery curry with dry, numbing heat. The seafood curry was roasted in its own delightful banana-leaf basket, which came to the table with jagged brown rice crackers. The crackers are a little delicate, so it’s best to spoon the curry onto them rather than trying to dip them in.
Namprik Ong ($24) brought a small ceramic bowl of sweet Early Girl tomatoes stewed with ground pork in a Northern Thai curry paste. The Super-size-everything American mentality might at first make you think this a rather small serving. But the depth of flavors just keeps going and going in this dish, filling you up with all that it delivers. It’s almost like a meat dip, with chicharrones to dip into it with, as well as raw radishes and cucumbers, and gently cooked green and yellow beans, and cabbage leaves. It’s an intense dish with a good amount of spiciness. Munch on the crudites if you need help in dousing the flames.
Gaeng Rawaeng ($46) is a whole Cornish game hen served in a big bowl, with everything tinged mustardy yellow from turmeric. It’s a more saucy curry dish and slightly milder in heat than the dishes that came before it. There’s no knife on the table, so you use a fork and spoon to just tear at the incredibly tender flesh.
Rice is a must to enjoy all the lemongrass-scented sauce, as is the incredible roti that comes with this dish. While other roti are soft enough to drape on a plate, Nari’s is as crisp, flaky, layered, and buttery tasting as fine French pastry. Yes, it’s the equivalent of a Thai croissant in flatbread form. It’s just ever so sweet, too, adding to the pastry-like character. It is beyond phenomenal.
Desserts are all $14 each. The babin is a sweet, sticky, chewy coconut cake akin to mochi cake. It sits in a pool of feisty ginger syrup — strong and prickly like I love it. Toasted coconut shards form almost a lotus flower on top of the cake that’s also garnished with fresh basil leaves. What I especially appreciated was the noticeable touch of salt in the cake, which gave it balance and an almost savory touch.
Nari is woman. Hear her roar — in the best of ways.
More: A Visit to Kin Khao