Sunday, June 13, 2010
"The higher strata of Chicago's more than 7,000 restaurants constitute a part of the city more Paris than prairie, populated by a galaxy of stellar chefs. Among the very best is Arun Sampanthavivat, who showcases Thai food as creative haute cuisine at his restaurant, Arun's.
Born and raised on a rubber plantation in Thailand, Arun spent many years bouncing from Hamburg to Tokyo to Chicago in pursuit of one advanced degree after another. While studying at the University of Chicago, he was offered a partnership in a new Thai restaurant even though he had no restaurant experience. His partners eventually dropped out,, but Arun forged ahead, cooking, cleaning, busing, and keeping the books. Within months he had a loyal customer base and his first review, glowing praise from Chicago Tribune, and in time he moved to a new place that would become a destination restaurant.
Today Arun is considered by colleagues, critics, and patrons alike to be both genius and artist for his elegant and sensitive take on his native cuisine's blend of flavors, and his restaurant serves only a 12-course chef's menu. The waitstaff inquires about your preferences and adventurousness, spice tolerances and any dietary restrictions, and the kitchen takes from there; six appetizers come out in sequence, followed by four entrees served at the same time, family style, followed by two dessert courses. The presentation is exquisite, the ingredients are super fresh, the balance of flavors intricate.
Designed by the chef himself, the dining room is warm, understated, and tastefully appointed with Thai art and artifacts. Other chefs and passionate gastronomes visit regularly, and not a few leave convinced that they've had Thai food at Arun's that's better than Bangkok's best."
I called a few days ahead to make my reservation. Picked up at the other end of the phone was a courteous professional who asked me for the usual reservation details (name, date, time, etc), followed by patient, gracious answers to my questions about dress code and the like. No jacket or tie is required; the dress code is business casual. He asked me about any dietary requests right up front, and I informed him I'm a pescatarian (one whose diet includes fish but no meat), to which he replied they would be much obliged to customize the menu to serve my needs.
The traffic was obscene; big surprise for Chicago, NOT! I called and notified them of my delay, to which they were kind to. I arrived only about 10-15 minutes late, and entered through the front door, and was immediately greeted with a big smile and warm hello. He showed me to my seat, which he made some room from the table for me to sit down. He asked me what I'd like to drink, and I asked for Pellegrino. Though this was the kind of place where it's usual for the customers to order fine wines, I didn't receive any sort of sneer or mild irritation for only ordering water. =) Shortly thereafter my very well-mannered server arrived at my table, and welcomed me to the restaurant, asked me if it was my first dining experience at Arun's, explained what I should expect from the evening's experience, asked me how spicy I prefer my food, and asked me about my preference for pacing the courses.
I looked around and took in the ambiance; the lighting, the decor, the art, the colors...and I couldn't help but notice I was the evening's first customer! No surprise, since it was only about 6:30. Before long, the entire space I sat in was filled by patrons in fine clothes, mostly celebrating their special occasions. It wasn't difficult to notice I wasn't as well-dressed as the others, for my blue jeans and con-airs emphasized the more CASUAL side of business casual, lol. No one was rude, and I'm sure I was only being self-conscious, since I'm such a keen observer. Everyone else was focusing on their date, while I was taking in my surroundings.
My first course arrived, and with it the server proudly announced its constituents, and if appropriate, the chef's recommendation for consumption. And so, my culinary experience commenced; the menu of courses I received was as such:
1. Bite-sized salad of fresh Cha-Plue (betel leaf nut) with bits of fresh herbs: ginger, shallot, lime, peanuts, and toasted coconut flakes. To eat: Hand-wrap the leaf; spoon over with a tamarind-coconut sauce; and enjoy a whole bite at one time.
2. Traditional Thai spring roll filled with seasoned tofu, cucumber and morsels of Dungeness crab meat and bean sprouts, drizzled with sweet and sour tamarind sauce and accentuated with a dab of hot mustard. Garnished with a butterfly of carrot, and a rose of tomato.
3. Delicate rice dumpling filled with shrimp and Jicama; served on a bed of sweet & sour chili vinaigrette.
4. Wrapped prawn topping a bed of vermicelli noodles, with scrambled egg, tofu and peanuts over an egg noodle omelet, garnished with fresh garlic chive and bean sprouts. Served deconstructed with lemon, chive, cucumber and red pepper. To eat: Mix it all up and enjoy!
5. Pike in a Thai curry sauce under a whole basil leaf, served over a bed of sliced cucumber and sweet& sour.
6. Thai rice pasta soup, ladled with a spicy broth of tofu, tomato, shredded pickled cabbage, bean sprouts, chopped scallion and fried shallot, topped with fried chrysanthemum root.
1. Large shrimp with Panang curry, with Thai eggplant, bamboo shoots, and jack fruit.
2. Lightly fried striped bass filet graced with three-flavored chili sauce: spicy, sweet, and sour; garnished with an exquisitely carved fish of carrot.
3. Pan-seared scallop accompanied by baked potato and asparagus, served with a Thai curry sauce.
4. Pike in a rich coconut-curried sauce, featuring tantalizing spices: coriander seeds, shallots and refreshing Thai herbs.
1. Sweet sticky rice and sunflower seeds, with smooth mango sauce.
2. A mixed sorbet of Okra blossom and lychee, accompanied by baked pear with orange zest, and a sweet cream sauce.
Summary: Three hours, twelve courses of bliss! A vast array of unique flavors and textures, spiced to my preference, each course perfectly paced, provided with unparalleled service.
Oh, and here's an interesting note: My thorough inspection (appreciation) of the food, both by tasting, smelling, and note-taking (yup! lol), prompted the couple at the table across from me to ask at the end of my exploration, "So are you a critic, or a culinary student?"
4156 N Kedzie Ave; 773-539-1909; www.arunsthai.com