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Photography by Evan Sung

Fit to Be Thai

by By Adeena Sussman | Manhattan magazine | March 3, 2011

“You think Harold is here?” a woman whispered to her friend as they sat down at Kin Shop, the swirled pattern on her fitted blue-and-green top nearly identical to the upholstery on the banquette behind her.

One after another, groups of two, three and four checked in for dinner on the early side of a winter’s eve, craning their necks toward the open kitchen at the back of the restaurant. An intense interest in the intricacies of restaurant cooking? A recent Daily Candy item? Perhaps, but more likely hope for a fleeting glance of Top Chef season one winner Harold Dieterle. (For the record, Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome was not on the line that night… and he recently got hitched. Sorry, ladies.)

Back in 2007, Dieterle used his prize money to launch Perilla, a seasonal American spot with subtle Asian influences that continues to thrive around the corner. His regulars have followed him here, where he’s attempting to add new acolytes by putting his passion for the Far East front and center and raising the profile of a cuisine that has legions of fans despite the middling quality of most of the stateside establishments that serve it.

Dieterle is known as a modest guy, and the Kin Shop space, with its whitewashed brick walls and water-themed décor, is suitably low-key. Without an inch of square footage to spare, the restaurant’s waiting area consists of a postage stamp–sized entryway that forces close encounters with the staff. Co-owner and front-of-house doyenne Alicia Nosenzo has her work cut out for her. Only a special talent could make the prospect of an hour wait seem appealing, but Nosenzo pulls it off with grace. It can’t be easy telling walk-in after walk-in that every table is booked (the cozy bar is first come, first served), but Nosenzo dutifully logs cell numbers and sends people off into the neighborhood for drinks until one of the 14 tables becomes available. “French Roast is a good option,” she suggests sweetly. “We’ll call when we’re ready for you.”

Patience receives ample reward. An experienced chef who avoided the pitfalls of klieg-light success by staying in the kitchen, Dieterle has assembled a creative Thai-American menu that bears his own unique stamp. As at Perilla, appetizers are a highlight, focused and marked by inventive touches. An entire meal could be built around them.

First to come out: a bowl of onyx-black squid-ink soup filled with brisket-stuffed squid, a seafood riff on nose-to-tail dining and one of the most all-around creative uses of sepia in town. Watching diners dip tentatively into its dark depths, then slurp down to the very bottom of the spicy, sesame oil-ringed bowl with abandon must give the chef endless satisfaction.

Crispy pork and oyster salad is a sublime dish that somehow manages an ethereal lightness. Dieterle batters and fries Washington State Hama Hama oysters so the embracing crust protects the bivalve’s brine, ensuring a bite as juicy as summer watermelon. Chunks of thick-cut Berkshire bacon scattered about the plate provide a smoky counterpoint, the dish finished with a tangy-sweet chile-lime dressing. Duck laab—tiny bits of cooked duck meat and fresh mint tossed in a spicy, tear-inducing combination of citrus, fish sauce, herbs and spice—is a faithful rendition of the original, made better with the addition of toasted rice crumbs and crispy romaine. Like many of Kin Shop’s standouts, the soup and the salad have street-food soul fused with modern flourishes, justifying prices several notches above the Ninth Avenue benchmark. That’s not to say Dieterle doesn’t make a few missteps: A fluke ceviche has a galangal-coconut marinade lacking acid; the chunks of fish are too big and too “cooked” to be appetizing.

One of the pleasures of eating in a country like Thailand is knowing that even in a hole-in-the-wall joint, noodles and curries can delight. At Kin Shop, however, they’re more of a mixed bag. Stir-fried rice flakes with shrimp and cauliflower tastes fishy, lacking the sacred quartet of salty, hot, sour and sweet that provides both clarity and complexity to Thai dishes. The egg noodles in a maitake mushroom broth display the requisite bite, but the soup has enough salt to build a statue of Lot’s wife and takes umami over the edge.

Transcendent dishes like braised goat cloaked in a lush, coconut-rich Massaman curry and a curry-noodle soup with lamb and black cumin are reminders that “fusion” isn’t a dirty word when it refers to the combination of old-world ideas and modern technique, rather than to an incoherent pastiche of elements. Case in point: an all-American standard like roasted marrow bones, rich and deep brown but paired with crunchy taro root, cool radish sprouts and a silky yellow bean sauce for eye-opening contrast.

Another winner is the seared duck breast sliced into perfect blocks, its rosy meat capped by a thin layer of fat. You wrap a few pieces in a greasy, house-made roti bread, add shreds of young papaya, cilantro stems and red curry redolent of the spices that play up the game, cinnamon and cloves among them.

Spicy food begs for a palate-cleansing dessert, and here is where Kin Shop leaves diners wanting. Clearly looking to avoid the cliché of mango sticky rice drowning in sweet coconut sauce, Dieterle instead opts for one choice: ice cream. But flavors like Thai coffee-chocolate and galangal (also offered as a float in root beer), while creative, shouldn’t preclude other options. On the Top Chef season one finale, Dieterle famously dissed desserts—then executed a fig tart with three cheeses that won the judges’ hearts and secured him the top prize. Here’s the place on the menu where creative fusion would be welcomed with open arms. Inauthentic as it may be, no one’s going to question a great piece of chocolate cake or memorable crème brulée if it’s done well. If anyone’s up to the challenge, it’s Harold.

Kin Shop
Rating ***
469 Sixth Ave.,
212.775.4295

What the stars mean:
0 = poor, unacceptable
*= fair, some noteworthy qualities
**= good, above average
***= very good, well above norm
****= excellent, among the area’s best
****= world-class, extraordinary
in every detail.

Reviews are based on multiple visits.
Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.

HOURS Lunch daily 11:30am-3pm; Dinner Mon.-Thu., 5:30-11pm, Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11:30pm, Sun. 5-10pm

TRY Stir-fry of water vegetables, fried pork and crispy oyster salad, squid ink and hot sesame oil soup, braised goat Massaman curry.

DRINK Hitachino Nest Ale beer, Asian-touch cocktails, house-brewed Thai ice coffee.

WHO’S THERE Neighborhood passersby, New Yorkers who backpacked around Southeast Asia a lifetime ago and groups of married women stalking a certain TV personality.

VISUAL VIBE Much of the décor, from the banquettes and artwork to the glass panels in the front, look like watercolor Rorschach tests.

WHAT IT COSTS Appetizers $9-$13; entrees $17-$26; desserts $3-$8