Thai Food Strikes Out in a Fresh Direction at Fish Cheeks
In the early days of Thai cuisine in the United States, when pad Thai and spring rolls were exotic treats, Americans fell hard for the interlocking tastes of lime, fish sauce, chiles and herbs. Over the years, that love has grown lukewarm. Many of the restaurants weren’t very good to begin with, and watered-down, sloppy Americanized versions of dishes from central Thailand were the only Thai food many Americans knew.
When a reformist tide of traditional Thai food began rolling in about a decade ago, it was led by restaurants specializing in the cooking of the north and northeast regions. Now, when thrill chasers tell you about Thai meals that realigned their taste buds, they’re likely to be talking about Kris Yenbamroong’s organ- and chile-laden cooking at his two Night & Market restaurants in Los Angeles, or Johnny Monis’s sticky-rice-centric set menus at Little Serow in Washington, D.C., or Andy Ricker’s deep repertoire of Isan dishes at the far-flung outposts of Pok Pok.
This northward expansion has brought eye-opening discoveries. It’s also made it painfully obvious how desperately the central and southern Thai food available to Americans needs an overhaul, the way the last shirt I bought made it clear that I could use a haircut.
All of this is to explain why I’m so interested in Fish Cheeks, a new restaurant in NoHo that focuses on traditional seafood dishes from around Thailand. The menu isn’t particularly adventurous or long by Thai standards, with just five appetizers and nine family-style main courses. Service is still in the eager-but-wobbly toddler stage, and the cocktail list is not so much a minefield as a box of live grenades. But the cooking is fresh, vivid and intense.
The kitchen is in the hands of Chat Suansilphong and his brother, Ohm, who cooked at Nahm in Bangkok under its erudite and painstaking chef, David Thompson. Fish Cheeks doesn’t aspire to the worldwide recognition Nahm has won. But the neighbors seem to be enjoying it, filing under the awning of fish-scale shingles to take their places on wooden chairs painted blue, yellow and hot pink.
On the black-and-white letter board that lists the daily specials is a note proclaiming “No pad Thai zone.” This may be true, but it gives the impression that Fish Cheeks is going to take you on a wild ride careening down the unmarked back roads of Thai cuisine. This isn’t quite accurate.
The Suansilphongs, in fact, serve tom yum, the sour and spicy soup that can be found at almost every Thai restaurant in the land; often it’s watery and acrid. The version here hums with fresh galangal, lime leaves and lemongrass. Shrimp and knobby mushrooms simmer in a broth that gets extra body from milk, a twist I’ve never seen before but one I approve of. It could be spicier, but the use of bird’s-eye chiles is far from shy.
Woon sen, the transparent noodles that are almost as widespread as tom yum, are baked with shrimp and pork belly in a sweet, Chinese-influenced casserole. From southern Thailand comes a lush and complex crab curry, rich from coconut milk and hypnotically aromatic from freshly ground spices.
Nam tok, a northeastern salad of grilled meat with green herbs and shallots, is another familiar sight, but the pork is more flavorful than usual, with a deeply satisfying char on the edges. And I wish every Thai restaurant could make fried chicken with shallot rings and a classic sweet red-chile dipping sauce that is as engaging as the appetizer version at Fish Cheeks.
If you’ve ever eaten a Thai seafood dish that was undermined by the shallow-pond flavor of farmed fish, you’ll understand why I hope the Suansilphongs keep using local bluefish. In one recurring special, they steam a big skin-on fillet and serve it in a pot that bubbles as it lands on the table. The broth is mild on its own, but the spicy green nam jim sauce and the fresh bird’s-eye chiles liberally tossed over the top are exactly the kinds of aggressive partners that bluefish enjoys sparring with.
Bird’s-eye chiles also brought a pleasantly psychedelic level of heat to raw butterflied shrimp flash-marinated in fish sauce, lime and garlic. The dish turns up at Somtum Der, among other local restaurants, and the version here is forceful enough to suggest that the brothers have faith that people on Bond Street can take a little pain.
For the ones who like to walk on the mild side, there is a very likable branzino that has been fried to a golden crackle with garlic. On the side is a dish of fish sauce, which you should dump on top. It’s almost laughably uncomplicated, and while I wouldn’t try to make a meal of it alone, it’s useful as a spacer between more intense bites.
I would recommend Fish Cheeks even more loudly if the cooking had been more consistent. Pad cha, a stir-fry of mixed seafood with wild ginger, little eggplants and grapelike clusters of green peppercorns, was bracingly intense one night. It was unremarkable a week later, and green-lipped mussels in a perfectly good galangal and lemongrass broth had been cooked so furiously they were rubbery.
On the short list of mixed drinks, I didn’t object to the iced tea with Cognac, which tasted like a Southeast Asian milk punch. The old-fashioned was bitter in ways that didn’t help it make its case, though, and the mango sticky-rice cocktail simply made me wish I could have mango sticky rice.
There’s just one dessert on the menu, a Thai tea panna cotta. Servers usually mentioned it offhandedly, as if it didn’t make much difference whether you ordered it or not. This turned out to be the case.
But nobody judges Thai restaurants by their desserts. What comes before is what counts, and Fish Cheeks had won me over by the end of the meal. It’s not a groundbreaking restaurant; it simply cooks the way I wish more Thai kitchens did.