Chic, Upscale and Authentic Thai at Songkran Thai Kitchen
A whole red snapper is filleted, fried and reassembled into a masterpiece.
It's fitting that the name of chef Junnajet "Jett" Hurapan's new restaurant, Songkran Thai Kitchen, comes from the Sanskrit word sankranti, which means to move on or change. This restaurant is a change for Hurapan, Thai by birth but more accustomed in the past several years to cooking Cantonese cuisine at the former Gigi's Asian Bistro in The Galleria and "Euro Asian" fare at Blu in Sugar Land. With Songkran, Hurapan is moving on from pan-Asian cooking and returning to his native roots with upscale Thai food that blends his culinary school expertise with firsthand knowledge of the cuisine.
From the detail and consideration that go into every dish, it's clear that Songkran is where Hurapan wants to be, and he's cooking the food he wants to be cooking, the food he remembers from his childhood in Bangkok, only elevated to appeal to the Uptown Park crowd. A fried red snapper with chili and tamarind sauce isn't merely laid out on a platter and presented with utensils to delicately scrape the flaky meat off the tiny, fragile bones. It's presented upright, as if caught in the act of swimming, as if it somehow got confused and swam straight into a pan bubbling with hot oil. Instead of making diners work for each tender bite as they might do at a more traditional Thai restaurant, the fish has already been filleted. Bite-size pieces of crisp, skin-on snapper have been fried individually, then arranged like puzzle pieces inside the empty skeleton of the fish. You need only to dig a little to find each piece of meat marinating in a sweet sauce that tingles with Thai chiles and sour fish sauce.
This attention to the customer — a different diner than one you might find at hole-in-the-wall Vieng Thai on Long Point Road or old school Thai Gourmet in the Woodlake neighborhood — is what sets Songkran apart from the other Thai restaurants in Houston. Housed in the space that was formerly 1252 Tapas Bar, Songkran manages to present Thai food that's chic and upscale while maintaining a degree of authenticity in classic dishes like pad thai and tom yum.
There are even a few things on the menu that I'd never seen before at a Thai restaurant, probably because I'm usually a curry fiend, my eyes landing on kaeng khiao wan on a menu and never leaving. At Songkran, every dish description sounds more intriguing than the last. One of the best values is a side dish of "Son-in-Law Eggs," hard-boiled eggs deep-fried until a thin, golden crust appears on the outside, then bathed in a tamarind and garlic sauce and sprinkled with crunchy fried shallots. The first point of comparison I thought of upon seeing the colorful bowl of food was a Scotch egg, but the flavor is very different.
Most of the food at Songkran is fairly straightforward, and though it strives to be as true to Thailand as possible, it ends up being a little toned down, no doubt to please diners like the ones I overheard asking the server to have the kitchen make the curry as mild as possible. If one thing can be said about chef Jett, it's this: The man knows his audience.
Before Songkran Thai Kitchen opened, Hurapan and the owners of the restaurant, Amy and Jiten Karnani, brought in Buddhist monks to bless the space. Hurapan told the Chronicle's Greg Morago that he was pleased with the fountain in front of the restaurant because the Songkran festival, a celebration of the Thai new year, is punctuated with a water fight. A flowing fountain of water visible from inside the new digs was a good sign.
The renovation of the former tapas bar is a lovely one. You're greeted at the entrance by a colorful mural of a woman the restaurant refers to as the Songkran Angel. There's another mural on the back wall, this of a figure with her eyes closed against a textural backdrop of red and black. Much of the restaurant maintains the red and black color scheme, but it's warm and inviting, rather than harsh, as the two colors tend to be. There are golden glowing candles casting soft light throughout the space and grand chandeliers with fake candles inside concentric metal orbs. It's modern while still maintaining a sense of tradition and classic Thai artistic sensibilities.
During my first visit, though, the service wasn't quite as welcoming as the elegant décor. It seems the new restaurant is still trying to work out some kinks, particularly where reservations are concerned. Anticipating that it would be busy on a Friday evening, I called ahead and made a reservation for two. The hostess told me to choose whatever time worked best for me, so I decided on 7:30, thinking it was strange that they had so many seats open. When I arrived and told the hostess I had a reservation, she stared at the computer dumbfounded for a moment before telling me she had no such name in the system. Another hostess chimed in and said she remembered me calling, but indeed there was no record of it. They offered to seat me anyway but led my party outside to the hot patio. We inquired about sitting at one of the dozen or so empty tables inside, but were informed that they were all reserved, and next time we should call ahead.
Between my first visit and subsequent ones, the menu changed to reflect a few dishes that were not available, both of which I tried to order during my initial meal. Most notably, the "chef's tasting" appetizer was gone, supposedly, as my waiter informed me, because the chef wasn't comfortable with it. There are plenty of other great dishes to choose from for appetizers, though, like heavenly beef: incredibly tender steak made melt-in-your-mouth by a three-day preparation process that involves marinating and cooking twice.
One of the best dishes at Songkran isn't a main course or even an appetizer. It's a simple side of Thai-style green beans, cooked until soft but not mushy, crisp but not raw. They're stir fried with vinegar, honey, red pepper flakes, ginger and lots of garlic, then topped with fried shallots for texture. The dish combines a number of the ingredients I love the most — fresh veggies, spicy red pepper flakes, pungent garlic and a hint of tangy fish sauce. I don't know how you could go wrong with a dish like this, but I also didn't know it could be so, so right.
I was less impressed with the crispy duck in red curry, a meal usually reserved for special occasions in Thailand, and as such, made with the utmost care. It's not a bad dish at all. The duck is tender and rather than being cut into chunks, much of it is left on the bone to extract maximum flavor. The skin is crisp on the outside (as the name suggests), though softened slightly by soaking in the curry. It's the curry itself that failed to excite me. It tasted like every other red curry I've ever had, and I'd been hoping for something more from chef Jett. Something as impressive as the whole red snapper or the heavenly beef.
The same red curry sauce finds its way into the mussels on the appetizer menu as well, though here it's improved some by the briny flavor of the soft bivalves. It's a new dimension to the same old red curry, and I appreciated the slight tweak in the flavor. I even dipped the heavenly beef and green beans into the mussel-laced curry, hoping to soak up every drop. I maintain that neither version was spicy enough, but it's definitely improved by the addition of seafood.
Though meat is prepared thoughtfully, it's the seafood that stole the show for me at Songkran. When the server returned to clear the table after lunch, there was some leftover red snapper, and I asked to take it home. You can eat the skeleton, he told me, gesturing to the prehistoric-looking beast left on my plate. It's brittle, he said. Try it.
I snapped off a piece of the tail and dipped it into the pool of tamarind sauce still left in the dish, then bit down on the hard chunk of bone and found it to be sweet and crunchy. It was like fish candy.
That was the first time I've ever asked to take a skeleton to go.
"Don't mention the movie Chef," my friend warned me. "Those jokes are already tired."
I couldn't help but bring it up, though, when the server recommended that I order the chocolate lava cake for dessert.
"Is that like a molten chocolate cake?" I asked, recalling the scene in the film where a restaurant critic rails against the dessert for being passé and, beyond that, not actually molten in the middle. When I was informed that, yes, it is indeed the popular late-'90s-era dessert featuring a chocolate cake with hot fudge sauce in the middle (often served à la mode), I was determined to try it, if only so I could, indeed, make a Chef joke in my review.
The joke was on me, though, because I'll be damned if that chocolate cake wasn't delicious. It wasn't challenging in the way a dessert at Uchi or Kata Robata might be, but it was good. The cake itself was light and fluffy, almost like an angel food, and the soft interior was more reminiscent of warm chocolate mousse than generic hot fudge. It was safe but eminently satisfying.
That's true of Songkran Thai Kitchen as a whole. It's not the dynamic Thai food of Vieng Thai, but it's good and hearty and easy for the average diner to digest. With Songkran, chef Jett is finally showing off his style of food, and, like the molten chocolate cake, it's classic and comforting, and every now and then, it'll surprise you.
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