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.