Monday, October 13, 2008

understanding Kurve

October 13

Andy Yang’s Thai restaurant Rhong-Tiam opened quietly about a year ago and no one noticed. It did gradually get the attention of Southeast-Asian food connoisseurs and then finally of The New York Times, and now it’s a successful, thriving, business concern.
Andy’s other restaurant, Kurve, was anticipated with great, well, I don’t know what. Schadenfreude maybe, or skepticism, or perhaps just curiosity. It sat there, glowing in pastel colors with squiggly lines, plasma screens pulsing with undulating patterns more suitable to a dance club in the Meatpacking District, or Las Vegas, than a restaurant in the heart of the East Village, on the northwest corner of Fifth Street and Second Avenue.
The restaurant opened furtively in July, then closed again, then opened again, and then closed. Sometimes it was serving a limited menu, sometimes just drinks. It was hard to pin down.
I went to the opening party in July, stopped in at another time for a drink, and last Friday as I walked by a little after 8 p.m. it looked like it might be open, and possibly even serving food. Indeed it was.
Here’s the thing about the food at Kurve: It’s well thought out and quite creative (I am, of course, biased, as Andy is a friend of mine), but much like the restaurant itself, I wonder if it belongs where it is.
Because Kurve feels like a club, and the food is intellectual, and not just intellectual but intellectual for people who get Thai food.
Take the “salmon-wrapped larb duck.” Larb (or laab, as I prefer to spell it), is a highly seasoned northeastern Thai dish of minced meat with spices, herbs and khao khua, or crushed roasted rice. This particular version doesn’t taste right (or grom glohm, as Thais say it — meaning all of the flavors blend together and are well balanced) unless you eat it with the salmon — wild king salmon, which is all that Andy uses at Kurve. The salmon adds an unctuousness that doesn’t really belong in laab, but that I thought worked in this variation of it. It’s sort of like what I hear Alan Wong does with Hawaiian food: He’ll take classic loco moco or a plate lunch and serve it as an upscale joke that locals appreciate.
I also had what the menu called "Thai risotto" with kurobuta pork belly, but it was really more what Thais would call joke (pronounced just like the English word for something funny) and that Malaysians, Singaporeans and quite a few Americans would call congee, a thick rice porridge. Kurve’s is made, quite unusually, with both jasmine rice and sticky rice. The belly is topped with ginger, scallions and other aromatics that you would put in congee. Break up the belly and mix it all up, and it tastes like a good joke. Otherwise, it’s a belly surrounded by rice goo. People who don’t know congee won’t get it.
Andy also sent out some appetizers, including skewers of tender kurobuta shoulder with a fairly typical vinegar-chile dipping sauce, and "crispy salmon cups" which were a combination of two classic Thai snacks. Those cups will likely amuse Andy’s Thai guests.
I wonder if the food at Kurve is intended for white folks, or if the setting is intended for the East Village’s typical denizens. Most of the people in the restaurant on Friday (it started to fill up at around 10 p.m.) were Asians, part of a private party. I think they were speaking some sort of southern Chinese dialect, like Cantonese or Hokkien, but I couldn’t really tell. Others appeared to be visiting from Murray Hill.
Everyone working at Kurve is wearing old-style hats, like the one you see Andy wearing here on the right. He said this was meant to imply an old-school style of service to go with the old fashioned drinks that are being served at the bar.
But the drinks — a Piña Colada with hand crushed pineapple, a ginger Caipirinha, a chile Margarita, all developed, so I’m told, by Sasha Petraske — aren’t old fashioned, and even if they were, what do hats have to do with it?
The hats are kind of cute, though. If nothing else, they have curves.

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