Two American expats founded a restaurant in Shanghai in 2014. They called it the Fortune Cookie. It served chow mein, egg foo young, hot-and-sour soup, and, naturally, fortune cookies. You cannot get these things at any other restaurant in Shanghai. According to my American expat friend who lives in the neighborhood, it wasn’t very good, and she strongly discouraged me from eating there when I went to visit her.
Not too far from the Fortune Cookie, in a fancy outdoor mall designed to look like an imperial Chinese village, is a restaurant called the Greyhound Cafe. Its logo is very similar to the American bus company’s, except that the hound is running in the opposite direction. I was hoping it would specialize in the sort of overpriced junk food you get in vending machines at bus stations and highway rest stops, but instead it turned out to be an outpost of a Thai food chain based in Bangkok that serves “European bistro” fare, “Asian favorites,” and hamburgers.
I thought of Fortune Cookie and the Greyhound Cafe recently when I had dinner at Nakorn, a “metropolitan” Thai restaurant in downtown Evanston. The food at Nakorn does not look, my dining companion and I agreed, like any other Thai food we’ve ever had before. Instead of the soups and satay sticks and curries unceremoniously poured over noodles and rice that you find in most Thai restaurants in Chicago, Nakorn’s dishes are elaborate architectural constructions—or maybe deconstructions—that have been meticulously plated. (Our server advised us that if you want to decorate your plate with a stripe of toasted sticky rice powder like the one that underscores the grilled sliced tenderloin appetizer, you should use painter’s tape to get a perfectly straight line.) These elaborate preparations are the work of the chef, Bon—he has just the one name, apparently—a Bangkok native and veteran of his local outpost of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon as well as several other restaurants in fancy Western hotels. I’m used to a far simpler rendition of Thai food. (My budget has never allowed me to go to Arun’s.) Which made me wonder: Do rich Thai people actually eat food like this when they’re not in the company of Americans or Europeans on expense accounts? And how would a visitor from Thailand describe NaKorn Kitchen in comparison to most Thai restaurants here? Is it like comparing an Au Cheval cheeseburger to a less elaborate pub burger? Also, to a native Thai speaker, how many Thai restaurant names read as ridiculous as “Greyhound Cafe” does to an English speaker?
Once we dug in, though, we discovered that the food at Nakorn didn’t taste much different from the Americanized Thai food we were used to. The taro chicken appetizer, for instance, may have arrived at the table as four little bites of chicken topped with peanuts (“chili-peanut gastrique”) and a dollop of creamy sauce, all artfully arranged on a banana leaf on top of a box of (inedible) pressed brown rice, but if we closed our eyes, we might as well have been eating plain old chicken satay dipped in a crunchy peanut sauce. The primary tastes were sweet from the sauce and salty from the chicken, without any sourness from the vinegar or heat from the chile in the gastrique. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing—there are few foods more comforting than Americanized chicken satay, which I guess is why it has become standard at any event where hors d’oeuvres get passed around.
Likewise, the grilled sliced tenderloin looked complicated and elaborate—bunches of lemongrass, hearts of palm, and scallion bundled in slices of dried, thin-sliced beef reminiscent of a bland pastrami, all dolloped with some sort of gelatin that made it appear that the plate was staring back at us with googly reddish-brown eyes—but it tasted friendly and familiar. So did the jumbo lump blue crabmeat entree, although it required some assembly, or, rather, it required us to figure out how to mix up the curry and the noodles. The house special, Khun Sompit’s Big Fish—named for cofounder Sam Rattanopas’s father, who, according to the website, “hails from the southern, coastal Thailand town of Nakorn Srithummaraj” another inspiration for the restaurant’s name—is a whole branzino, salty and crispy on the outside, tender on the inside. It too stared up at us from the plate.
Our server, a very enthusiastic young man named Seth, who was able to rattle off his menu spiel at a rapid-fire pace, almost like the McDonald’s menu song from the 80s, promised us that the black sticky rice pudding had an “authentic” Thai flavor. This meant it was more salty than sweet, largely because of the coconut emulsion that came with it. We were most fascinated, though, by the bright green pandan meringue chips that came as garnish and dissolved upon more than three seconds’ contact with any part of the human body (mouths, hands, etc).
The cocktails make no attempt at Thai authenticity. They are very strong. One is called, with no apparent irony, Evanston Never Sleeps. Its main ingredients are moonshine and bourbon. I didn’t try it, but Seth said it was “complex.”
Fortune Cookie, alas, expired just before last Chinese New Year after a little more than a year in business. The owners informed the many Shanghai expat magazines that a better opportunity awaited them back in the States. (Which, ironically, sounds a lot like a fortune cookie fortune.) I wish NaKorn a better fate. It’s not as unique as it wants to be, and it probably panders to its American clientele as much as Fortune Cookie did, but the food is pretty and, if you feel like spending the money, it’s a nice alternative to another round of too-sweet pad thai. v