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Vietnamese-style crispy prawns with Thai chili, garlic, shallots, spring onion and spices

Asia Major!

by Jen Karetnick | Photo: Michael Pisarri | Miami magazine | March 26, 2013

The executive chef’s visit to the diner’s table is an obligatory, frequently pointless and so very, very awkward exercise. I’ve never been a fan of what has become, in recent years, a forced march from the comfort of a noisy kitchen to the austere glare of the dining room. I not only feel bad for the chefs who are required to make such calls, but I’ve been known to groan—outwardly—when I spy a toque heading in my direction. Put down my fork to make stilted conversation with someone who’s equally as unenthusiastic about greeting me, knowing I would never tell the truth about anything that I perceive in the restaurant? Um, I’d rather not.

Then I met Chef Bee: Energetic. Enthusiastic. And so very, very at home, even standing over us at one of his salt-of-the-earth butcher block tables at the bucolically designed Khong River House, opened this winter in the erstwhile Miss Yip spot between Macy’s and Lincoln Road.

Or, more accurately, I met Executive Chef Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, a native of Ban Sankhohiang in the Chiang Rai region of Thailand. Chef Bee, as he’s casually known, has a smile like a slice of sun and a sincerity that’s as genuine as it is trinomial. “These are the dishes my mother made for me as a child,” he said, personally delivering a plate of pad dok mai gward, tofu stir-fried with chilies, bean sprouts and garlic chives; and yum ma kheua yaw pow khai tom, greenery topped with grilled Chinese eggplant, hard-boiled eggs, red onions, mint leaves and cilantro, and accented with a vibrant lemongrass and sour chili paste dressing. “They’re still my favorites.”

I could see why: The play of crisp vegetable accents against the downy, braised bean curd is a textural win-win, and the garlic chives (gleaned from area farms that have been commissioned to grow specialty Asian produce in cooperation with the restaurant) are so fresh that the flower buds haven’t fallen off. I’ll put my chopsticks down to greet Chef Bee any time, but especially when he comes bearing savory gifts like this.

The hive where Bee plays King Khong contains two other noteworthy Thai natives: Chef de Cuisine Duangwiwat Khoetchapayook, or Chef Danny, and Sous Chef Sudarat Loasupho, aka Chef Pai. They hail from Korat and Yasothon, respectively, both regions in the northeastern part of the country near the Mekong River, for which Khong is named. As a team, the three men have been churning out fare so authentic that the restaurant garnered a semifinalist nod (at press time) for Best New Restaurant in the 2013 James Beard Foundation Awards when it was only a couple of months old.

Indeed, Khong River House owner John Kunkel, who lived and studied martial arts—and, apparently, cuisine—in northern Thailand for more than three years, has scored big so far in the Beard race. Kunkel also owns Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, whose executive chef, Jeff McInnis, was nominated for Best Southeast Chef. Regardless of where those nominations go, we already have a sense of who’s winning here: the customer devouring khao pad bhu, or crab meat fried rice, redolent with chilies, garlic and fish sauce; or the goong tod gluar prik Thai dum, Vietnamese-style crispy prawns, served whole with head and shell (both meant to be eaten) and glazed with a mixture of heady spices.

With so many explosive options (most of the dishes contain red chili peppers), it takes a while to make mealtime decisions, no matter how many times you’ve dined. Those visiting for a first time should rely on companions who’ve been to Khong before to order for them and pass the fare around—Thai food is meant to be shared anyway—or on the servers, all of whom seem to have their preferences.

It only takes one bite of the waitstaff-recommended nua dad deaw, or northern-style beef jerky, however, to change a first-timer into a regular. These near-crunchy pieces of beef are an almost-addictive challenge for those way too accustomed to beef satay. Served with Burmese sticky rice for both cushion and contrast, as well as a spicy dipping sauce, this is great bar food, too, complementary to the numerous gin-based cocktails the bar menu hawks.

Because our subtropical climate is so similar to that of Thailand, most of the dishes on the menu are similarly heavy on zest and tang but light when it comes to weight. Even those made with meat, like the lab mu tod, chopped pork mixed with roasted rice powder, roasted red chili, lemon juice and fish sauce, then molded into small, pliable meatballs, have less density than you might suppose. You can also subsist here on the bowl of kauy teaw reau nua, “boat noodle” soup, an earthy broth containing bits of braised beef, meatballs, Chinese watercress, herbs and red chili. Named so because it was sold from boats traveling the canals, this dish is Thailand’s answer to Vietnamese pho—and it has the same recuperative qualities.

Still, it’s possible to stuff yourself on the heftier main courses, those listed under the heading “traditional.” These more substantial offerings, usually incorporating “whole” proteins, range from a fabulous, naturally raised rotisserie chicken (gai yang), soaked for two days in coconut milk and stuffed with lemongrass and turmeric, lemongrass, garlic and coriander seed, to an entire leg of pork cooked “tribe-style” (kha mu palow mann tow), meaning it is rubbed with 16 spices and braised with oyster sauce.

The only disappointments at Khong are the desserts. Masterful as they are, they don’t challenge the palate with the brilliant piquancy that marks the other dishes. I suppose that’s the point, and the passion fruit panna cotta is a simple, sweet-tart option that goes down easy after all the spice. The next time Chef Bee buzzes to my table, I’ll be sure to tell him so.

Khong River House
1661 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach

Open for lunch, Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-4pm; brunch, Sat.-Sun., 10am-4pm; and dinner, Sun.-Thu., 4pm-midnight; Fri.-Sat., 4pm-2am

Small plates: $9-$14
Salads: $10-$14
Rice and noodles: $4-$14
Traditional entrées: $15-$52
Sides: $10-$14
Desserts: $8-$9

No Secrets Allowed
Tables are so closely situated, you can literally smell your neighbor’s soap every time he stretches out a chopstick. Don’t be surprised if those next to you jump into your dinner conversation.

Go for the Gin
The cocktail menu boasts 33 brands of gin and seven concoctions featuring the spirit. We adore the Sloe Pom Fizz, with Plymouth Sloe Gin, Plymouth Gin, lemon juice, soda water and a dash of pomegranate vinegar for sweet-tartness.

Design Inspirations
If you’re thinking about redoing your house in new rustic, the plank wood and raw-steel décor in this replica of a Thai river house is the place to start your ruminations.

On the Run
Khong now offers to-go service during lunchtime hours, which means no more bland, midday burger meals.