Sat, Nov 02, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Restaurant reivew: Kao Jai Thai Bistro 烤寨泰式餐酒館

A ‘third culture kid,’ trained in Western kitchens, makes one-of-a-kind Thai food

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

Thai food gets a promising update and makeover at Kao Jai.

Photo: Davina Tham, Taipei Times

Calvin Wang (汪義諠) has worked in some of Taipei’s best fine-dining kitchens, from French institution Joel Robuchon to the avant-garde Gen Creative. But for his first independent venture, the young chef, a self-described “third culture kid,” looked back to the comforts of his childhood in Bangkok.

Kao Jai Thai Bistro, his brainchild, opened this summer a couple of paces away from Breeze Center, adding to the many mid-market dining options in the area. Tables at the casual dining space span two floors, with an additional bar on the ground level and spacious private room in the basement.

The interior is lovingly decorated with artifacts hauled back from Thailand, from ornate PVC tablecloths to flowery enamelware, bamboo baskets and a portrait of the late Thai king. The decor may be homey and familiar, but the food is decidedly not.

You won’t find tom yum, green curry or pad Thai here. It’s obvious that Kao Jai isn’t interested in satisfying these tried-and-tested takeout cravings, which are all that some ever sample of Thai food. Instead, the menu distills chef Calvin’s experiments with new flavor and texture combinations that push at the boundaries of the Thai culinary realm.

Take the duck larb (NT$450) for example. Larb, a meat salad with fresh herbs, is commonly eaten in the Isan region of Thailand, bordering Laos, where it’s considered a national dish. Here, fresh mint, a kicker tamarind dressing and sweet-sour cherry tomatoes add layers of flavor that are discernibly Thai. But when the usual ground meat is swapped out for succulent chunks of duck, served slightly warm, that tips the dish over into newer territory.

If you eat pork offal, the nam tok (NT$420), or pork neck with pig’s liver and ears, will be irresistible. Perennial favorite som tam, or papaya salad, is also available, with betel nut leaves and salted egg (NT$250). But the emphasis is undoubtedly on grills and wok stir-fries.

Kao Jai Thai Bistro

Address: 19, Civic Blvd Sec 4, Taipei City (台北市市民大道四段19號 )

Telephone: (02) 8773-6006

Open: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11:30am to 2pm and 5:30pm to midnight Average meal: NT$500

Details: Menu in Chinese, English and Thai

On the Net:

Moo ping pork (NT$180) on skewers is well-executed, but pales in comparison to the superlative grilled chicken (NT$340). A whole thigh with charred skin and appetizingly pink, juicy meat is served with nam jim jaew, a spicy-sour dipping sauce.

Kao Jai puts a lot of thought into such accents. Every table gets a trio of pickles — guava, black fungus and radish, when I visited — as well as a bouquet of salad leaves and a fist-sized round of sticky rice to supplement the dishes with acidity and crunch, or mellow them out as needed.

Aside from the nam jim jaew, a Thai lime pesto and caramelized pineapple sauce can also go with other grills, like the beef tongue (NT$480) and chicken satay (NT$180). The fermented chili deepens heat and umami in just about anything you add it to.

A note about spice levels: the kitchen keeps the heat mild by default, to suit local palates, so tell the waitstaff if you don’t want them to hold back. I didn’t get the message across in time for my stir-fried ground pork with holy basil (NT$260), dialed up a notch by the addition of deeply caramelized sweet potatoes and a soft-boiled egg, and felt that it could do with more salt and heat.

I was also expecting punchier and aromatic notes in the Thai fried rice (NT$160), but the flavors here were muddled. The addition of a soft-boiled egg also seemed a bit overzealous, especially since it made the rice grains soggy.

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