Restaurant Review: San Francisco’s Nari Is the Rare Sequel as Good as the Original

Nari, the sister restaurant to the lauded Kin Khao opened a few months ago in San Francisco. Overall, a more consistent restaurant, with some fireworks.
January 12, 2020, 12:00 PM UTC
Located in San Francisco's historic Japantown district, Nari serves Thai-Californian cuisine and craft cocktails.

The 2010s went out with a bang and a social media upwelling of decade retrospectives of accomplishments and failures, habits shed and fed, relationships fractured and nurtured.

Pim Techamuanvivit’s recap would go something like this: wound down an award-winning jam business and food blog; opened the Thai restaurant she couldn’t find in America, Kin Khao, in San Francisco with zero hands-on experience in the industry; received her first Michelin star; beat breast cancer; became the chef at (arguably) the most famous restaurant in Thailand, Nahm; earned her second Michelin star; and finally, last summer, opened the larger San Francisco restaurant, Nari, whose name is Thai for “women,” an homage to Techamuanvivit’s grandmother, aunt, and, she says, “all these little old Thai ladies who I learned to cook from in their houses.”

This was a culinary education deferred. Techamuanvivit grew up in Thailand and left at 19 to study cognitive science in California, but, as she says, “rather than just coming back to Bangkok like the good little boys and girls we all are after we’re done with school, I wanted to forge my own way in life.”

Her way, from tech researcher to chef-restaurateur, leads us to gaeng gradang. Thai women make this special headcheese in the northern mountains in the winter—the only place and time the sultry country will give the natural gelatin permission to set, according to Techamuanvivit. The temperatures are more accommodating at Nari, where she makes and cuts the traditional pig-face terrine into neat cubes, packs them in panko, sends them to the deep fryer, and plates them under a cloak of watercolor pickles and chrysanthemum greens.

Gaeng gradang (headcheese).

You crunch through the shell and encounter the pork, and for a moment, it’s just you, a broken shard of breading, and the pork—creamy, fatty, with the edge of gaminess that tells you this ain’t tenderloin. The curry paste with which the pig’s head was cooked lingers a split second, like the trail of an extinguished candle. Then the pickles rush in, jade cucumber ribbons and blushing pink shallots, and the acid wipes you clean for the next bite.

And many more bites after that.

Second act

Like Kin Khao, Nari lives in a hotel, the Kabuki, in San Francisco’s Japantown. But unlike its snug sister restaurant, Nari spreads its 100 seats throughout a human-size terrarium of warm wood, polished concrete, shaggy greenery, and glass. A gymnastics troupe would have enough room to practice around the cloverleaf banquettes, and even when full of swooning fans, the dining room never feels uncomfortably full. The spaciousness extends to the back of the house, where all the ideas there weren’t room for at Kin Khao and “all of that pent-up creativity,” Techamuanvivit says, has gone to live.

The miang are an example: four spade-shaped betel leaves slightly overlapping on a pewter-colored ceramic plate. Each leaf holds a glittering clutch of trout roe, pomegranate seeds, diced persimmon, and coconut flakes tossed with lemongrass, makrut lime, and a dressing of tamarind and “sea sauce,” Nari’s kombu-based vegan version of fish sauce. They’re sweeter and less salty than you think—lime and a bit of chili might bring everything into balance—but certainly tasty, beautiful to look upon, and representative of the restaurant, where the foundation is Thai and the interior decorating Californian. This is Nari in a nutshell. Or a lettuce wrap.

Miang, a traditional Southeast Asian snack from Thailand and Laos.

This year, with Nahm on firm footing and Nari still young, Techamuanvivit is planning to spend 20% of the year in Thailand. Plenty of chefs struggle to operate a restaurant on each side of the San Francisco Bay—let alone one on each side of the Pacific Ocean—but Techamuanvivit has a strong leadership team in place, starting with chef de cuisine Meghan Clark, who came over to Nari from Kin Khao.

Clark and Techamuanvivit have been developing the dishes that would become Nari’s menu from before Nari was even a thought: meaty mushroom-and-puffed-rice laab crowned with tentacle-y orange cordyceps; crispy sweetbreads glazed in Kin Khao’s zingy house-made sriracha-tamarind sauce; a crunchy and bitter salad of shaved green mango and chrysanthemum greens lit up with chili and lime. Each is a wild little ride.

Bumbai (eggplant curry).

Bar manager Megan Daniel-Hoang handles the drinks—29 of them, each named after a woman character from Thai literature. Some are kooky, like the Suphan, a Thai tea spiked with gin, navy-strength rum, and banana liqueur. Others are suave. The Kinnari is done in the sherry-and-vermouth school of a classic Bamboo, with an added whiff of mint and pine from Greek mastic liqueur. I’d keep all five nonalcoholic cocktails and cut the rest of the list in half.

If dinner at Nari is a round of bumper cars, pastry chef Sean Ehland’s desserts are a soothing carousel. Restrained sweetness is a defining feature, whether in a scoop of impeccable strawberry sorbet scented with Thai basil or in the pumpkin sangkaya. For the latter, Ehland guts a kabocha squash and fills it with smooth coconut custard; it’s served in a thick, spoon-able slice accessorized with candied pumpkin seeds. Winter gourds appear again, with pomegranate in pate de fruit form for the wan yen. The jellies hide with frozen raspberries and fresh kiwi and Asian pear under a bank of coconut ice. When the server pours coconut cream and pandan puree into the cup, the dessert transforms into a slushy, green-and-white tie-dyed treasure hunt.

Diverse inspiration

In 2007, Techamuanvivit wrote a story for Food & Wine about a ritzy ski trip to Lake Tahoe, Calif., with her then partner, Manresa chef-owner David Kinch. “I write a food blog called Chez Pim, chronicling my culinary adventures from street stalls around Southeast Asia to my longtime favorite Michelin three-star, L’Arpège in Paris,” she wrote. “I also cook a mean pot of curry.”

While there are other entrées on the menu, like the rib eye and namprik ong, an overly sweet dip of pork and tomatoes surrounded by colorful crudités and chicharrones, the curries are Nari’s bread and butter. Most are served with bowls of warm rice, while the khao tung and ngob (seafood curry) comes with big, crackling, brown-rice crackers, the way Techamuanvivit’s grandfather used to like it. A boat of pleated banana leaves cradles hunks of sustainably farmed trout and Gulf prawns prickly with wild ginger. Grilling the packet gently cooks the seafood, which gets smothered with coconut cream and scattered with pungent matchsticks of makrut lime leaf.

Ngob (mixed seafood curry).

The massaman curry, meanwhile, tips its hat to Techamuanvivit’s grandmother, whose heirloom curry paste, heavy on dried spices, is the dish’s foundation. The aromatics may have been toasted too hard, though; melted into coconut milk, the paste produces a batch of mahogany curry that mumbles instead of sings. A lamb shank the size of a badminton racket accompanies, its naked bone protruding from the bowl like the handle of a shovel stuck in the mud. The shiny braised meat is tender and decorated with slices of fresh yellow plum, interludes of natural California sweetness between rich straps of glazed lamb.

Techamuanvivit also pulls inspiration from old Thai cookbooks, like the recipe for gaeng bumbai, a vegetarian curry whose paste is a literal mashup of Thai aromatics (lemongrass, galangal) and warm Indian spices (cinnamon, cardamom) lavished on creamy fried eggplant whose crackly skin comes from tapioca starch and rice flour. The dry chicken-and-bamboo curry is another cookbook find, earthy and herbal as it leans into turmeric and basil.

She’s building a library of these old tomes for her cooks at Nahm, but it is, in effect, cross-pollinating ideas across the Pacific. Living part of the year in Thailand for the first time in her adult life has been valuable personally and well as professionally. “My parents are getting older,” she says. Her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, “doesn’t really remember that I cook for a living anymore. My dad still finds it amusing that he sent me to all these schools and I cook now, but he’s very proud.”

Though traveling is difficult for Techamuanvivit’s father, he made the trip to San Francisco to see Nari open in August. He keeps a collection of all his daughter’s accolades, including New York Times clippings and Michelin guides from each year Kin Khao has won a star. What the next decade holds for Techamuanvivit is uncertain, but at the rate she’s moving, her dad is going to need a bigger keepsake box.

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