Monday, March 06, 2017

Kin Khao

I've often lamented that San Francisco does not have very good Thai cuisine.  There is plenty of "ok" Thai food, but I have never found a place that I actually would be excited to go back to.  I have felt that way since I first moved to the city, but, after spending time in Sydney with excellent Thai food, that feeling has grown even stronger.  I've kinda given up on That food in San Francisco.

And then I heard about Kin Khao.  It opened in 2014, to great local acclaim that quickly spread.  That year, it was nominated for the top 50 new restaurants by Bon Appetit.  GQ rated it in the 25 most outstanding restaurants of 2015.  By October, it had earned a Michelin star for the upcoming 2016 guide.  The star was renewed the next year.  The list of accolades goes on and on.

So while I had kinda given up on Thai cuisine in San Francisco, Kin Khao held some serious promise.  You don't get a Michelin star in the first year of operation, and hold it for multiple years, on a fluke, right?

It took me several years to visit, but finally, I did, with a group of 5, for lunch on a Saturday.  The restaurant is open daily for both lunch and dinner, with some common menu items at both meals, but a larger menu at dinner.

I was able to make a reservation online, just a day in advance.  In San Francisco, the land of waiting for brunch on weekends ('āina, I'm looking at you), this was most welcome, even though I knew it wasn't brunch food.  Our booking was for 11:45am, earlier than I really wanted, because I couldn't get one between 12-12:45 with only one day notice.  When we arrived, the restaurant had only a couple other diners, but, within the next 40 minutes, it entirely filled up.  By the time we left, there wasn't an empty seat in the house.
Our group ordered family style, and sampled a range of items from the menu, including sides, appetizers, mains, dessert, and non-alcoholic beverages.

Overall, the food was certainly good.  Flavors were bold, execution was strong.  Prices were quite reasonable, as were portion sizes.  The decor and style were comfortable, not anything like you'd expect from a Michelin star establishment.

But.  The service, and overall experience, were absolutely not Michelin star worthy.  The food was not paced out appropriately, with all of our side dishes and mains arriving while we still had a table filled with appetizers.  Service was awkward, with one server who came by and gave us a really strangely enthusiastic comment about how we were devouring everything (which, we actually weren't ... we had leftovers).  Water was not replenished.  It took absolutely forever to pay our bill after the check was brought.  As in, at least 30 minutes, even though we had it sitting there with a credit card on it.  The table next to us was brought food they didn't order.  Etc, etc.  None of these were that big of a deal, but, for a Michelin rated place, I certainly expected a slightly more flawless service.


Kin Khao is located inside the Parc 55 Hotel.  While it is a Michelin starred restaurant, it is definitely not fancy.  It is nice, not a hole in the wall, but certainly not fancy, and not somewhere you need to dress up.  
Exterior (from sidewalk)
Kin Khao is a bit hard to find if you just use Google Maps, as Google Maps doesn't know where in the hotel complex it is located.  You can actually get there through the main hotel entrance if you know where you are going once inside, but there is also a clearly marked entrance on one side, just, not the side where the address is.
Entrance (from inside hotel).
You actually enter the restaurant from inside the Parc 55 Hotel space, where it looks like an outside storefront with menus posted on the window.
The interior was an interesting style, casual for sure, but, clearly intentionally designed.  Wooden table tops with black legs, black and red wooden chairs, gleaming black floors, artwork on the walls and on ledges, and semi-open kitchen with counter seating on the other side.

It wasn't fancy, but it also was clearly quality decor.
Bench Seating.
Tables were set with oblong plates and real napkins, plus water glasses.  The presence of these plates were a good signal that we should order family style, which I expected.

We were seated at a large wooden table along the windows, with comfortable padded benches on one side.
Chopsticks, Cutlery, Hot Oil.
Tables all had mugs with chopsticks which we could help ourselves to, or forks and spoons if you preferred.  Very casual, and it made it easy for them to not need to bring serving spoons, etc.

The little white ceramic pot held some kind of hot oil, that some of us used to jazz up the more bland dishes.


Kin Khao has a really amazing cocktail list, but, since I visited at lunch time, cocktails weren't really on the agenda.  The cocktails sound great though, and I'd love to return just for cocktails, snacks, and dessert some time.
Still and Sparkling Water.
Once we were seated, a server was immediately by our sides, pouring water into glasses.  I stopped him before he reached me, saying, "no thank you, I'll have sparkling water".  You could tell he realized that perhaps he should have asked before just pouring us all still water.  Michelin star service?  He then confirmed who wanted still, poured them still, and went to go get sparkling for the rest of us.

He returned with two carafes of sparkling water, poured glasses for those of us remaining, and then left a carafe on the table of each type of water.  The sparkling had a red band on it so we could distinguish.

I appreciated having water left on the table (definitely not normal at a Michelin star place), so we could just refill as needed, although, when our carafe ran out, no one noticed, and I had to flag someone down eventually to get a refill.

Water, both still and sparkling, was house filtered, and free of charge, making the lack of asking what we wanted at the start even more puzzling.
Blue Flower Limeade. $6.
Even though I'm not usually into lemonade (or limeade), I really wanted someone to order this, mostly for the novelty.  I knew that the drink arrives with the blue flower (whatever that is?) syrup (?) in the base, and the clearer top, and ... the server brings a little pitcher of lime juice that is then poured in table side.  When the acidic juice hits the darker purple syrup, it changes color, and it is fun.  Hmm, that really didn't sound exciting.  I think I need to get out more.

Anyway, it was a colorful drink, and when mixed together, was really a refreshing blend of slightly sweet and acidic.  I thought it was quite good, perfectly refreshing alongside our flavorful food, and wished I had ordered it.  If you like limeade, I recommend, and the two members of my party who ordered it seemed to enjoy.
Turmeric Lime Soda. $6.
Since our visit was at lunch, I didn't want a cocktail, but I wanted something more exciting than just water.  And I didn't want caffeine, so the thai iced coffee and thai iced tea were out.  I took a gamble and went for the turmeric lime soda, even though I don't particularly like turmeric.  My hope was that it would be a refreshing beverage, which I'd hopefully need alongside some spicy thai cuisine.

Like the blue drink, it arrived un-mixed, and I was instructed to mix it up.  However, unlike the blue drink, it didn't have a magic lime juice poured in, and didn't change colors besides to just dilute.

Anyway, it was ... well, turmeric flavored.  Which, yeah, I didn't care for.  It wasn't too sweet, which is what I was aiming for, but, I didn't finish this and clearly wouldn't get again.


The lunch menu is broken into appetizers (6 choices), mains (7 choices), and sides (7 choices, 5 sides, 2 snacky bites).  A mid-sized selection, and it was easy enough to find things we wanted without being overwhelmed by choice.  Vegetarian and vegan items (or optional modifications) were well marked.  The protein options weren't extensive (chicken, duck, pork, rabbit, shrimp, tofu), and in particular, I noticed that there was no fish nor beef choices, but the larger dinner menu does have braised beef cheeks, crab noodles, whole roasted fish, and grilled squid.

Our group of 5 wasn't particularly hungry since this was an early lunch and we'd all had breakfast that morning, so I thought we ordered reasonably light with 3 appetizers, 2 mains, and 2 bites (and of course dessert), but it turned out to be more than we needed.  Portion sizes were actually great - not giant restaurant sized portions, but also not the dainty portions more standard for highly rated places.  It was very easy for us to share everything.

I asked to have the meal coursed out, and the server acted like I shouldn't have needed to say anything like that, saying he'd separate it into a few rounds, starting with apps.  Which did happen ... kinda.  Our first two apps hit the table at 12:07, followed by the final app at 12:09.  That was all fine.  But, 5 minutes later, everything else arrived, before we had even come close to finishing the apps.  Our table became a disaster as servers kept showing up with more to pile on.  I expect better pacing from most restaurants, let alone a Michelin starred establishment.


The appetizers were the section of the menu I was most excited for.  6 items, of which we ordered half, but honestly, I would have gladly tried any of them.  We skipped the stir-fried baby bok choy because it sounded ordinary, the nam tok beans because I was worried they might be too spicy for the group, and the khao kan jin because no one was excited about blood sausage.

Appetizers arrived all at once, one minute after our drinks.
Som Tum Papaya Salad. $10. 
"Spicy chili+lime+fish sauce dressing, green beans, cherry tomatoes, dried shrimp, peanuts."

To make sure we had some vegetables, and something fresh, I ordered the papaya salad.  I was amused that the menu read: "Som Tum Papaya Salad".  Other items were either listed with the thai names, or a silly english name (like "pretty hot wings"), but this went for both thai and english, and is probably the item least in need of translation.

Anyway.  This was very good papaya salad, and not a boring one.

The papaya was fresh and crisp, clearly shredded to order.  The dressing had some serious kick to it and a very high fish sauce level, which I thought was perfect.  Very intense flavors, balanced sweet and spicy, and a great way to start off the meal.

The portion was larger than it looks, in a very deep bowl.  We didn't finish it, and all liked it and had our fill.  The $10 price for a portion of this size was quite reasonable.  My second favorite savory dish.
Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine. $14.
"Curry mousse in-a-jar with mushrooms, crisp rice cakes."

The dish that Kin Khao is most known for is certainly the Mushroom Hor Mok Terrine.  I knew we had to order it, but, I was skeptical, assuming it was just famous because it is unique.  It is unique, but it is also very tasty, and worth the designation as a signature dish.

It comes as a jar of the mushroom curry mousse, with 6 rectangular rice cakes on the side to spread it on, with a tiny little spoon to serve.

The mousse is warm (temperature wise) and fluffy, with lots of chunks of mushroom inside, and a very interesting mix of curry spices, and even some kind of leaves.  So many flavors going on, I think some lemongrass, and certainly some heat, but all nicely balanced and pleasing.  I'm not sure what the white substance was on top, I think it was coconut cream, but, it didn't actually have a distinct flavor.

The rice cakes were super crispy, and a great vessel for the spread.  I appreciated their large size, making it easy to spread on plenty of mousse.

This was the crowd pleaser, favorite dish of everyone, including myself.  Recommended for sure.
Pretty Hot Wings. $12.
"Nam Pla fish sauce+garlic marinade, tamarind+Sriracha glaze."

For the others, I ordered the wings.  The order came with 4, and there were 5 of us, so our server thoughtfully asked if we wanted an extra added.  Since I didn't want one, I declined his offer, but appreciate it.

The others said the wings were good, but not particularly unique.  They all mentioned that they have had better wings elsewhere, but they were still the second favorite dish for two diners.

After the wings were brought out, we were provided with wet towels to clean our hands.  Those who ate the wings appreciated this, but, our table was totally full, and no one came to clear away the dirty towels.  Again, not quite Michelin star service here.


The sides section of the menu has three types of rice (white, sticky, brown), salted duck egg, chicken broth, and two dishes found on the "Bites" section of the dinner menu.  It is those items that I was eyeing, and ordered for the group.  All bites were reasonably priced at $4.
Spiced Peanuts. $4.
"Puya chili, arbol chili, kaffir lime leaves."

I'm a sucker for spiced nuts, and I knew these were on the menu, and planned to order to snack on while we waited for our other food.  The nuts ended up arriving with our mains though, which was an odd time to want to nibble on spiced nuts.  In fact ... lunch was probably a strange time to order them, but I think they'd be perfect with those aforementioned cocktails.

I did like the nuts, and the spicing was interesting.  My notes say, "crazy spices on here".   I couldn't quite pinpoint the spices, there was familiar flavors there, but I couldn't quite make sense of them.  The kafir lime leaves mixed in also added a lot of flavor.

I liked these, but, wished they were served earlier, wished they were served warm, and, uh, wished I had a cocktail to pair with them.  Not recommended as an order alongside your food.
House Pickles. $4.
I also expected the pickles to arrive earlier, but they too came with the mains.

The pickles were highly vinegary.  Too vinegary for my taste.  Our assortment had mostly onions and turnips, but also a few carrots, and one lone chunk of cauliflower.  No one seemed particularly thrilled by these, and all questioned why I ordered them.  Doh.  I like pickles normally, and whenever I eat at home, I always have a few of my mom's homemade pickles alongside my meal.

As a fellow diner summed it up, "they are just pickled vegetables".  We wouldn't get these again.


For mains, we had 7 choices, and opted to order only 2, because we went heavier on the apps and sides, and weren't extremely hungry.  We skipped the khao soi and five-spice duck noodle soup since soups didn't seem very shareable, and the crispy chicken sandwich for the same reason.  We also eliminated the Pinto Market Lunch because it contains rabbit meatballs, and I do not eat rabbit due to my past pets.  The final dish we eliminated was the posh salad, which actually sounded good with a peanut and coconut based dressing and crispy shallots and crunchy rice cakes, and it was definitely my next choice, if we needed one more dish.

The mains arrived right with the sides, while we still had a table full of appetizers.  Minus one point, certainly not Michelin star pacing.
Yaowaraj Noodle. $19.
"Bangkok Chinatown stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp, XO sauce (dried scallop + dried shrimp + dried ham), egg, green onions, cilantro."

This noodle dish reminded me of pad se ew.  Thick rice noodles, decently stir fried, in a dark-ish sauce, with bits of egg.  The shrimp were really nicely prepared, not rubbery.  Overall, this was fine, good, but not noteworthy.  I'm not sure what more I was expecting, maybe a bit more flavor, particularly given the very flavorful appetizers.

I did not like the clear sauce on the side, I found it too tart.  I'm not sure what it was, I think vinegar based?  I lamented my decision to pour it on before trying it, rookie mistake.

One diner was not impressed, saying, it "could be quite a bit better".  I can't point at anything in particular that would be better, besides a bit more flavor I guess.  My third favorite savory dish.

A vegan version of this dish is also available, with tofu instead of shrimp, and a shiitake XO sauce.
Khao Mun Gai. $17.
"Chicken fat rice (yes, that’s what we said), ginger-poached chicken, Pim’s secret sauce, served with a cup of chicken broth."

Chicken fat rice sounds exciting, but, this dish was not.  Which ... is exactly what all Yelp reviewers had said.  Everyone said it was bland.  Everyone said not to get it.  But I did anyway.

The rice was glistening, in an oily way, so we concluded that there must be some chicken fat in there, but, it just tasted like plain white rice.

The chicken itself was just poached chicken, very boring.  I can't evaluate the chicken broth, nor the role it should play in the dish, because one diner picked it up, and promptly dropped it, as it was crazy hot and didn't have a handle or anything.  I know how hot it was, because it landed all over me.  No servers seemed to notice that our table, and I, were covered in chicken broth, but at least we still had the wet cloths from the wings at the table to use to kinda mop stuff up.

As for the secret sauce, that was quite tasty, and I wanted to coat many things with it.  It seemed to be peanut sauce based perhaps?  We all enjoyed the sauce, but the others felt that even it wasn't enough to add enough interest to the boring chicken and rice.

This dish was universally disliked, and noted as not just the least favorite, but, an actual flop.  For once dear Yelpers, we completely agreed.


And finally, my favorite part of the meal: dessert!

At lunch, they have only one dessert, put it is a pudding, which happens to be one of my favorite things, so I didn't mind (to be fair, at dinner, they only have two, the same one we had at lunch, and buttermilk soft serve ... which, obviously, I really wanted to try too!)

They do not offer American style coffee, only Thai iced coffee, and only caffeinated, which made me sad.
Black Rice Pudding.
"Warm coconut+black rice pudding, served with burnt coconut sugar caramel, salty coconut cream, puffed rice+peanut+sesame praline, all on the side. Think of it as a make-it-yourself Thai Sundae."

So, the one dessert? A DIY black rice pudding sundae kit!  I was so excited for this, as I love puddings, and I love mixing up "perfect" bites.  This had my name written all over it.

The black rice pudding was served hot.  It had a good consistency, the rice was well cooked, but it was very bland on its own.  Of course, that is intentional, as the sides were there for you to make it as sweet or salty as you preferred.  For those who don't like sweet desserts, but like to share with those who do, this is a great compromise.

On the side was a sweet coconut caramel, which I used plenty of, and added the perfect sweetness I was looking for.  The salty coconut cream was my favorite, after getting accustomed to salty thai desserts in Sydney at Chat Thai, this didn't scare me away at all, and I loaded mine up.  Sweet and salty? Check!

The final topping is the crispy element I appreciated, a mix of crispy puffed rice, sesame seeds, and bits of nut praline.  I also used tons of this, and loved the sweetness, flavors, and crunch it provided.

Overall, I thought this was a very fun, very creative dessert.  I did find myself wanting just one more element to it though.  It had all the flavors I wanted, sweet and salty, and nearly all the textures I wanted with the crunchy topping, but I wanted one other element inside the pudding, perhaps corn or palm kernels?  One other diner suggested it should have some tapioca.  Really, I wanted it to be like the desserts from Chat Thai, as odd as those were to me at first, I've grown to love strange Thai desserts.  This walks an approachable line for most diners though, so, perhaps pushing it further would not be successful.

We ordered two of the puddings for the table, and were provided individual bowls and spoons to consume it.  We had a tiny bit left over, which I brought home, and consumed later cold.  It was also tasty cold.  Which brings me to my last "not quite Michelin service" story.  When I asked to have a bowl/box to take it home in, I was provided a cardboard bowl with lid for the rice pudding (great!), a paper bag to carry it out in (thanks!), and ... 5 small plastic containers for the toppings.  Separate containers for the toppings is great so the crunchy element doesn't get soggy, but, why 5 when I had 3 toppings?  But more amusingly, I was provided only one plastic lid, so, even if I wanted to use more than 1 of the plastic containers, I couldn't.  I tried to get the attention of someone, but, after seeing how frantic all the staff were, I realized it wasn't worth it, and just added the liquid toppings in with the rice, and left the crispy topping separate.
Kin Khao Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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