The most annoying aspect of Top Chef is the underlying implication that the show is creating the great chefs of the future. In my experience, the reality is quite different. Most meals I’ve eaten at restaurants helmed by former contestants have been lackluster, as evidenced most recently by the cooking of last season’s runner-up, Ed Cotton, at Plein Sud, where he bumbled such obvious standards as pissaladière and beef bourguignon. Anyway, many of the most successful cheftestants end up not running restaurants, but being recycled in subsequent editions of the show.
The shining contradiction is Harold Dieterle, the first season’s winner. Lacking a crazy haircut or an annoying personality affectation, he radiated calmness and competence as a chef—which, it turns out, doesn’t make for very good TV. When he debuted Perilla in 2007, it wasn’t a marquee assignment, but a small West Village bistro that gradually attracted a fervent following. Now, after a measured period of time, he’s opened a second place a few blocks distant, and it’s every bit as good. Located right on bustling Sixth Avenue, just north of 11th Street, Kin Shop seats fewer than 50 and has a calming décor that runs to bone white, light green, and pale wood tones. On each of my three visits, Dieterle himself stood doggedly at the pass-through, inspecting every dish that went from kitchen to customer.
According to an interview with the chef in Metromix, the name of the place is a pun: “It’s a double entendre. Kin means ‘to eat and drink’ in Thai, but it’s also like the kin restaurant of Perilla.” While Perilla just kissed its bistro-style cooking with Asian flavors, Kin Shop dives head-first into Thai—funky fish sauce, exotic herbs, and all. As I sat gazing down at my squid ink soup ($10) one evening, I felt like Philip Marlowe before he passed out from a blow to the head in Murder, My Sweet: “A black hole opened up at my feet. I fell in.” Spicy and sesame-scented, the relentlessly dark fluid left stains as it lapped the sides of the bowl, and it was with great pleasure that I dredged up little lengths of long bean and squid rings stuffed with plugs of coarsely ground brisket, reminding me of bejeweled ear lobes.
You’ll never find that soup in a Thai cookbook. It’s a pure invention of Dieterle, but one so consistent with the spirit of the cuisine that he might be counted among the great chefs of Siam. Ditto the grilled eggplant starter ($8), which mixes the small watermelon-streaked eggplants favored by Thais with other varieties in a pleasing wallow of fish sauce and mint. Other selections, such as the duck laab salad, are perfect re-creations of Thai originals. Predictably, some of his embroideries fizzle: A salad of fried pork belly and fried oysters tossed with celery and peanuts in a Kingdom of Crunch leaves you wishing he’d chosen either pig or bivalves, but not both. In an early special of duck tongues, the cartilage that runs down the middle had been removed, and the water-weed lickers were compressed into a series of breaded rectangles, denaturing the Chinese specialty so thoroughly, you couldn’t tell what it was.
The dish was soon 86’ed, and that sort of minor tinkering with the menu has continued. But what remains the core of the bill of fare is a series of curries, which you should order with jasmine rice or the buttery, multi-layer roti (both $3). The heat-adverse will enjoy the Massaman curry ($21), featuring big hunks of braised goat in a brown gravy with mustard greens, substituting purple yams for the usual potatoes. Dieterle then snows the dish with toasted coconut. The sour curry of rabbit leg ($23) springs from its banana-leaf wrapper, mellow yellow in color and sporting a prodigious tartness and burn. Anatomical aspects aside (bunnies have slender, muscular legs), it might as well be chicken.
The steamed snapper in green curry ($25) is the pièce de résistance, reminding us that Dieterle’s most memorable creation on Top Chef was a steamed pink snapper, Thai-style. Here, the skin-on fillet relaxes in an herb-flecked broth so good that my friends and I mopped up every flavorful drop with our rotis. The wine list is mercifully priced, and the most interesting bottle comes from Thailand: a Monsoon Valley red ($29) blended from Shiraz and the indigenous Pokdum grape. The color is pale and the taste is brittle and slightly sour—and the bouquet will surely change your mind when it comes to matching Thai food and beverages. Spicy food eaters: You can now throw away your whites!