Yesterday we talked to Claire Handleman, who cooks at Del Posto and blogs about her constant travels at Passport to Eat, about how she fell in love with Thai cuisine and the best papaya salad she’s ever eaten. Today, she talks about fine dining in Bangkok, Del Posto’s Italian cuisine, and where she likes to eat in Queens.
Aside from street-food vendors, were there any restaurants in Thailand that you really loved?
The restaurant I trailed at was nahm, which means “water.” The chef is David Thompson. He’s really well known; he is an Australian that has a restaurant in London that’s the first Thai restaurant to get a Michelin star. Thais kind of have an issue with him because he’s come in and perfected Thai food. I trailed him at his restaurant and before that I’d eaten there like maybe four times. I can honestly say that I can put my meals there in the top three meals of my life. Thailand has great ingredients, but he really puts the effort into finding the best.
One of the things that blew me away was his durian dessert. In Bangkok, I can buy durian on the street for maybe 400 baht ($13) a kilo; he gets his for like 1,500 baht ($49) a kilo. He really finds the most exceptional produce. He has separate purveyors for everything, from the cilantro to bird’s-eye chilies. He’s also done lots of research on Thai cuisine going back hundreds of years and revived a lot of the old methods, so cooking in that kitchen was really exciting.
Lots of Thais don’t like it because you can spend $2 on the street for a great meal while at his restaurant you’re spending like $50, which for us isn’t that expensive, but the locals don’t want to spend that much money. So it’s not really for the locals, which is really too bad, because I think every restaurant should be for the locals wherever you are. Even the Thai cooks, though, said that it was some of the best Thai food they had ever eaten.
What are your favorite Thai spots in New York?
Most of them are in Queens. Everyone tells me Sripraphai is amazing and I ate there once and had a really mediocre meal, so I’m thinking maybe I just went there on a really bad day and should give it another shot. I ate at a place called Nusara in Elmhurst and they asked me whether I wanted my papaya salad like a Thai person would eat it, and they actually did and that meant a lot. Most places look at me and see that I’m a blond white girl and don’t usually make me spicy food, even if I ask for it.
As someone who is obsessed with Thai flavors, how do you find working at an Italian restaurant like Del Posto?
I think the food is incredible. Mark Ladner (executive chef) and Mike Davis (chef de cuisine), they put plates together that are really rustic yet refined. It’s an amazing experience; I’ve never worked in a kitchen as big as Del Posto’s. Even though I’m crazy about Asian food, I get very inspired by the Italian food they do there. They’re also very adventurous. I was in Korea a few weeks ago and I brought back some Korean ingredients, and Mike ended up incorporating them into a dish. They’ll use bonito or dashi or Korean chilies and incorporate it into Italian cooking and really make it work. It’s very exciting to me that they’re willing to use ingredients from other cultures in their cooking.
Do you ever think of opening your own restaurant?
I keep thinking that one day I’d like to open a Thai restaurant over here. The thing is, the quality of the produce in Thailand is probably the best I’ve ever seen. Have I ever seen Thai ingredients of that quality in the United States? I don’t think so, or at least not in the quantity that you would need to supply a restaurant. If I was going to do it, I guess I could grow it all myself in a greenhouse or something like that.
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