On the heels of the Somtum Der opening in the East Village comes another restaurant paying homage to the northeastern Esarn (or Isaan) region of Thailand: The Union Square Qi location closed about a week ago to recast itself as Qi Esarn, and it makes its debut tonight.
The Union Square spot enlisted help from chefs Pichet Ong and Claire Handleman, who spends a considerable amount of time each year in Thailand, to retool the restaurant toward a specific part of Thailand and redo the menu; the pair chose to focus on Esarn because “the food is pretty fiery and spicy with pungent flavors,” explains Handleman. “There are exciting big bold flavors. I figured it would be a fun region to highlight.”
Inspired in particular by a recent trip she took through the region that led her to tables in many different towns, Handleman worked to capture standouts from her experiences. “One of my favorites is this mango salad,” she says. “I had this green mango salad up in Chiang Mai. It was crispy, sour, and crunchy. You add red chile flakes for heat, you get the sour flavor from lime, and fried cashews for texture. Small candied anchovies add crunch and sweetness. It has that Thai focus on hitting that balance of sweet, sour, salty, spicy.” She cites, too, the mor gaeng, which “looks like a cake but eats like a custard” combining duck eggs with mung bean and cashew before it’s topped with crispy shallots.
And then there’s the pork neck salad. “Pork neck is huge in Bangkok, and it’s under utilized in the States,” Handleman explains. “It’s better than belly. The pork neck salad is incredibly fatty, but it’s paired with crunchy cucumbers and Asian celery.”
For his part, Ong brings his take on traditional Esarn fare, though he’s infused each item with his own touch. Highlights include the goong pao yahm pollamai, which combines grilled Tiger Prawns with gooseberries, and tuhm tau mooh grohb, which pits sugar snap peas against crispy pork belly. Ong wrote the dessert menu, too, where you’ll find lychee semifreddo and Ovaltine mousse cake.
Esarn flavors find their way into the drink menu, as well, by way of the Laab Esarn, which mixes rum with Esarn herbs like mint and basil, toasted jasmine rice gin, cucumber puree, ginger, lime, and toasted sun dried chilies.
See the fruits of the chefs’ labor when Qi Esarn opens tonight.