Arun's: A Review (written with Jenny Korn)
4156 N. Kedzie Avenue, Chicago (773-539-1909). Dinner only (Tuesday-Sunday)
Ethnic identity takes many forms. Ethnic groups are often associated with particular occupations or even with niches within a market. Breaking out of this niche can sometimes be an overwhelming task. Nowhere is this more true than in the restaurant business.
The cultural image of the French restaurant, Italian restaurant, Mexican restaurant, Chinese restaurant, and Thai restaurant presumes not only different cuisines, but also distinctly different types of organization. (Indeed, French restaurants are typically not considered "ethnic" restaurants). These restaurants are expected not only to taste different but to look different, and to have different placements within a market economy. But what happens when a restaurant attempts to escape its "natural" location?
With the increasing ethnic diversity of the United States, a consequence of expanded immigration since the 1960s, ethnic restaurants have flowered. Most of these restaurants, established by members of new immigrant groups were modest affairs, specializing in the local cuisine, as tailored for American tastes and markets (Lu and Fine 1995). Because these restaurants were under-capitalized, relying on extensive familial labor and because Americans expected these cuisines to have a particular pricing profile, most ethnic restaurants (with French restaurants and some Italian and Japanese to the contrary) offered relatively inexpensive dining.
However, as Americans became more used to ethnic cuisine and as these ethnic communities became more established, the first stirrings of ethnic haute cuisine could be observed. Elite Chinese restaurants - such as Shun Lee Palace in New York - are now matched by those specializing in upscale Indian cuisine (London's Chutney Mary) or gourmet Mexican (Chicago's Frontera Grill).
One of the more notable attempts at the establishment of ethnic haute cuisine is Arun's, an upscale Thai restaurant, located in an unprepossessing light industrial area on Chicago's north side. Chef/owner Arun Sampanthavivat has created in his namesake restaurant a claim that Thai dishes can be as inspired - and as expensive - as European cuisine. The label "cuisine" is, of course, an honorific title that some restaurants aspire to and a label that some diners and critics are willing to gift. However, the standard $85.00 tasting menu (a menu that can accommodate different food preferences, ideologies, and level of spicy heat) clearly aspires to treat dining as a serious endeavor. That it is a pre-fixe menu locates authority in the hands of the chef, underlining the professional/client relationship between cook and diner. The tasting menu contains six appetizers, four main courses, and two desserts - and in our experience ran nearly three hours in presentation. Of course, twelve dishes for under a hundred dollars might be seen as good value, even by storefront Thai standards.
It has been claimed - and our experience of Thai restaurants does not cause us to doubt - that Arun's is the finest Thai restaurant in the United States, and one of the few that attempts a Thai haute cuisine. One might label these dishes as a "court cuisine," as is sometimes said of French haute cuisine, except that the dishes, particularly the appetizers and desserts, owe more to contemporary culinary experimentation than to Thai regal traditions.
Arun's has been in operation for nearly two decades, and it must be admitted, given our experiences, that the excitement of the cuisine - and perhaps the preparation - has leveled off. Several years ago, the surprise of the taste and presentation came like a bolt from the blue - a recognition that "exotic" tastes could produce a profound subtlety of expression. The range of tastes that composed a glorious gustatory symphony did not have to be those of the Parisian establishment. However, today, having returned to a home of a succulent nostalgia, the food while still artfully presented no longer presented the miraculous surprises. Even on the first visit and again here, the main courses, impressive and opulent for Thai restaurants, were recognizable version of the plates at the better Thai establishments. The best among these dishes was Prawns and Lobster tails in a ginger-based sauce - powerful and rich and silken - clearly superior but not in a different register than the best dishes elsewhere. Also, delightful was a fried sea bass in chili-shallot sauce. As is true of so many of Arun's dishes, the presentation with a quiver of carrots and green beans, and fried beet curlicues with the fish nestled into a pastry ring, was sculptural and monumental. Absent the architecture, the fish was superb if reminiscent of other fine Thai chili bass.
It is at both ends of the meal that the tentacles of fusion could be discerned - tasted, but especially seen. Like much contemporary nouvelle cuisine Arun's dishes are sapped by a sweetness - not cloying in Arun's capable hands - but still a fruity note that reappears in almost every dish. It used to be an avocado was hidden on each plate, today it is more likely to be a mango. So too is there a common danger of assuming that more is better. No longer does the excess refer to portion size, but to the number of ingredients. Any dish with over a dozen recognizable foodstuffs should be suspect. Why is less, done divinely, not more? Thus even one bite surprises are likely to involve the compilation of an orgiastic panoply of tastes. The best of these dishes was the first, a Platonic concoction of toasted coconut, dried shrimp, peanuts, green and red chilies in an elegant (and yet sweetish) fish sauce, wrapped in a betel leaf. This dish combined traditional Thai flavors with a prophetic concern for texture, smell, sight, and taste. It worked supremely well because of the linkage of the ingredients to the heart of Thai cuisine and to the sweet-hot nexus.
Desserts were a fitting close, relying upon the richness of Thai fruit. The mango with lemon grass sauce, papaya (of course!) and sweet sticky rice, cut into elegant, modernist triangles, borrowing techniques from the visual arts, surrounded by a raspberry coulis was all that could be asked from a conclusion. The slightly acid sweetness was cut by the mild, calming texture of Thai rice, as always a nice change from the individualist grains of the American southland. Here desserts seem less the domain of a specialized "pastry" chef, but an indigenous portion of the meal itself.
Arun Sampanthavivat was, like us, an academic, but one made good. He received a Master's Degree in Political Science at the University of Chicago, and was well on his way to a Ph.D., when, inspired, he decided to open a Thai restaurant. In an interview he granted us, he described himself as "self-taught" - learning about culinary standards from a Chinese grandfather and cooking techniques from a Thai grandmother.
Throughout the interview Arun emphasized the dual face of his project - an attempt to balance Thai and Western traditions in taste, culinary preparation, service, and even decor. This is a chef who admires the efficiency and business acumen of the West, referring to Weber's theory of organization, while holding tightly to the attention to detail of his Thai homeland. The meal is a journey beginning with the six appetizers with Western techniques (a "sequential banquet") followed by four more traditional Thai dishes presented simultaneously (a "family banquet"). Arun has thought hard about the virtues of Eastern and Western cuisine. There is a theory to the meal.
From the first weeks after its opening in 1985 the restaurant received high praise from both local newspapers, and the awards have been steady, such as a prestigious James Beard Award. The New York Times remarked that Arun's was the best Thai restaurant in the United States and perhaps the world. In 1996 Arun altered the restaurant to make all dinners "Chef's designed menu" - a string of dishes selected by the chef, at a single price. This, Arun explained, allowed him to gain more control over the timing of the meal (permitting him to manage reservations) and reducing the costs of high-quality ingredients by avoiding waste. At times Arun sounds like the most rational of MBAs in his assessment of profit and loss. Although diners can be accommodated in their food allergies and avoidances, and returning customers receive new dishes, the balance of power is tilted towards the kitchen. This change apparently produced considerable frustration among his regular diners, and many discontinued patronizing the establishment. It took two years before the number of customers had returned to the old levels. Arun's goal was to create a Thai restaurant that would compete with Chicago's high-end French and Japanese restaurants - creating a new market niche by establishing a restaurant that borrowed from several levels of cuisine, aiming at what Arun described as an "upscale clientele."
Perhaps it is only a former social science graduate student who would have ideas that would shatter the rules of market placement. However, the reality of the restaurant being "out-of-place" makes it such a suitable subject for this assessment.
Chef Arun permitted the second author to spend an evening in the kitchen, one Friday night in mid-July. What was striking about the backstage was the familial quality of the workplace, both in a literal and a figurative sense. Kuhn Arun is the oldest of four siblings - all three work in the restaurant, including a brother who is the head cook. Arun's siblings arrived from Thailand some seven years ago. This brother characterized the kitchen as based on "teamwork" and suggested that it was a very "Thai" place to work, distinct from the more American hierarchical style of organization. His authority derived from his age and from his culinary competence. Many of the Thai workers had graduate training from elite universities in Thailand, and some were in graduate school in Chicago, furthering their education. The kitchen and serving staff were predominantly Thai, although, as in many restaurants the dishwashers were Hispanic. While there was good rapport, the dishwashers made it a point not to eat the Thai food that was available, but consumed potato chips instead.
As is true elsewhere (Fine 1996) what tension there was derived from the different needs of cooks and servers. Servers needed food when their diners wished to have it - and tables were noticeably variable in their speed of consumption - while cooks needed temporal predictability. Cooks would call out asking "How many minutes [until a dish was needed to be plated]?" and then would proceed accordingly. One cook felt disappointed when temporal pressures prevented him from composing a garnish for a special dessert. Some complaining was also heard that the chef was "too picky" about the perfection of the presentation - a rigor that diners appreciate and helps Arun's stay atop the list of great Chicago restaurants.
The Sum of All Tastes
Sociologists often take the stance that they should not judge, but should stand back as honest brokers. Critics do not have such luxury. We place ourselves on the table, ready to be flayed. Arun's in our account - and we selected it for this reason - is an exceptional restaurant. We knew this going in. However, it is faced with challenges of all temples of haute cuisine, maintaining the magic and freezing the charisma. Any one visiting Arun's for the first time will be astounded, yet astonishment is fragile. One of the dangers of a set menu, and one that depends upon efficiency and profit, is keeping that feeling of mighty surprise. Diners returning should insure that the staff knows, so that the family of kitchen wizards in the backstage can make the gustatory lights up front continue to burn and twinkle.
Fine, Gary Alan. 1996. Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lu, Shun and Gary Alan Fine. 1995. "The Presentation of Ethnic Authenticity: Chinese Food as a Social Accomplishment." The Sociological Quarterly 36: 601-619.