Fly in from New York City just for a meal?
Yes, that’s part of Arun’s historic clientele. Over a third of Arun’s customers come from outside Chicago. Indeed, anyone who has read the book “1000 Things to Do Before You Die” would notice that not that many meals or restaurants make it to that list besides Aruns.
Why? Aruns delivers a destination dining experience unlike any other.
In Bangkok you will likely find the high-end food there done with less devotion to detail and with dumbed down spicing for an imagined tourist palate. Aruns, in contrast, provides meals with many courses with each one a seeming devotion to balancing five senses in each bite. On New Year’s Eve our dinner included twelve sumptuous courses.
It is amazing to learn that Arun, who founded his eponymous restaurant in 1985, has had no formal training in the culinary arts and in fact as a child was banned from the family kitchen. He is a self-taught cook and designer. One cannot eat his food and talk to him without being somewhat awed by his artistry. His work is worthy of royalty and the more sculptural aspects of many dishes harken the palace food demonstrations that were part of the Chicago History Museum’s unveiling of their “Siam and the Queen” exhibit.
When you first enter the restaurant you are immersed in visual spectacle such that the noise of the streets outside is left far behind.
Many of the artifacts on display are of museum quality.
The mural on three walls of one of the dining rooms is in itself a paean to Thai culture and religious iconography with dazzling bold colors. You will want to stare at this mural for quite some time—but the banquet beckons.
Arun’s serves a multi-course prix fixe banquet—whether it is New Years when we attended, or a weekday night. On New Years, there were six appetizers followed by a family-style meal of four entrées, capped by two desserts. The wine pairings are exquisite and should not be missed, as they truly complement the varied spices in the meal, as opposed to warring with them as is often the case in Asian or other cuisines with more or less hot peppery condiments. This is a lot of food but the portions are relatively small and you will feel satisfied and not overly stuffed by excess.
Truly think of Arun’s as a foreign destination and do let the wait staff be your culinary guides.
Much thought has gone into the preparation and presentation of each dish, and how you put it in your mouth was anticipated as well.
Our feast began with a combination appetizer platter, “Khong Wang Ruam”, that had a carved flower basket made from carrots, beets and other vegetables at its center. Our waiter advised us to use the hot mustard sauce with the steamed pork/shrimp dumping. The sesame shrimp toast provided a crunchy counterpoint, and the sweet and sour pickled plum sauce gave the shrimp toast a light accent.
Arun wants you to appreciate the fine details and creative artwork in his cuisine and the exquisitely carved flower basket of this first dish is a very appropriate attention getter.
Arun says, “Here, as when you go to Thailand to visit Temples, you will get acquainted with the culture. Here you will get to know the roots of authenticity in Thai food. There is much precision in how we execute the food to give it a special appearance. Thai food is based first on fresh vegetables and herbs. We use our imagination to give it the precision in design that makes it distinctive but always with the five senses in mind. The first sense of course if flavor. Second is seeking a compatible texture. In this aspect we are especially mindful to balancing traditional arts with innovation. Third, we pay attention to form, meaning the presentation in terms of color composition, shape and overall balance. Fourth, temperature is important. Thai food is not hot like Chinese but is gentler, like the weather in Thailand. Fifth and last is a devotion to the food’s aroma, largely through selecting the right combination of herbs.”
With that briefing in mind we began our second course of a warm winter soup, “Kaeng Jued”, which immediately aroused the senses with its rich chicken aroma, seeming more pronounced than in any other chicken soup.
The chicken was actually a roll of paper-thin shredded chicken such that the broth could extract the flavors from each thin layer.
Even if you are red pepper phobic do not skip the slight accent you will get by inserting a small bit of red pepper into the lettuce wrapped Siamese and Tapioca Pearl Dumplings, “Khao Kriab/Sakoo”. If left to my own devices I would not have thought to each eat dumpling with accompaniments in one bite. Here too the instructions from the wait staff were invaluable, helping us to enjoy the meal as it should be eaten.
We were told as well to make sure that we mixed our Coconut Noodle dish well, “Mee Kati”, with the waiter patiently returning to the table to say more mixing was required. An extraordinarily thin omelet gave both a rich taste and texture along with the fine chopped chives along with very fresh tasting golden fried prawn.
For this course and the remaining two appetizers our wine was a Chardonnay that augmented the balance of each dish in a wonderful way.
Here too Arun as sommelier is self-taught—so absolutely remarkable given his obvious talent in wine pairing.
Following instructions again we learned to divide the beef salad, “Yum Nua” , into only two bites and to eat it like a sandwich. For those with habits for Western cuisine how to eat this and other dishes is not intuitively obvious and the advice to solicit and follow the wait staff’s instructions on how to eat each dish cannot be overemphasized. You can find menu items somewhat like this in any number of Southeast Asian cuisine restaurants in Chicago but the balancing of herbs in Arun’s traditional Thai salad is without doubt several steps above the usual fare.
Our last appetizer was a Thai Rice Pasta with Sweet Shrimp Chili Sauce, “Kanom Chine Namprik”, a taste of Southern Thai cuisine. Here too we happily followed our server’s advice, in this case it was to mix it all up but save the spinach as a chaser. The curry of this dish was sweetly rich, with garlic chips giving it a nice extra bite.
The assortment of appetizers and main courses selected for each 12-course meal by Arun are purposely representative of the varied geography and cuisines of Thailand. Arun says, “Central plain and Bangkok food is known for delicate flavors and is not hot. In the Northern part of Thailand food is more savory and with lots of pork. The Northeastern part of the country is not very fertile and the food there tends to be very hot and spicy harking back to more ancient times when spices were used to compensate for lack of abundance and sticky rice was a main part of the diet. In the Northeast beef is eaten regularly. Southern cuisine features coconut and seafood.”
The main courses are served together in family style with rice and again with a delicious wine selection, in this case a red Pinot Noir, that was able to complement with the range of tastes including: a dressed eggplant dish, “Makhua Songkruang”; three-flavored red snapper, “Pla Sarm Rose”; stuffed chicken rolls, “Kai Muan”; and sweet and sour pork curry with pineapple, “Kang Moo Sapparose”.
Truth to tell, any one of these dishes would make an extraordinarily meal just in itself. The eggplant was combined with a sweet lobster tail, making it a visual delight as well as delicious. The stuffed chicken rolls’ garnish of threads of Daikon radish, Japanese green onion and carrot also gave it the quality of art, both in taste and visual design. The galangal, so familiar to travelers in Thailand and frequenters of food markets, gave the pork curry a welcome reminder of Thai exotica. The “Nemo” carved fish accompany the red snapper is delightful and the staff will indulge you and help wrap it up in a water glass so that you can take it home and extend the dining experience further.
Next tip—don’t skip dessert. The traditional Thai dessert, “Khon Waan Thai” is sweet yucca and Kaboch squash accompanied by Pandan coconut cream coulis. This and the Lychee sorbet that followed along with a poached pear were sweet without being oversweet.
There are few, if any, restaurants that fit the description of “destination dining” as well as Arun’s. This is a culinary adventure that should not be missed if you are in Chicago or can get to Chicago and at least once, as the book “1000 Things to Do Before You Die” admonishes.
Go to Thailand for the inimitable street food; come to Arun’s for the taste of palace cuisine.
4150 North Kedzie
773 539 1909
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Photos: Peter Kachergis