Thai flavours anchor chef's creativity at Charm Modern Thai

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The term fusion is often viewed with suspicion by those who have eaten too many combinations gone wrong—ingredients that crossed cultures in the name of creativity but actually had no business mating in the first place. So now instead of “fusion”, restaurants are billing their fare as “modern”. As far as I can tell, this means the same thing: shaking up dishes with nontraditional ingredients and cooking methods. Ironically, at Charm Modern Thai restaurant, a “modern” approach results in more authentic flavours than you'll find at many traditional Thai restaurants in town.

Charm Modern Thai and Bar

1269 Hamilton Street, 604-688-9339. Open daily 5:30 p.m. till late.

Charm fits right into Yaletown, where pretty much everything is modern. Instead of the typical Siam restaurant dècor (wicker furniture, faux-silk tapestries, Buddha statues), Charm boasts crimson walls and banquettes, a sleek bar, and oversized gilded mirrors that reach up to the high ceilings. Bamboo stalks punctuate the small room, and a golden Buddha image hangs stylishly on one wall.

There's a tapas menu for grazers, with standards like spring rolls and chicken satay alongside more creative dishes like beef carpaccio with a Thai vinaigrette ($6 to $14). Charm's mixed drinks ($7 or $8) fall into two categories: Sweet and Innocent Cocktails, such as the Koh Phangan Breeze, and Dirty Martinis, a clever yet depressing label since almost all the drinks—including Patpong and Soi Cowboy—are named after red-light districts in Bangkok.

Main courses are plated to eat western-style rather than shared by the table. (Entrées range from $14 to $25.) And although Charm does offer some standards like pad Thai, most dishes are fusion creations not found in other Thai restaurants.

“Classic Thai food has always been too boring for me,” explains executive chef Tipnarie Kulsiriwanich in a phone interview. “It's the same stir-fries, the same curries.” Instead of cooking the crowd pleasers, she wanted to create and innovate.

Kulsiriwanich spent her childhood in Chiang Mai and her adolescence in Australia. She ran a Thai restaurant in Sydney, and then cooked in Thai kitchens from Japan to the U.S. and back in Chiang Mai. Vancouver beckoned three years ago, and she last headed the kitchen at O Thai restaurant on West Broadway.

Kulsiriwanich designed Charm's menu to put a Thai spin on global dishes. For example, she modified a French lobster bisque with lemongrass and coconut cream. The marinade for a prawn ceviche consists of Thai chilies and herbs. Japanese soft-shell-crab tempura comes with a lime-soy dipping sauce. Thai flavours anchor everything. “If you close your eyes and put the food in your mouth, you should be able to recognize by the taste that it is Thai,” she says.

For the most part, those Thai flavours came through during my visit. I enjoyed the Thai pappardelle, wide noodles glossed with a red curry sauce that hid juicy chunks of beef short ribs ($15). This dish wouldn't show up on a standard menu in Bangkok, but it evoked the kingdom nonetheless. So did the ped sam rot—pan-seared duck breast glazed with a sweet, hot chili tamarind reduction ($20). Duck is common in Thailand, but not paired with this sauce. The two married beautifully.

A standby tom kar gai soup fell flat, however. Fresh lemongrass and galangal should have given the coconut-milk-based soup depth, but it cried out for more zip. Or perhaps it was the soup's presentation—in a giant Alice in Wonderland teacup—that threw it off.

However, another typical Thai dish was a winner. The larb ($12), a minced-meat salad of organic chicken, was almost spot-on with mouth-puckering shallots, lime, chilies, mint, and cilantro. Only an increased heat level would have made it more authentic. Although we requested it “very, very hot”, it arrived just medium to my taste. (When I lived in Thailand, I requested all restaurant dishes “not spicy”. Amusingly enough, that equates to the heat level that's delivered when I request something “very, very hot” in Vancouver.)

Overall, I found Charm's Thai flavours to be very good, but not quite as vibrant as they could be. I have yet to find a Thai restaurant in Vancouver that really delivers the hot, sour, salty, sweet combination as lustily as it's served up in Thailand. Many places seem to dumb down their flavours for local tastes—pad Thai with (horrors) ketchup instead of tamarind juice, for example. Charm doesn't; Kulsiriwanich makes her curries from authentic ingredients and shuns ketchup. But I still get the feeling she's holding back.

How can diners convince her to give it to them straight? “Ask for it ”˜chef's hot' next time,” Kulsiriwanich says with a laugh. “I'll give you my level of spice.”

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