When Angus An announced that he would be closing Gastropod in May and opening a new Thai restaurant in its place, expectations ran high. That was partly because An had already proven his culinary talent as the chef and owner of Gastropod, and partly because this city is sorely lacking in authentic Thai cuisine.
Happily, Gastropod’s much-anticipated replacement does not disappoint. Maenam has raised the bar for Thai food in Vancouver—and perhaps, dare I say, North America.
Maenam’s Thai cuisine is inspired by David Thompson, who runs the acclaimed Nahm in London. An spent a year at Nahm learning from Thompson, whose recipes reflect his extensive research into royal Thai cuisine.
In a phone interview with the Straight, An explains that his time at Nahm taught him the importance of balancing Thai cuisine’s hallmark hot, sour, salty, and sweet notes to achieve layers of flavour. According to An, Thompson doesn’t necessarily re-create dishes found in Thailand, but because he understands authentic seasoning, “He can mix and match [ingredients] a little bit and [the dishes] still come out Thai.”
At Maenam, An also tweaks Thai dishes in order to incorporate local ingredients. A recent special matched local spot prawns with nahm jim—a sauce made with lime juice, fish sauce, and chilies that commonly accompanies seafood in Thailand. “In the end, it’s the flavour that represents authenticity,” An explains, rather than “using whatever fish they use in Thailand and shipping it halfway around the world.” When in doubt, An checks with his Bangkok-born wife, Kate Auewattanakorn, who he met while working at Nahm.
An plans to phase in dishes that are more “challenging” to Vancouver diners, but his initial menu is based on “dishes that people can relate to”. That includes chicken satay, pad Thai, tom yum goong, and halibut green curry. But with items like house-made fermented Thai sausage—a wildly popular northern Thai specialty—you’ll also get a glimpse of more exciting things to come.
Dishes are priced accessibly, with smaller ones running $6 to $16 for soups that serve two, and larger ones $13 to $18. Prices relax a bit at lunch and late-night, and takeout is encouraged—a smart strategy for Kitsilano. So is the extensive wine list, despite the fact that most Thais won’t consider anything but beer or whisky. But Ben De Champlain’s cocktails are hard to resist, including the Siam Sun Ray ($10). I could have sucked back the vodka-lime-soda concoction like lemonade if it weren’t for the teeny-tiny Thai boxer it deposited in my throat, who punched out wee hits of chili.
The bright room has been kept simple and, thankfully, devoid of the usual Thai kitsch. When I visited, it was packed to the gills, with a few tables placed uncomfortably in the line of traffic. Service was friendly and remarkably polished for such a busy night.
I lived in Thailand for several years, and all the dishes I sampled rang true. Deep and meaty, the Muslim oxtail soup combined the nutty flavour of roasted chilies with mint and orange zest. (Muslim indicates the influence of the largely Islamic southern part of Thailand.) I was impressed that An didn’t dumb down the heat level, which left the bridge of my nose wet.
The house-smoked keta salmon salad was pleasingly cool, with instantly recognizable Thai flavours. The sweet-tart pomelo (picture a grapefruit on steroids) balanced the salty, crunchy peanuts and the soft pop of ikura roe. Mint and cilantro kept it fresh.
A signature David Thompson dish, the Three Flavour Fish is named for its salty fish sauce, sour tamarind, and sweet palm sugar. The lingcod was perfectly moist, although the heavy sauce was marmalade-sweet and the strips of chili tough.
I swooned over the smoked duck red curry, with its fat slices of gorgeously glazed meat. It’s a spot-on rendition with pineapple to cut the rich curry and a halved boiled egg that almost pushes the richness over the top with its soft yolk.
Even the sticky mass of pad Thai was perfect—almost. An makes the sauce the proper way, with a tamarind-based syrup. But in Thailand, pad Thai is always served with a quartet of condiments—dried chilies, sugar, nam pla prik (chilies in fish sauce), and chilies in rice vinegar—so diners can season it to taste. Without them, the dish felt unfinished. (An does, however, send out condiments on request.)
Maenam is so good that it may shake up Thai dining not just in Vancouver but further afield. Weeks before my visit, I dined at Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. Gourmet magazine called this hole-in-the-wall “the best Thai restaurant in North America” nine years ago, and it’s still pulling in the crowds. Indeed, it was excellent. But Maenam is at least as good, if not better, and it also compares favourably to New York’s acclaimed Sripraphai.
The Americans may just have to do a recount.