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NaKorn - Upscale Contemporary Thai in Evanston

NaKorn - Upscale Contemporary Thai in Evanston
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  • NaKorn - Upscale Contemporary Thai in Evanston

    Post #1 - November 21st, 2016, 4:11 pm
    Post #1 - November 21st, 2016, 4:11 pm Post #1 - November 21st, 2016, 4:11 pm
    Last night we had dinner at NaKorn, the newly-opened upscale Thai restaurant in downtown Evanston. In a nutshell, we loved it!

    This is absolutely NOT your cookie-cutter neighborhood Thai restaurant. You won't find any of those oh-so-familiar dishes - no pad thai, no satay, no curry. What you will find are a lot of great dishes that you won't find elsewhere around town. So without further ado, here's what we had:

    Taro Chicken, marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk then flash fried & served with chili-peanut gastrique.
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    House Made Pandan Tapioca Pearl Crackers, with relish of minced chicken and shrimp slightly sweetened with tamarind-coconut sauce.
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    Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket, atop a bed of charred Thai sticky rice with shallot chips and a hint of garlic.
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    Seared Sea Scallop, accented by our house made chili jam along with coconut cream, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, peanut, shallot chip and lemon zest.
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    Fried tofu with Frisée, crunchy bean curd sheet egg, accented by shaved Persian cucumber and sliced autumn beets with toasted chili-tamarind peanut paste.
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    Khun Sompit’s Big Fish, branzino served crispy and whole, with Belgian endive and lime gastrique.
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    Chilean Sea Bass, steamed and served with baby bok choy, ginger, scallions and au jus of fermented soybean.
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    Jumbo Lump Blue Crabmeat, served on a bed of warm Thai rice noodles with spicy turmeric-coconut curry and crispy shave garlic and rice crackers.
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    Black Sticky Rice Pudding, with spiced poached pear, salted coconut emulsion, and pandan meringue chips.
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    Coconut Cream Pie Parfait, house made from our secret recipe.
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    Chocolate Mousse, with candied pecans and vanilla ice cream.
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    Every one of these dishes was very good indeed, so much that it's difficult to pick just a few standouts over the others. But the dishes I would be sure to order again, while trying dishes we didn't get a chance to try last night, were the tapioca pearl crackers and the crabmeat. As you can see in the photos, the food was not only delicious, but also featured pleasant visual presentations as well. In general, the dishes feature flavor profiles and ingredients similar to more conventional Thai cuisine: peanuts, coconut, chiles, etc. A few dishes had some heat to them, but not as strong as in some other Thai dishes elsewhere. Some of the dishes are designated gluten free on the menu; those who have other specific needs (e.g. nut allergies or avoiding spicy dishes) may wish to mention them when ordering.

    The room is lovely, and nicer than typical Thai restaurants. The room is spacious and even though almost all the tables were occupied and there was a nice energy level, the noise level was conversation-friendly (thank goodness, a rarity these days). Note the birdcage light fixtures below.

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    Our server (Seth) was very enthusiastic and helpful. This is how the check was presented at the end of the meal :) :
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    A woman who I believe is one of the owners stopped by our table several times to make sure everything was okay, and of course we assured her that it was terrific. She mentioned that since they opened, they already had two parties walk out when they looked at the menu and discovered there was no pad thai. Of course, that's the beauty and uniqueness that NaKorn represents.

    There is one downside to NaKorn: it's more expensive than most other Thai restaurants. Apps are $8-12, entrees are $15-32, and desserts are $8. The check for the above items for the three of us, including two beers and one iced tea, was $184 plus tip, which is significantly more than we would typically spend at most Thai restaurants, although not out of line with other upscale, contemporary restaurants. Regardless, we were very happy with our dinner there, and we look forward to returning again soon.

    You can read about the background and objectives of the restaurant's principals in the recent article in Chicago magazine (click here).

    NaKorn
    1622 Orrington Avenue
    Evanston 60201
    847.733.THAI (8424)
    LUNCH
    11AM — 2PM
    DINNER
    Tue - Thur 5PM — 9:30PM
    Fri - Sat 5PM — 10PM
    Sun 5PM — 9PM

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  • Post #2 - December 14th, 2016, 5:05 am
    Post #2 - December 14th, 2016, 5:05 am Post #2 - December 14th, 2016, 5:05 am
    With the exception of a few minor stumbles, I think it’s safe to say that the Evanston Lunch Group™ was pleased with NaKorn, the new Thai restaurant in downtown Evanston.

    This ain’t your typical pad thai place. You won’t find any typical Ameri-Thai dishes here. But you will find recognizable Thai flavors laced throughout the menu in interesting and creative ways. It’s a little more expensive than your neighborhood strip mall Thai joint, but well worth it.

    We started with two appetizers. The first, House made Pandan Tapioca Pearl Crackers, came with a small dish of relish made from shrimp, chicken, tamarind and coconut, with a little side of cilantro. The relish was the star here, with the crackers as a unique serving vessel.
    TapiocaCrackers.jpg House made Pandan Tapioca Pearl Crackers

    Taro Chicken was perhaps more elaborate, with little dollops of mashed taro root perched atop half-dollar-sized pieces of chicken infused with coconut and lemongrass, in a chili-peanut sauce. Each one (four to a serving) was a perfect couple of bites.
    TaroChicken.jpg Taro Chicken

    Interestingly, both appetizers (described as “Bites” on the menu) were served in a wooden box on a bed of uncooked red rice. Although elegant, the rice tended to stick to the tapioca crackers after they’d been out for a while; brushing off the hard, uncooked rice was a bit of a challenge.

    Another dish featuring coconut was the Coconut Milk Poached Black Tiger Prawns, with ginger, garlic, diced pineapple and dried fruits, and what looked like rice noodles in a coconut broth. This $14 entree did fill the plate, but many of the group were disappointed that the dish included only two prawns, albeit good sized ones. Personally, I didn’t think the pineapple worked particularly well with the other flavors. On a return trip, I'll probably skip this one.
    CoconutTigerPrawns.jpg Coconut Milk Poached Black Tiger Prawns

    Much more successful was the Grilled Amish Chicken — although it did beg the question of how significant an influence the Amish have on traditional Thai cuisine. The coconut rice was a good accompaniment, especially when topped with some of the tamarind sauce supplied in a small bottle on the side. It came with a refreshing, if spicy, green papaya salad.
    AmishChicken.jpg Grilled Amish Chicken

    Southern Style Fried Noodles came with tofu and vegetables. The flavorful noodles were the star here. Not sure what the crisp wafer on top was.
    SouthernNoodles.jpg Southern Style Fried Noodles

    Another prawn dish — Coconut Cream Curry Sauce Sautéed White Prawns — this time with a different, smaller, and more generous serving of prawns — came with a coconut curry sauce, and interesting young peppercorns, still on the branch, which provided a spicy crunch, with notes of piperine and camphor. Very satisfying.
    CurryWhitePrawns.jpg Coconut Cream Curry Sauce Sautéed White Prawns

    The separate drinks menu includes a number of house-made sodas, Thai iced tea, cocktails, a tiny but price-friendly wine list, and a short but interesting beer list. I went with the Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison beer, from Pilsen’s Moody Tongue Brewing — a lemony, complex beer, well priced at $5 for a 12 oz. bottle.
    Beer.jpg Steeped Emperor’s Lemon Saison

    Overall, it’s a different take on Thai cuisine than I’ve seen anywhere else locally. We’ll probably return to try the more extensive dinner menu.

    But it’s not the place to go if you’re averse to coconut.
  • Post #3 - December 21st, 2016, 2:58 pm
    Post #3 - December 21st, 2016, 2:58 pm Post #3 - December 21st, 2016, 2:58 pm
    The lemon saison Tom recommended (thanks!) was the highlight of a winter visit to NaKorn for dinner, which featured muted and tame flavors with no hint of spice, funk, sour, or bitter - just very competently handled proteins in quiet sauces and broths, and competently handled tofu and (brown) rice and vegetables in quiet stacks. The hosts and room were lovely and bright, but I can't picture venturing back for an evening since this is not the cuisine I'm after when on the Thai wavelength, compounded by the pricepoints - as an example, the same Amish chicken portion at dinner does not include the lunch papaya salad, nor will they actually prepare the papaya salad at dinnertime. Deft-but-bland might actually work better as a fusion tasting menu - with no expectation of punchy street food - than the current a la carte experience.
  • Post #4 - December 21st, 2016, 10:04 pm
    Post #4 - December 21st, 2016, 10:04 pm Post #4 - December 21st, 2016, 10:04 pm
    Santander wrote:The lemon saison Tom recommended (thanks!) was the highlight of a winter visit to NaKorn for dinner, which featured muted and tame flavors with no hint of spice, funk, sour, or bitter - just very competently handled proteins in quiet sauces and broths, and competently handled tofu and (brown) rice and vegetables in quiet stacks. The hosts and room were lovely and bright, but I can't picture venturing back for an evening since this is not the cuisine I'm after when on the Thai wavelength, compounded by the pricepoints - as an example, the same Amish chicken portion at dinner does not include the lunch papaya salad, nor will they actually prepare the papaya salad at dinnertime. Deft-but-bland might actually work better as a fusion tasting menu - with no expectation of punchy street food - than the current a la carte experience.


    This mirrors my experience pretty well. "No hint of spice" is not an overstatement, they literally didn't have a chili in the kitchen (I asked, 3 people just to be sure). What do they eat during staff meals? Proteins were generally fine, but the scallops were cooked to rubber. Not just expensive, but also tiny. $75pp and still hungry. The food photographs well which is what got us into the place, but the kitchen is not putting out anything worthwhile in either the fine dining or Thai categories.
    Part of the secret of a success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside.

    -Mark Twain
  • Post #5 - January 16th, 2017, 11:14 am
    Post #5 - January 16th, 2017, 11:14 am Post #5 - January 16th, 2017, 11:14 am
    Where to start? We walk in on a Sunday night; there are perhaps four or five tables occupied. The only person handling the new patrons is Seth who is also the only server working all evening. (Later on, a woman we believe to be the owner, finally starts seating people after it becomes clear that Seth is already stretched to the breaking point.) In any case, Seth finishes his table obligations and scurries over to welcome and seat us. We have just begun looking at the menu and discussing what we’re thinking about when the woman we’ve guessed to be the owner comes over and demands to know if we have a reservation: this, in a place more than half-empty. Uh, yes, and, we give her the name again. Since the room never filled up (and was less than half full at this point), we’re not sure why this was critical, but we give her the name and she walks away: no thank you, no “welcome,” not a word. Strange but…whatever.

    After much back-and-forth, the Lovely Dining Companion and I finally choose and place our order. (It is appropriate to note that, as their website explains, “Our menu is best enjoyed when served family-style, though our portion sizes vary according to the dish.”) Seth, by the way, is wonderful…when he’s available. He was already busy and as the evening progressed, things only got worse. He seems to know the menu and the food and is a very upbeat, pleasant guy. He mentions, after she’s ordered, that the LDC is fortunate: she got the last order of sea bass available. I order the branzino. These are not cheap entrees ($30 and $32, respectively) and we wonder a little at the prices given the strikingly spare, moderate décor. The website says “We intend to differentiate ourselves by giving customers a nostalgic glimpse of the past by offering a casual yet exceptional dining experience, reminiscent of 1970s Thai shophouses.” Since I wasn’t in Thailand in the 1970s, I’m not in a position to quibble, but very little about the interior of this quite spacious room reminds me of Thailand—well, there is an oversized portrait of the king. For a place that clearly aspires to be a high-end place (the presentations are lovely and there is clearly an effort at creativity), it feels like the aspirations are a bit too tethered by reality. It’s certainly a pleasant room, but no more than that. They’ve likely chosen to invest their money elsewhere and as a small business are likely on a tight budget anyhow, but the present incarnation doesn’t somehow measure up to the clear ambitions of the menu.

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    In any event, Seth comes back, quite apologetic: it seems that the sea bass is, in fact, all gone. Oh. Okay…so the Lovely Dining Companion votes for the blue crab. In the meantime, our appetizer has arrived, a clever and artful display. The menu says, “charred eggplant and tomato, with raw radish, fried shallot and spicy tamarind dressing.” I can only speak to my portion but it was more like slices of not-quite-ripe tomato on which were set beautifully rolled strips of eggplant dressed with a very attractive dressing. It’s a cold dish, by the way. Is it cutting edge? Hardly. But it was nicely presented and we (mostly) enjoyed it.

    The dishes are cleared and we quickly discover that Nakorn believes in returning your used silver to the table rather than provide new, clean utensils for the next course. This is something I’ve really never understood, don’t like and, in the case of a new place seeking to be thought of as high-end (or higher-end), seems quite out-of-place. Seth suddenly returns to the table. Profusely apologetic. Again. It seems that the kitchen has only just bothered to inform him that—guess what?—they are out of branzino as well. Two of their three fish dishes gone and it isn’t 6:30 pm yet. And only now do they finally manage to inform their only server that they haven’t got any more. After the appetizer has been served, eaten, and removed? Not an auspicious or impressive start.

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    Eventually, the LDC’s (second-)choice of jumbo lump blue crab arrives, served on a bed of warm rice noodles with crispy shaved garlic and rice crackers. A “spicy turmeric-coconut curry” is served in a small carafe and she is instructed to pour it in and ensure that she gets a little of everything in each bite. What came was attractive and, LDC assures me, delicious. But she also says that most anyone ordering it (except her) would find the portion to be distinctly too small. She enjoyed the curry sauce and thought there was sufficient crab (of good quality).

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    I now receive my (second-)choice roasted duck breast: “slow-cooked in clear broth, with shiitake mushrooms, young coconut, confit daikon and cilantro tips.” (It’s only fair to note that the presentation was far more attractive than this rather stark photo suggests.) On the plus side: a generous portion of surprisingly perfect duck. Cooked almost exactly right, melt-in-the-mouth tender. Not a critical peep out of me about the duck…but it would have been nice it the dried shiitake tops had been marinated long enough, though. They were still chewy. The other surprising thing was, considering the generous portion of duck, the accompaniments in the bowl were rather sparse: two pieces of coconut, two mushrooms, and one piece of confit daikon (which, truth be told, was absolutely wonderful: it had soaked up the delicious broth—which was complex and tasted of more than a bit of star anise—and was quite tender).

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    We ordered pickled mustard greens as a side (something I’ve always associated with Chinese, not Thai, food) and an artful display of it arrived. Good, if very salty. It would have profited enormously by being served with a scoop of plain white rice. On its own it simply didn’t work, good though the effort may have been. It should be noted that rice does not come with their entrees. You can choose between brown rice or coconut rice—no plain white rice—at $4 a pop.

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    We closed with black sticky rice pudding—somehow coconut cream pie parfait and chocolate mousse didn’t say “Thailand” to us. It is served with “spiced poached pear, salted coconut emulsion, and pandan meringue chips.” I think it’s worth pointing out that the place was now busy—not full, but definitely busy—and it took longer for the kitchen to turn out this dish (the ingredients of which had to be completely prepped and ready to serve) than it did for our entrees to show up. Pandan is a delicate flavor: here it serves more as an attractive display element than a flavor in the dish. Our spiced poached pear tasted very nicely of whatever it was poached in but we needed to ask for a knife and fork to cut it. It might have been ripe, but it was anything but tender. That said, we both enjoyed the sticky rice and found it nicely complemented by the salted coconut emulsion. In fact, it reminded us of a few desserts we had in Bali.

    It should be noted that their drink menu is quite upscale—and a bit more ambitious than the restaurant yet seems to warrant. After-dinner, this is probably not the place where I will choose an armagnac or cognac, an amaro or a PX sherry. They also offer a nice selection of $11 drink creations to start as well as a small selection of wines ($8 to $11 per glass/$32 to $44 per bottle). They have as well four or five beers and, though I was initially tempted to follow Tom’s (nr706’s) lead on the Lemon Saison…I changed my mind when my order changed.

    Their home page says, “NaKorn started with our belief that authentic Thai food should be found not only in Thailand—but here, as well.” In the event, this seems to us far more wishful thinking than anything else, a point already made in the preceding two posts. We’d echo santander’s opinion: solid, competent, often attractive presentations. Overpriced considering the portion size. There was a nice crowd on a Sunday evening but it would help enormously if they’d hire one more server. And learn how better to estimate their ordering. Moreover, if you’re going to set the price point where it is, consider offering at least some gratis rice…or something. When I have to order rice in a “high-end”—or even a “medium-end” Thai restaurant—pay $4 for it, and then only have two kinds to choose from—I tend not to come away happy. We’re impressed by their aspirations and wish them well, but there are too many things out of synch for us to revisit any time soon.
    Gypsy Boy

    "I am not a glutton--I am an explorer of food." (Erma Bombeck)

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