Southeast of Union Square lies a strip of village shops and cafés- half of them still echoing a tired genre of drug shot, tattoo and piercing persona and half gentrified neighborhood of Avenue A. Where the local East Villager ages away, a new breed of global hipsters began to etch their mark on this hub. One of them is the brain behind an authentic Thai restaurant, capturing the traditions of ancient Thai cooking and weaving it into a new gastronomic experience.
Somtum Der NYC:
ISAN-THAI KITCHEN MEETS NEW YORK FARMS
The restaurant appears to surface poetically from a surround of graffiti and a dark underground bar arrival. It’s clean and crisp interiors seemed to float within the dark frame of its heavy metal past.
The warm wood panels, basket lamp shades and chili red bar stools seemed to pop beyond the grunge and clearly marked the the start of a new experience. The impact it made in the neighborhood helped draw us inside. It was only minutes before we were finally embraced by a friendly greeting.
Sawa dee! Welcome to Somtum Der!
Fun! The hosts and chefs were wearing Panama hats and sporting muscle shirts offering us Rosella juice- their House Blend of Roselle plant, salt, pepper, asafoetida and molasses. The drink is originally used as a Thai remedy for liver dysfunction.
After meeting the owner Thanaruek Laoraowirodge who wanted to promote great Northeastern Thai food in New York City, we went on to the back of the restaurant to discover a harvest-like table decked with so vividly colorful, fresh hand-picked vegetables from the local New York farms coupled with Thai ingredients like shredded green papaya, dried shrimp, Thai red chilies, fish sauce, sugar cane and tamarind paste!
In a few minutes, the chefs came to meet us at the table and started a demonstration of how to make wonderful green papaya salad starting off with pounding chilies and fish sauce with a large mortar and pestle. Finishing off with adding tamarind paste, sugar cane vinegar and dried shrimp, the dressing was finally ready to receive the shredded green papaya for tossing.
Oh, and don’t forget to get a glass of Thai rum on the rocks. The one they had was called ‘Mekhong‘. Not sure if it is the brand name or if it represents the local rum, but it was so light and refreshing. What a soothing prologue to the parade of food to come!
As we sat down, a large tray came our way and it had the green papaya salad at the center of it all. Around it were a variety of smaller dishes that included tiny crisp fish, steamed vermicelli, kangkong bundles, pork rind, brined egg, brown noodles, bean sprouts, tempura shrimp and fried tofu. We were told that we could mix them all up or taste each one at a time.
Following the tray was a tasting dish of duck salad with chilies and glass noodles. Also a bowl of steaming Tom Yum- a sour soup with flavors of lemon grass came our way to satisfy our palate.
My favorite was the duck salad as it had the right twist and turns, so rich in flavor that memories of other versions I had in the past have seemed to fade away.
Last on the parade, was another large dish of different staples pairing the highlight dish which is another version of papaya salad having fermented fish as it’s dressing. This was the true taste of Isan Thai! Pungent enough to make your eyes glow, powerful and exhilarating yet enjoyable.
Kudos to Executive Chef and Co-founder Kornthanut Thongnum! He has championed mainstream Thai-Isan cuisine while introducing his own unique ways of bringing the flavors of genuine Thai food into Somtum Der.
Kornthanut, who has earned a Bachelors degree in Hotel and Tourism at Rajabhat University in Sakonnakorn, has brought his innovative culinary skills and restaurant experience to this new location in the East Village.
New Yorkers can now call themselves lucky to have a new haven for food and drink. It will definitely be a destination for many flavor-and-spice seeking foodies.