Thai restaurant, Nari, is the fifth installation in my "Greatest Hits" series, which features exceptional restaurants I've eaten at. For information on the criteria I use to make these selections, see my previous posts on A16, Bouchon, Dill and Alinea.
This post is a little different than the former four however. First, I was conflicted about writing it (more on that in the seventh paragraph). Second, Nari made my list not only because of the food, but also because of the longevity and quality of its preceding sister restaurants, Kin Khao and Nahm.
Kin Khao, located in San Francisco, California, was opened in 2014 by proprietor and chef, Pim Techamuanvivit. A mere 18 months after opening the Thai restaurant, it earned a Michelin star. Having eaten at Kin Khao many times, I can say I have never been disappointed and would recommend it without hesitation.
Four years after opening Kin Khao, Chef Techamuanvivit took over as Executive Chef of Nahm in Bangkok, Thailand, which also has a Michelin star. Having earned Michelin stars on both her first and second restaurant projects, I was eager to see what Chef Techamuanvivit would do next.
When she opened Nari in San Francisco in 2019, it was no surprise that she was recognized by James Beard. Esquire even listed the upscale, Thai restaurant as one of the best new restaurants in America. In 2023, Nari earned a Michelin star (Techamuanvivit's third).
I'll start by saying that the food at Nari is excellent. Nari, like Kin Khao and Nahm, serves fiery, gourmet, Thai food that I was fortunate to enjoy with my dining companion. Of the 13 dishes that we experienced on the chef's tasting menu (one amuse bouche, eight entrees, two side dishes and two desserts), a bad bite was not to be had.
With food that's this delicious, it makes me very sad to say that this was the worst restaurant service I have ever experienced, starting with the dismissive and rude greeting by the hostess and ending with the moment we paid our bill and left. Therein lies the conflict I referenced earlier.
Amuse Bouche: Sesame Coated Meatballs, Served on Green Apple Discs with Cilantro
Condé Nast Traveler says the following about dining at Nari, "This is not a menu designed to be rushed through." I agree! The refined dishes, enticing aromatics, varying textures and tantalizing flavors should be savored.
Sadly, rushed is exactly what we were.
The server's annoyance with everything from our questions about a given dish through to our ordering dessert, was palpable and complete with unveiled, impatient glances, signaling us to hurry up. Responding to his cues, and attempting to be accommodating, we tried to move through the meal at a steady clip. We completed the meal in record time -- 13 plates in a little over an hour! This even included the time it took for us to be seated, enjoy cocktails and place our order.
In all fairness though, we weren't consuming the entirety of each dish because many of our plates were removed from the table before we were finished eating. After each dish, we made it a point to ask that the leftovers be boxed for us to take home. However, when we requested them at the end of the meal, we were surprised to learn that the food was unrecoverable because it had been discarded.
From the beginning, our server seemed inconvenienced by our presence. Immediately after we were seated, he noticed that we had brought our own wine and shared (in a pedantic tone) that the corkage fee would be $50. We pleasantly acknowledged. His mood seemed to lift when we asked to start with cocktails.
We asked to have our wine opened to let it breathe while we enjoyed our cocktails, but indicated that decanting it was unnecessary. We didn't initially realize that he had taken the wine away from the table (not customary), instead of opening it at the table and leaving it there.
In all the commotion during the meal, we also did not immediately realize that our server had never returned our bottle of wine. Out of our sight, he opened the bottle and drank some of the wine before returning the opened bottle to our table, bereft of any glasses, and with the cork replaced.
When we inquired about getting some glassware, we were told that he didn't bring any because he didn't think we would (and implied "should") drink the wine since our meal was almost finished (as a result of being rushed). He did unapologetically inform us, however, that he had taken the liberty to taste the wine and it was good. Huh?!?
I always find it a lovely gesture to offer a server a taste of a wine that I've brought to a restaurant. That said, never have I witnessed (while dining or during the years I worked at several fine dining establishments) a server partake of a guest's wine without first being offered.
Having now explained just some of the reasons why this was the worst service I've received at a restaurant, let me move on, and reiterate that Nari and Kin Khao serve phenomenal, Thai food. In fact, collectively, they serve the best, or second best, Thai food I have ever eaten in the United States. (I'm on the fence because Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, Nevada competes with them for top spot in my mind.)
Below are all of the innovative and mouthwatering dishes we tasted at Nari:
Gaeng Gradong Tod
These pork croquettes reminded me of a samosa with a lighter and flakier dough.
Inside was a succulent, pork filling. The croquettes were amazing on their own and even richer when dunked in the northern curry paste that accompanied them.
Scallop Yum Gati
This dish was made of lightly cured scallops and shinko pear which were then dressed in coconut milk and chili jam. To accompany the main ingredients were some cashews, chilis, herbs and celtuce, which is a type of Chinese lettuce that has the consistency of a broccoli stem.
This dish was composed of summer vegetables, fruits and herbs, which were then tossed in a curried, peanut dressing and sprinkled with sesame seeds. The combination brought together tart, sweet and salty flavors beautifully.
Cabbage with Caramelized Fish Sauce
This simple combination of cabbage tossed with fish sauce and whole garlic cloves, in a high temperature wok, was one of my favorite dishes of the evening. The whole, garlic cloves were caramelized and soft, lending a sweetness, rather than the pungency that large pieces of garlic can contribute.
Squid and Pork Jowl
Squid and pork -- to my recollection, not a combination I have had before. This dish was so good. The grilled Monterey squid was drenched in a tangy, chili-lime dressing. To that, the chef added sweet and succulent pork jowl. This was completely different, and equally as delicious as the preparation of pork jowl than I was accustomed to, which is a cured version known as guanciale, used in Italian cooking. The dish was finished with crunchy peanuts and fresh cilantro.
Nom Tok Moo
I don't even know what to say about this slow cooked pork chop that was finished on the grill, slathered in Nam Jim Jaew sauce, and topped with herbs and toasted rice powder, except that the flavors exploded in my mouth. This spicy and savory concoction was then ...
... stuffed in fresh lettuce with cucumber slices to cool down the dish and bring beautiful balance.
This dish of crispy, stir-fried, chicken with sweet and spicy curry paste was another fiery, flavor explosion. The Blue Lake beans, dried shrimp, makrut and salted duck egg, steadied some of the heat while simultaneously enhancing it. How does one do that? I'll put it another way -- Chef Techamuanvivit is a genious.
The priking gai above, was served with sticky rice which added a new texture and just the right amount of sweetness.
Gaeng Bumbai Aubergine
I love eggplant, but even if you don't, I would still recommend trying this version. This crispy eggplant had a texture I had not encountered in other preparations of this vegetable. After being deep-fried, it was laid on top of a spicy, bumbai curry with lemon basil leaves and then sprinkled with crispy shallots. All of that was served with ...
... warm, buttery roti (a flatbread that is native to India but served in other regions as well).
Dreaming of Lod Chong
Now, onto dessert. Our first dessert was a pandan parfait, with salted coconut cream and shaved ice.
And our second was fresh pomegranate and raspberry served with tapioca pearls and jellies, in a salted coconut cream, alongside crushed ice. Both desserts were exceptional and dishes I had never before tasted. My experience with Thai desserts had heretofore been limited to mango with sticky rice or deep fried banana with coconut ice cream. These incredible desserts blew those right out of the water.
To wrap up, I will say that when I started this blog almost a year and a half ago, I decided not to post about experiences that were purely negative, as there is no dearth of pessimism or dissension out there. My goal was to only write about experiences and adventures that edified and broadened me.
So, as I said at the start, this post was challenging. In the end, I decided to release dualistic thinking and write honestly, holding two competing truths equally. From the first to the last course, the food at Nari was brilliant without exception. And the service was appalling. Ultimately, I would still recommend this restaurant because Chef Pim Techamuanvivit’s food has never disappointed me, whether at her flagship, Kin Khao or at Nari, and I don't think it will disappoint you either.