John Kunkel is no ordinary restaurateur. He built Lime Fresh Mexican Grill from a stand-alone spot in South Beach to a small chain that last year he sold to Applebee's for a reported $24 million.
In 2011, he opened Yardbird Southern Table and Bar, where Jeff McInnis, former "Top Chef" and Ritz-Carlton alumnus, serves biscuits and fried chicken to an ever-growing clientele hungry for innovative Southern fare. The restaurant and the chef were James Beard Award semifinalists.
Kunkel's Khong River House opened in December. It's named after the Mekong River, which runs through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Khong River House reflects the fresh market food that Kunkel encountered during his travels. And like the river, the restaurant brings together each country's culinary influences.
This is no ordinary Thai restaurant.
But what truly separates Khong River from every other Thai spot in South Florida is its emphasis on fresh ingredients. Kunkel and his team of Thai-born chefs work with a Homestead farmer to grow their ingredients. Our climate isn't unlike Thailand's.
Sounds simple enough. But other Thai restaurants just don't do it. While all Thai food depends on things such as fish sauce and curry paste — what I call the funky elements — too many chefs forget about the fresh elements of the food. Not Khong River.
While even our waitress told us that many of these so-called authentic dishes have been tweaked to appeal to a broader audience, Khong River House renewed my interest in Thai cuisine. Many menu entries include details as to where the dish originated and where the ingredients were grown. Thai food in South Florida will never be the same.
We started with crispy minced pork balls ($9), made with red chili, lemon juice, fish sauce and roasted rice powder. They are perfect with one of the many gin cocktails on the menu, from a Slow Pom Fizz ($12) to one of the 33 kinds of gin that can be mixed into one of the house gimlets. There was also beer from Thailand (Chang, Singha) and Laos (Beerlao).
Burmese fresh-noodle wraps ($12) started with house-made flat noodles, which are wrapped around a mixture of roasted peanuts, red chili, palm sugar, lemon juice, cilantro and culantro. Burmese noodles appeared again in bahmi sua ($10), when they were tossed with a light-mushroom soy and vegetables. Grilled eggplant salad ($12) with red onion, cilantro, lemongrass, mint leaves and sour-roasted-chili paste was plated with a boiled egg from Lake Meadow Naturals farm in Orange County. .
I loved the Vietnamese-style prawns ($28), served in their shells. They were sauteed until crispy with Thai chili, garlic, shallots, spring onion and just a bit of spice. Thai crispy duck ($25) wasn't as crispy as we'd hoped, but it was a marvel to see it served with fresh green peppercorns. Likewise, stir-fry tofu ($11) came with garlic chives that were so fresh and tender crisp that I'd swear they were grown somewhere beyond the back door.
There are five kinds of rice on the menu, from simple Thai sticky ($4) to the much-more-interesting vegetable-fried rice ($9), which is unlike any version of fried rice I've ever had, with light-mushroom soy and garlic. It had none of the dried-and-fried taste of many Asian fried-rice dishes.
Along with fresh ingredients, Khong River House is one of the freshest-looking restaurants I've seen in years. Drawing from Thai farm houses built with reclaimed materials, the 175-seat two-story restaurant has walls covered with wooden slats reclaimed from Thai shipping palettes that came into the United States through Portland, Ore. Ceilings are corrugated tin. The place is practically Disney-esque in its design. My only quibble with the theme is the 1980s pop soundtrack. I'd like something more exotic and loungelike.
We ended the meal with sweets that could have come right from a new American fusion restaurant. Coconut cake ($9) was served with pineapple ginger chutney, toasted coconut flakes and coconut ice cream. Mango Napoleon ($8) combined phyllo with mango mousse and fresh mango while chocolate trifle had typical chocolate mouse and cake along with atypical salted caramel Chantilly cream.
Service is top-notch. So is the management team. No wonder Kunkel's tribute to his travels in Thailand was just this week named a 2013 James Beard award semifinalist for best new restaurant in the country.
Khong River House
1661 Meridian Ave., Miami Beach
Cuisine: Northern Thai
Hours: Dinner daily, lunch weekdays, brunch Saturday-Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Some rooms are noisy
Outside smoking: No
Wheelchair accessible: Yes