Hubert Burda Media

Northeastern Star: Somtum Der

New York-based eatery Somtum Der’s shiny new Michelin Star has thrust Thailand’s under-appreciated Isaan cuisine into the spotlight. 

Tucked away amidst the graffiti-covered grit and grime of New York’s Alphabet City is the unlikely sight of Somtum Der, a cosy, no-frills Isaan eatery that opened back in September 2013. Under the proprietorship of Thanaruek ‘Eh’ Laoraowirodge, it has come a long way from its first location in Bangkok, and has fearlessly captured the title of being the first Thai-owned restaurant to earn a Michelin Star. (Only two other Thai establishments, albeit foreign-owned, have been recognised by the Michelin Guide – Kiin Kiin, a contemporary fusion Thai dining room in Copenhagen and David Thompson’s Nahm London, the latter which has since lost its star.)

Isaan cuisine may be prominent among Thais, but it has always had more of a street food status, rather than being a hallmark of Thai cuisine. So when the Michelin Guide announced on September 30 that Somtum Der had received a star, the award became a stepping stone for Isaan cuisine to be introduced to the world.

At a glance, one might dismiss the venue as nothing more than another hipster New York brunch-style restobar, with its red metal barstools, open counter space and mason jars filled with lavendar. But upon closer observation, subtle Isaan influences fill every corner of the restaurant. Framed sarongs adorn the walls and straw basket chandeliers bedeck the ceilings, coupled with semi-polished wooden floors. The single-room dining space is warmly lit and intimate, and a dining counter overlooks the contrastingly ascetic Avenue A.

The food and preparation spaces are just as relaxed as the atmosphere. Behind the marble counter lined with jars of herbs, chef de partie Kridsanai Nenthanun works his mortar-and-pestling chops preparing a Tum Thai Khai Khem. He dons a straw fedora instead of a toque and opts for flip-flops over chef’s shoes.

But complementing his distinctive style is a chef’s coat proudly touting his new status as Michelincertified. Born and bred in Udonthani, Chef Kridsanai began his career in New Jersey and worked his way up to his current tenure where he artfully delivers Somtum Der’s aim to make real and hearty Isaan food.

Beginning with sticky rice grilled in coconut milk and a Larb Ped, one is immediately reminded of the back-to-basics attitude of the northeastern Thai lifestyle. The dish is aromatic and well textured with toasted rice powder, a rare find outside of Thailand. When asked where he sources his ingredients from, Chef Kridsanai credits Somtum Der’s primary supplier of exotic ingredients. “Some ingredients are just impossible to find here,” he says, “but we still manage to substitute as little as possible to maintain the authenticity of our flavours.”

Larb Ped from Somtum Der

Larb Ped from Somtum Der (Photography: Supisara Ngaovithunvong)

Equally enjoyable is the Tom Klong Pla Dook Yang, a spicy grilled catfish soup. The flavours are a complex meld of the gingerly taste of lemongrass and earthy bouquet of peppers and galangal, and leave a zing that lingers with a slight acidity. To get a full taste of the grilled fish’s texture, having it separately from the soup is recommended.

Most noteworthy is the Sa Poak Kai Tod Der, a deep-fried chicken thigh sprinkled with peanut bits and served with a sweet-and-sour jaew sauce. The chicken is a well-balanced combination of tender and crispy, and the accompanying sauce’s spiciness tickles the tongue without being too hot.

Since none of the dishes have been overly spiced, it is noticeable that the flavours have been considerably downplayed when compared to Isaan cuisine in Thailand “We don’t tailor our tastes to a specific clientele,” says Chef Kridsanai. “But we try our best to accustom the flavours to all diners and preserve its authenticity. The essence of the food is still deeply rooted in genuineness.” In addition to a largely Isaan menu, there is a small section dedicated to central Thai dishes for those unfamiliar with the bold flavours of Isaan food. However, diners lean more towards the Isaan dishes, as it is part of the Somtum Der experience.

After all the sweet-and-sour dishes, Chef Kridsanai brings out the Kanom Jeen Namya Isaan, rice noodles paired with a fishball soup and an eclectic side of fresh and pickled vegetables. The soup is an amalgamation of buttery coconut milk and savoriness of fish sauce, an Isaan staple. One may find the soup’s aroma to be somewhat overwhelming, but the pickled vegetables are the perfect palate cleanser.

To celebrate the second anniversary of Somtum Der’s opening, Chef Kridsanai has created Mum, a local sausage made from minced pork or beef, liver, entrails and garlic. A highly beloved street delicacy in Thailand, Mum epitomises the traditional food preservation methods of the Isaan region. “Since it is sun-dried and grilled, it is versatile enough to pair with any dish,” explains Chef Kridsanai.

Chef Kridsanai Nenthanun

Any meal would be incomplete without dessert, particularly as Thais are known to have a sweet tooth. Although Somtum Der’s dessert list is fairly minimal, it still packs a powerful punch combining all of Thailand’s most popular sweet treats. Choose from a black jelly with fresh milk, taro in condensed coconut milk or an East-meets-West Thai Tea Panna Cotta, although Chef Kridsanai recommends the Jamba Pun, which he deems a local favourite. The syrup-glazed shaved ice on a bed of bread, topped with red beans, is a definite champion and highly reminiscent of a nam kang sai cart along the streets of Bangkok.

Now that Thai cuisine is making its mark on the international dining scene, owner Thanaruek Laoraowirodge has seized the opportunity to open Kiin Thai Eatery, which serves home-style central and northern Thai food. Fans of Somtum Der will similarly appreciate the new eatery, which has attracted increasing fanfare amongst New Yorkers who favour honest cooking in a low-key setting. Kiin Thai is now recognised by the Michelin Guide as a Bib Gourmand, a respectable feat on the heels of its sister restaurant’s Michelin Star. The success of Laoraowirodge’s ventures proves his goal of promoting casual Thai dining is on its way to being met.

As Somtum Der continues to delight with authentic Isaan fare, there are hopes of expanding to other major metropolitan areas and introducing more modern diners to the genuine traditional ‘Der’ lifestyle.