In late April, our California distributor Farm Wines did a tasting in Los Angeles at Salt's Cure (an amazing restaurant which will be featured in the next Places We Like). I flew out to man the Louis/Dressner table, but my real motivation was to check out Farm's recently added California roster, which to my knowledge is the first time a group of American winemakers working with organic/biodynamic grapes and native yeast fermentations have been put together in the same portfolio. The night before the tasting, I got to meet all the winemakers over dinner at NIGHT+MARKET, a great little Thai restaurant owned by the very young, talented and hilarious Kris Yenbamroong.
The food was great and the wine list was refreshingly full of light reds from the Beaujolais and Loire Valley. Kris and I started talking after dinner and it turned out he was good friends with Lou Amdur of the late Lou on Vine as well as Noella Morantin. I like NIGHT+MARKET and I like Kris, so I asked him if he'd be interested in doing a feature for the Louis/Dressner blog. Here's the very entertaining result of our email exchange:
Tell us about yourself and how you got into wine.
I cook for and run a restaurant called NIGHT+MARKET, pronounced, 'night market.' I've heard it called 'night and market', 'night plus market' and for those who are unwilling to commit either way: 'night 'n market' (read really fast). I'm a stubborn guy and felt that putting a '+' sign between the words was visually interesting, especially if the words were stacked, as they are in our neon window sign. I was willing to sacrifice function for aesthetics because I didn't want to be drowned out amidst all the hustle and bustle in our neighborhood; if you've been to our restaurant, you will know that we are located on the very tasteful Sunset Strip, an exemplar of decorum where subtlety and nuance is highly rewarded. It may or may not have been the right decision...
My parents always had wine around at the restaurant. I distinctly remember labels like 'Justin' 'Opus One,' 'Lynch Bages',that sort of thing. Anyhow, I myself didn't really start drinking wine until my teens. At the time, I wanted to become a professional tennis player. I enjoyed the game, but what really drove me was the whole sensibility of professional tennis life. I liked the outfits, the chicks and the exotic tournament locations. What I lacked was the discipline and desire to actually practice. I think I only started drinking once I realized the tennis thing wasn't going to happen. Jumping ahead about fifteen years, I started paying attention to what I was drinking when I met Lou Amdur. This was probably early 2008, around the time I was taking the reins of my parents' restaurant. My pops had been to LOU and thought it was something I might be into. There was some Verdejo and a Quincy and perhaps some Vinedos de Ithaca wines that I enjoyed immensely and that really stuck with me because of the aromatics (or maybe lack thereof) and because they didn't taste like the wines I knew growing up. Prior to that, I don't recall many occasions where I felt 'uplifted' after drinking wine. Maybe there was some Gruner Veltliner that my parents were into, but not much beyond that. This wine was fun, it was interesting but not 'difficult', it was a pleasure to drink. Those wines were the gateway drug, so to speak. From there, I did what any conscientious wine rookie would do--I googled a bunch of stuff and drank more.
Tell us about NIGHT+MARKET. Talesai is your parent's place right? How did the idea for the restaurant come about?
I moved back from NYC in 2008 and took over Talesai, the restaurant my father opened with his mother as the chef 30 years ago. Before that, I worked for the photographer Richard Kern since my senior year of college. About a year and a half ago, the space next door became available and I quickly snatched it up. Honestly, I didn't even have a concrete plan for it but I knew two things: it was a good space, and I didn't want a new neighbor. At the time, I was doing some collaborations with an artist named Rirkrit Tiravanija who is often mentioned under the rubric of 'relational aesthetics,' which basically means his art involves cooking sausages for strangers in a gallery or museum setting. (I was his sausage re-up). One night while he was in town, I cooked a bunch of Northern Thai food for him and twenty or so other people. We held the dinner in what would become the NM space even though it was a newly-gutted room with still-wet plaster on the walls. I threw together a few tables and picnic chairs and cooked a bunch of dishes that my mother's family fed me as a kid. We must have gone through 2 cases of wine over dinner and by the end, I realized this was a situation that could work as a restaurant, or at least an experiment.
I would cook all this country food that I tried to introduce in the main space but which never really got a fair shake since the existing customers were up in arms about it ("how DARE you serve me beef jerky and fried chicken! That's not Thai food." "Yes, sir, it is." etc...) I had a hunch that the only way I could really serve that food was if I had a blank slate. So I started doing NM four nights a week, with a menu of maybe 10 dishes and twice that number in wines. It all centered around the sausages that we made, of which there were two varieties: a Chieng Rai-style grilled herb sausage and an Isan sour sausage, which is fermented.
We stuffed them literally by hand, which involves inserting the narrow end of a stainless steal Chinese soup spoon into a casing and pushing the meat through with your thumb. This process is not pretty and I am convinced it causes arthritis. We continued that way until a few months ago, when I wisened up and bought a hand-crank sausage stuffer. Anyhow, the idea was that this would be a place to drink good wine and have a few things to munch on, like these sausages. Eventually, the menu, as well as the following, grew and we started serving 7 nights a week, although it still feels like an experiment. Every now and then, I'll run into someone who came when we first opened and they'll ask me, 'when are you doing NIGHT+MARKET again' as if it was a party or traveling circus.
Your wine list is very Loire and light red centric, which could be considered atypical to pair with Thai Food. Can you explain this choice?
There is no shortage of assholes who might look to Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Chasselas, Sylvaner, off-dry Chenin, etc... as the perfect pairing for Thai food, which people think of as being numbingly spicy, assertively-seasoned, bold 'exotic' cuisine. They are correct. These are all FANTASTIC pairings. I just chose to be the asshole who is pushing another agenda--light reds with Thai food. The first connection I made was probably when I met Noella Morantin and Laurent Saillard in the Loir-et-Cher. It was right after harvest 2009 and I was spending some time in France with a friend who was living in Paris at the time. I had a list of producers I wanted to visit, a French road atlas and some google maps I had printed out. When I showed up at the Gare de Lyon to pick up our rental car, I realized it was a stick shift and I hadn't driven one of those since I was 13 and living in Thailand. I spent half an hour in the garage starting and stalling. I couldn't get in gear and decided that an accident on a French autoroute was not what I needed. I felt like half a man telling the clerk I couldn't drive stick. The only automatic available was a BMW sport wagon that was about 30 times the price of the little Peugeot they'd given us but we ended up taking it. It made the trip a million times more enjoyable and put me in the manic mindset I would need to cold call this list of vignerons. That was basically my strategy-to not call ahead since I didn't want to be turned down, especially since I started on a Sunday and there was no way anyone would agree to meet me.
One of the doors I knocked on was Clos Roche Blanche. I don't remember Catherine even tasting anything with me. She was probably just really annoyed with me and sent me down the road to meet Noella, who told me she didn't have time (they had to leave for a LDM Loire tasting in NYC the next morning) when I called her for directions. She finally agreed to hang out for 5 minutes. We ended up hitting it off and when Laurent showed up and we realized he'd owned the restaurant Ici in Brooklyn, which was a favorite of ours, we ended up really bro-ing down. They invited us in for dinner and started opening a bunch of wines. They cut up some dry sausage Laurent had made, we ate it with a salad of mushrooms that Catherine had picked from the CRB vineyards and we drank a bunch of Gamay. We gulped several bottles of chilled red wine. There wasn't a lot of reflection going on. It wasn't precious. That's what made me think of our sausages and how the experience of eating them was essentially the same as what I was doing in the Loire, except with different seasoning. The idea and the context were the same. It was country wine to go with country food and the wine was treated as a beverage, albeit a very delicious one, and not something to really ponder. People don't often make connections in terms how we eat and drink and I think it's important that they do. Jonathan Gold once told me, "food may be interesting, but eating is fascinating." That pretty much sums up why he is awesome and why food blogging as a culture, generally, is not.
Your website states "none of the dishes are original creations, rather popular regional fare that has been prepared the same way since forever." In the current climate of "rockstar" chefs, over-ambitious menus, molecular gastronomy etc... do you feel like you're taking an opposite stance on this style of cuisine just by being a young guy who cooks traditional dishes as authentically as possible? Is there a particular reason you were drawn to this type of cooking?
I like restaurants that I can visit night in and night out. It's a matter of comfort in the food and the environment. The cooking has to be solid and it can't be fussy. I like signature dishes and I think that chefs who shun that notion are pretentious. "Shut up and play the hits!" I don't like restaurants that feel like a venue for a kid's college graduation dinner, or places that a high school student who's an aspiring chef might want to stage for summer break. It's not that I don't find anything appealing about them, it's just that I often find myself getting way more excited about an awesome bowl of pasta (housemade cavatelli with sage and browned butter at Frankies, NYC) or good chicken liver on toast (Mozza, LA) than I do about the myriad ways a sandwich can be deconstructed or re-imagined. I realize I'm coming off as a total curmudgeon who's against progress of any sort, but that's not the case. I love the restaurant Isa in Brooklyn, which I feel has a fairly modernist sensibility, even if the technique doesn't say it overtly. When I wrote that thing you quoted, I was being completely truthful but only 90% factual. I was trying to make a point that it's okay to be a worker and just do things well. That's what I aim to do. Being an 'artist' is overrated.
And I do value authenticity but there are cases were innovation makes the dish better. An example is the grilled pork collar that I do. Traditionally it's thrown on the grill with only a dip of sauce beforehand but I actually add a quick dry-cure because it brings more concentration of flavor to the cut, which is particularly fatty. Is that authentic? I don't know, but I also don't care. It stays true to what the dish is but makes it better. That's a situation where innovation works. Though I suspect that if I wasn't Thai, I'd have more of a complex about being authentic. It's the guilt that comes with cultural colonization. For the record, my favorite restaurant is Prune in New York (I fantasize about running a restaurant that good that's been around that long) and the best thing I ever ate was chancho al cilindro (pork cooked in an oil drum, sliced and served on newspaper) in Paucartambo, Peru during the festival of the virgin of St. Carmen, 2006.
Both those things exude tradition so I guess it's true that I'm drawn to things of that nature, and that's probably the reason I choose to drink the wines that I do. Everything I do comes from a real sincere and honest place, from my personal enjoyment in it and from my need to share this stuff with other people. I don't see it as me taking a stand against other styles of cooking. If anything, I'm taking a stand against this need that people now seem to have for being blown away every time they step into a restaurant. There's not a bone in my body that feels that impulse. I honestly feel that the porno effect of desensitization has happened in food and maybe NIGHT+MARKET is me being hopeful that that trend can be reversed. We'll see, though.
How do you feel about real/natural/terroir/whatever wine in L.A these days?
Someone should open a wine bar called, 'whatever wine'. I honestly have no gauge with which to measure the success or status of natural wine in LA. They seem to be very widely available, although that might just be a case of me assuming everyone loves the stuff, just because I do, and I suspect that if I looked at a balance sheet for wine in all of Los Angeles, these wines would still be barely a blip on the radar. Watching two people discuss things that are even remotely esoteric can hilarious. They are both feeling each other out on whether or not the other person is 'one of them' or appreciates the same thing they do. They want to be able to use a shorthand that only people who are in-the-know will understand. I've been on the receiving end of this feeling out process more times than I can remember, and I've also been guilty of feeling out others. At a Thanksgiving party last year, I remember seeing a bottle of Jasnieres from the producer Pascal Janvier. This is a wine that I enjoy and a producer whom I've visited before and I immediately thought to myself: 'There must be another genius in this room. I must find them and we must have a meeting of the minds.' It was a disgusting impulse, and I am embarrassed to have admitted that. The truth is, I care just as much about enjoying this wine with friends than I do about hoarding it and geeking out on it. My dear friend, the legendary Jazz composer and romantic, Anthony Wilson, recently came by for dinner with his pal who had two bottles of wine in tow. They were both big ass California Syrahs from the '90s--in other words, they were the opposite of the dinky low-alcohol gulpers I am accustomed to drinking. Anthony was a little worried that the idea of popping those wines might offend my sensibilities. On the contrary, I was more than excited to hang and drink with my buddy. I think it's a good thing to drink outside your comfort zone sometimes. It's also worth noting that I enjoy the wines that I pour because they are awesome, not because they were made a certain way.
What wines are you particularly into drinking these days?
I've found myself blasting Vergano Americano 'on the rocks' quite frequently as of late, and I also find that it is the wine I seek to pour for friends when they stop by, as in, "Dude, you have to try this.". Like rosé, this is one of those things that should be enjoyed year-round in Los Angeles. A few nights back, Jill from DomaineLA brought what was left of a liter of Radikon Ribolla Gialla. That sort of floored me. Powerful and ballsy but totally complex and nuanced at the same time. I'm not usually one to geek out over flavors and scents but this was a rare moment where I wanted to just sit and sniff. I heard it was a vintage that isn't commercially available yet but what excited me more was the fact that it's not a wine I would normally choose to drink on any given night but one that ended up being a profound experience for me. Aside from that, I've been drinking the usual, meaning lots of Gamay-based wines. '10 Descombes Brouilly, '08 Foillard Morgon, some TelQuel, some wines from Noella and I had some killer red from Pascal Potaire a month or two back at Ten Bells. Laurent was the one who turned me onto Potaire and I hope to be bringing on his wine in the near future.