Monday, April 14, 2014

Arun's Delivers an Exquisite If Not Quite Extraordinary Thai Dining Experience -- Chicago Restaurant Review

Restaurant Review

Thai, Prix Fixe
4156 N. Kedzie, Chicago

I don't recall anyone I know ever speaking about Arun's, I can't remember reading a specific review of it and I know I had never driven by it.

Yet I have been aware of the upscale Thai restaurant for many years, and due to it being consistently exalted as one of the best restaurants in Chicago--it is one of just seven awarded five diamonds by AAA--as well as perhaps the very best Thai restaurant in America, I have long been intrigued.

So in the wake of having loved my prix fixe--set price, preset menu--meal at Picasso in Las Vegas in January, I decided to devote a weekend's dining and entertainment budget to an $85 (+ drink, tax & tip) dinner at Arun's, and ate there on a Saturday night in March.

I wouldn't say that I was disappointed as everything about the meal and experience was first-class, but I also can't say that I was blown away. 

Not only did Arun's not thrill like pricey prix fixe indulgences like Picasso, Alinea and Charlie Trotter's, but just in terms of Thai food--while wanting to be deferential to the obvious imagination of chef and owner Arun Sampanthavivat, who has concocted excellence nightly for nearly 30 years--I've probably been more overtly pleased by a great rendition of Pad Thai for around $7.95.

In writing this up a few weeks removed from my visit, I have to refer to my notes and photos to recall what I had and liked. And I know that even the night of my meal, nothing truly set me ablaze with delight.

As one would expect, the service being excellent--despite being given the wrong check at the end--with a rotation of servers patiently describing each course as I took notes on my phone.

And though I was seated in an area with more low-key art, there were walls gorgeously covered with the elaborate paintings by the owner/chef's brother, Anawat.

I was allowed to freely peruse and photograph them all, which was thrilling in itself.

And no doubt about it, I definitely enjoyed a unique, savory and substantive meal. Just not one as historic or euphoric as I was hoping.

Twelve courses were served: 6 appetizers, 4 entrees and 2 desserts. 

Soon after making my reservation through Open Table in mid-January, I received a confirmation phone call from the restaurant in which I was asked about any food restrictions. I informed them about my poultry allergy, so no chicken, duck or turkey.
But there was no menu on the table, or current one online, and no indication of what I would be served. Although I'd had prix fixe meals before, this was the first one that was truly blind.
I did not order any wine and there was no salt or pepper on the table.

Here's a rundown of the 12 courses I enjoyed at Arun's:

1. Winter Rice Porridge with seasoned pork & fried dough - Excellent
2. Oyster Pancake with garlic chives, bean sprouts, spicy mayo - Terrific 
3. Steamed Rice Dumpling filled with shrimp & jicama and sweet chili vinaigrette sauce - Good, sauce really good
4. Meekati - thin noodles (vermicelli), with mint prawn, black bean coconut sauce, tofu, garlic chive and a flat omelette - Very good

5. Tom Yum Soup - pork hock, herbs - OK

After this course, my main waiter indicated that I had had 6 courses, but luckily I had notes as I was only done with 5.
6. Yum Makrua - Fried eggplant, carved cucumber cup with Thai salad; would have been chicken instead of eggplant - Good, spicy
7. Lobster Tail with garlic sauce - Good
8. Basil Tilapia with corn and zucchini (usually chicken instead of tilapia) - Fair, nothing special
9. Three-flavored Fish - sweet/spicy/sour sauce and Nemo made from a carrot - Good
10. Beef Mussaman with string potato - Good but not sensational
11. Kibosha Squash, sweet black rice and beans, tapioca bubbles, coconut milk - Traditional Thai dessert - Good
12. Mixed Sorbet - Lichi and orchid blossom with poached pear & raspberry sauce - Excellent 

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