By Tarajia Morrell
Photos by Kevin Aldrich
Morrell Salon: Family Recipe, Thai Food At Home
Growing up and watching my mother labor over dishes like whole sea bass en croute for Christmas dinner and my dad’s annual birthday cassoulet has made me an adventurous home cook: I’m up for butchering rabbits and making curries from scratch. But inviting Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, the chefs and co-owners of the beloved Nolita restaurants Mr. Donahue’s and Thai eatery Uncle Boons, to helm the meal at Morrell Salon, proved there’s a lot my little kitchen had never seen. Their Thai menu promised dishes such as sa koo sai muu and scallops with Rangpur lime nam prik, which are mysterious to pronounce let alone prepare. They brought a cooler the size of a coffin full of exotic supplies and even set up a binchotan grill on my terrace.
The 1970s Thailand vibe of Uncle Boons fit in amusingly well with the 1970s wine-themed décor of my quirky apartment and that same retro, relaxed energy that makes their restaurant so special filtered into my home and through the guests. Ornate golden pedestal platters would carry duck mee krob, a crispy stir-fry of delicate noodles, shredded duck confit and marigold petal confetti, with less obvious ingredients like pickled garlic, dried shrimp and torn omelets that added heat, umami and sweetness, respectively. Yet as I watched the methodical chefs take over with their myriad and often obscure ingredients, I began to understand that sa koo sai muu are just adorable tapioca pork dumplings—hardly something to be afraid of, and that nam priks are really just the Thai version of salsas. While their dishes have many elements and their recipes have many sub-recipes, witnessing the chefs at work demystified much of what I’d initially found daunting. As with any meal, the execution and assemblage were manageable thanks to meticulously prepared mise en place.
The feast—from the bone marrow toast canapés to Uncle Boons’ take on a Kanom Jiin dinner (traditionally for weddings and special occasions) of fermented rice noodles with wild ginger sauce, crab and cockles, and a pork jowl red curry—completely stunned the guests with its layered flavors. Sabine Hrechdakian, restaurateur of cider-focused Wassail, mused, “I devoured plate after plate! It was at once crunchy, pungent, briny and candied…satisfying every craving.” For those who had never been to Uncle Boons, the meal was an awakening to what Thai food could be, particularly as Ann and Matt’s trademark is to incorporate things such as sweetbreads that might not be commonly used in Thailand but that New Yorkers are accustomed to, into typical Thai recipes.
Though many of us reach for a beer when sitting down to a Thai meal, natural wine aficionado Billy Smith of the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, didn’t miss a beat when choosing the evening’s pairings. “With Ann and Matt’s food, I expected that tartness and acidity of the Jean Yves Peron “Maison Rouge” Rosé ‘14 (Savoie, France) and Aci Urbajs Organic Anarchy ’09 (Slovenia) wines would complement the dishes with more intense, sour or spicy flavors,” Billy explains of his selections. “The perfect pairing is often a kind of hail-Mary attempt. I think it’s more important to find a wine that you’ll genuinely enjoy drinking with your meal.”
After dinner, I spoke further with chef Ann, who was born in Thailand and whose mother’s family has done everything from sell street food to cook in the Royal Thai Court, about her path to opening Uncle Boons. After working as a makeup artists’ agent and cocktail waitress, Ann put herself through culinary school and got an externship at Michelin 3-star Per Se, where she met Matt. Surprisingly, it never occurred to them that they would open anything but a classic French restaurant, until their first trip to Thailand together.
Ann’s aunts taught Matt how to make sa koo sai muu, stipulating they make 300 of the little tapioca dumplings. “After 20, Matt was like, ‘Okay, I think I’ve got the hang of it,’” laughs Ann. “But my aunts insisted we make a ton and then invite over lots of friends and family to eat them.” Their if you build it, they will come mentality is one I deeply adhere to. I realized, listening to Ann talk about her journey, her familial food history and her theory that “there are no rules in cooking, just techniques, which you learn by doing,” how similar our perspectives are. I’m even considering getting a binchotan of my own.