Citrus and Spice and Everything Nice at V{iV} Thai

November 2, 2013 Updated: October 8, 2018

You can sing all the praises you want about V{iV}, a Thai gem in Hell’s Kitchen, because it is just that. You can savor the authenticity of its northern Thai dishes and its colorful, inviting presentation. You can immerse yourself in the sleek venue: the dimly lit dining room, dark wood floors, mirrors, and the blue light accents. But when it’s all said and done, V{iV}’s difference boils down to just one thing.

Heart.

“If you make it from your heart, the food is always good,” said chef and partner Thongphoon Pandher.

Thongphoon’s great pride and joy is to pour her heart into her cooking, which she learned from her mother in northern Thailand.

Lovers of Thai food should rejoice. With northern Thai food taking its place as an it-thing in the pantheon of hot regional cuisines, V{iV} brings flair in serving the aromatic and herbal flavors the region is becoming known for.

A Northern Thai Pedigree

Besides the more standard dishes like pad Thai, V{iV} has a selection of northern Thai dishes that no other Thai restaurant on Hell’s Kitchen 9th Avenue (with its plethora of Thai restaurants) offers, according to Verasak Sangsiri, one of the partners behind the restaurant.

On the food side, Thongphoon (Thais are known formally by their first name) hails from the city of Chiang Mai. Her demeanor is graceful and she looks a youthful early 40s. I’m shocked to hear she’s in her late 50s. She has nary a wrinkle on her face. It’s a testament to her good genes, but it could be her cooking has something to do with it.

Northern Thai cuisine does not use frying; instead it favors steaming, braising, and grilling. The regional cooking of the north, which developed in an ever-so-slightly cooler climate, favors an abundance of herbs, and also spices, influenced by its neighbor Burma, and also China.

Coconut milk is also rarely used (there are no coconut trees in northern Thailand), except for dishes with influence from the south of Thailand. Palm sugar, rather than refined white sugar, is used to sweeten dishes.

Thongphoon recalls making sausage by hand when she was growing up, a process often mechanized these days. It was quite a chore to clean out the intestine to use as sausage casings, and use pineapple leaves to hand stuff them. But, she said, the taste was incomparable.

Her partner Verasak, who trained in pastry at the Culinary Institute of America, and who often runs the front of the house, proves to be a humorous, even mischievous, foil to Thongphoon’s serenity. He points out how other kitchens are often hectic. But not here—there’s no chef screaming in the kitchen.

Distinctive Flavors

Unlike restaurants where some flavors in different dishes are reminiscent of each other, either faintly or obviously so, the northern Thai dishes I tried at V{iV} were radically different from each other.

Among the appetizers, the Chiang Mai Sausage ($9), made of pork, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, cilantro, and garlic, is a find, all the more because it is homemade here where it is often store-bought elsewhere. It’s worth the trip alone. Served on a small bed of rice noodles, along with fresh ginger, its peanut flavor ends on a spicy note.

The kaffir lime adds a wonderful dimension. Anyone who has smelled kaffir lime leaves knows there is no close substitute for it. The regular lime is but a pale shadow. Kaffir lime leaves, upon the slightest crush of the leaf, yield a heady citrusy fragrance that’s also redolent of the scent of its flower. In other words, it really takes you somewhere else. My so-self-professed “flexitarian” dinner companion and photographer of these dishes conveniently shelved her vegetarian leanings to partake of the slices of sausage.

The Mieng Pla ($15), according to Verasak, “is a little bit of work, but it’s so good.” And so it is. You get a platter with grilled tilapia fillet with lettuce in which to wrap a piece of it, along with some rice noodles, herbs (basil, sawtooth herbs), cucumber, and the highlight for me, a highly addictive sauce, Num Pieng Pla, made with fish sauce, palm sugar, lime juice, garlic, chili, cilantro, and peanuts.

As we sampled our way around dishes that night, we would often make use of that sauce, even if it didn’t necessarily go with it on the menu. That’s the Thai way.

Eating ‘Thai Style’

A word about eating these dishes: Many diners come in and order their own individual dishes. That’s the Western way—all about individuality and choice. But family style—Thai style— is, without reservations, the way to go here. At any Thai meal, you normally get a few dishes. And you would eat a bit of this a bit of that. Mixing this and that, across dishes.

Maybe this is a long-winded way of explaining why by the end of my meal I was putting that fabulous sauce on just plain rice and eating it that way. But really—go family style and thank me later.

And like the Thais, you’ll have to figure out how to deal with what happens when everyone loves the same dish or ingredients. For example, in Verasak’s family, shrimp dishes were always popular and you had to get in on the dishes early or the shrimp would be gone.

Hung Lay ($18), a dish influenced by Burma, stands out for its tender pork belly and dark sweet broth. Dark soy sauce, ginger, curry powder, palm sugar, turmeric, and tamarind all make for a sweet, aromatic, and slightly sour broth. Verasak said the Thai version is sweeter than the Burmese one. It is very rich (and fatty), so it’s another reason to go family style.

The one northern Thai dish on the menu that does have coconut milk is Khao Soi, or curry noodles. This particular rendition has a broth that is a light orange creamy tint, and wonderfully complex. It’s a good study in contrasts, from the super tender chicken thighs and shrimp, to egg noodles to the crunchy fried noodles that absorb the broth. The pickled, pungent mustard greens add yet another layer of flavor ($12.95). This was my dinner companion’s favorite dish.

Pla Abb ($20) comes with its own ingenious cookware and plates all in one, a banana leaf. The spicy filling consists of fish—in this case, tilapia—mixed with chili paste and lemongrass, and other spices. The package is grilled, so the contents inside are steamed.

Coming Attractions

One of the two new dishes that the chef will be introducing to the menu in early December is a chili dip. There are many kinds of these dips in Thai cuisine, used to dip vegetables, and the particular dip I tried, Nam Prik Ong ($15) made with ground pork, onion, and tomatoes, was surprisingly … Italian, but it is authentic, which goes to show a certain kinship between cuisines even separated by many lands and oceans. Verasak likened Nam Prik Ong to a Bolognese, and it really does look like that. But it is sticky rice that accompanies—not spaghetti, and various raw veggies.

The other dish, Kanom Jeen Num Ngeaw ($15), is for the more adventurous. Although a curry noodle dish, the sauce is a clear light broth, and it has a spicy bite that hits you in the throat. Here too mustard greens lift up the flavors, but what may dissuade the timid are the cubes of pig’s blood. The flavor is not so foreign but the texture may not appeal to some. But in all, it’s nice to have the opportunity to try out these flavors without having to travel to Queens, where Thai dishes in general skew more toward pleasing Thai diners.

My own personal post-meal way of evaluating a dinner (and it is not always fair to the cuisine so I mostly reserve this opinion to myself), is how it makes me feel afterward: ranging from stuffed and vowing to not eat for several days, to drowsy and happy, to energized and sprightly. The latter is not normally the bread and butter of most restaurants: you go and you splurge, and that’s fine.

But at places like V{iV}, you can feel like you’ve splurged on a whole range of flavors, your palate and nose satisfied by explorations into notes of herbal and citrus and spicy and sweet and pungent, and after eating, you can feel light enough to still have the night ahead of you.

Lunch (from noon to 4 p.m.) is a good deal, starting at $6.95 for a small appetizer and a main dish. V{iV}, whose name represents the Roman numerals for five and four, adding up to the nine in Ninth Avenue, is quieter during the week, but pulses with energy on Friday and Saturday evenings, when a live DJ comes in. There is a second location in Murray Hill.

 

V{iV} Thai Restaurant & Bar

Hell’s Kitchen location:
717 Ninth Ave. (between 48th and 49th streets)
www.vivnyc.com
212-581-5999
Sunday–Thursday: noon to 11 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: noon to midnight

Murray Hill location:
138 E. 34th St.
212-213-3317
www.vivthai.com
Sunday–Thursday: noon to 10 p.m.
Friday & Saturday: noon to 11 p.m.