Food & Wine Best New Chefs 2020: Nick Bognar
At Indo, in St. Louis, you will find Thai dishes next to a menu of Japanese favorites, heavy on the sushi. The chef, Nick Bognar, understands that the menu might not make sense at first. “I just want to tell people, ‘Don’t try to put a box on it.’” It’s good advice for a meal at Bognar’s table, where none of the dishes are what you might expect. They’re a testament to Bognar’s flavor-to-the-face cooking style, each dish fully loaded with punches of spicy, fishy, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors.
In Bognar’s hands, even something as basic as a cabbage salad is packed with flavor, with crunchy candied peanuts, lots of fresh herbs, and a lip-smacking dressing that combines fish-sauce caramel and tamarind with lots of lime juice and bits of fiery Thai chile. His larb, a Thai minced meat salad, is one of the most popular items on the menu. It’s a riff on his grandmother’s recipe, where raw lamb is turbocharged with a spice paste made from roasted garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and galangal; the dish is finished with a wallop of chile oil. In his crab donabe rice, each grain, cooked in a Japanese clay pot, arrives fatty and dripping with rich Dungeness crab.
Bognar is also an obsessive when it comes to constructing nigiri, something he does while expediting in the kitchen. Though his family is Thai-American, Bognar fell in love with sushi early on, spending a large part of his childhood at his mom’s Japanese restaurant Nippon Tei—which he now co-runs. (Bognar comes from a restaurant family; his aunts also own restaurants around town.) His sushi skills, honed and perfected through a at year at Austin’s Uchiko, followed by two years as an executive sushi chef in Cincinnati, come through in dishes like the king trumpet mushroom nigiri, where local mushrooms are scored and slow-cooked in oil until they feel super meaty and buttery, then seared until caramelized and served on a perfect mound of rice.
There is nothing about Indo that is minimal, from the technicolor bathroom wallpaper to Bognar’s unapologetically bold cooking and full-throttle use of salt, funk, and spice. The adage “less is more” loses all meaning in his kitchen, and that is exactly how Bognar likes it. He has one goal in mind: to serve you food that will jolt your bones to the marrow and have you coming back for more.
Get the Recipe: Crunchy Cabbage Salad with Peanuts and Fish Sauce