Your Next Dinner Should Be This Family-Style Thai Feast
Sarah Yenbamroong had just managed to pack up her entire life and squeeze it into her tiny Acura when she got a text from her then-boyfriend, chef Kris Yenbamroong: "Hey, I need you to save some room in your trunk for wine." It was 2011, and Kris was flying out from Los Angeles to New York City to pick up Sarah and help her move across the country—but accommodating his request meant sacrificing an entire suitcase of shoes. The couple stopped by The Ten Bells, a natural wine bar in Lower Manhattan, and picked up three cases of wine from Noëlla Morantin before hitting the road. "I was bitter he took up so much space in my trunk," she says with a laugh.
The story is emblematic of how far Kris, a 2016 F&W Best New Chef, is willing to go to source bottles for the now-married couple's Thai restaurant, Night + Market (and its three offshoots, including a new location in Las Vegas). The restaurants, which are known for no-rules, high-impact Thai cooking, have long had some of the best and most boundary pushing wine lists in the country. They have also earned two James Beard Award nominations in the Outstanding Wine Program category for their curation, which reflects Kris' passion for natural wines and small producers.
Kris' infatuation with natural wines dates back to 2008, when there were only a handful of spots stocking them in L.A. and even fewer distributors. To build his collection, Kris would embark on wine-sourcing trips to France, where he would show up at a winemaker's doorstep, saying, "Hi, my name is Kris. I have a restaurant; we pour your wine. I was hoping to meet with you and taste." It was also in 2008 that he took over his family's now-shuttered Thai restaurant, Talésai. Excited to serve the obscure wines that he loved so much, Kris put them on the wine list.
He quickly ran into trouble. "I had to compromise with everything and try to balance what had existed for 25 years and satisfied the existing customer, while also trying to do this new thing," he says. "That never works out." Kris also found himself up against rigid notions of what wines could pair with Thai food. "There's no shortage of Asian restaurants that have an extensive Riesling list," Kris says. "I don't need to be another one of those."
Kris attributes the push to dampen spicy Asian cooking with sweet white wines to the absence of a long history of Asian winemaking traditions. "At some point, some crafty wine people decided that with Asian food, this is what you have to have," he says. "All the books write the same stuff." He couldn't understand why people never thought to pair dry wines with Thai food.
These frustrations shaped his approach to Night + Market, which Kris opened in the empty space next to Talésai in 2010. "I was probably the only one who saw it this way, but I saw it as a wine place," he explains. He launched with later opening hours, a menu of eight dishes centered around simple Thai drinking foods, and a wine list showcasing 30 of the wines he deeply loved. It was unlike any other restaurant in Los Angeles—and it was an instant failure. "I pursued this thing, which was like a totally foolish kind of fantasy, and then no one came," he recalls.
After nearly a year, Kris accosted Jonathan Gold, the late legendary food writer and restaurant critic, at an event and implored him to come by. Kris won him over, and after Gold's glowing review ran in LA Weekly, the rest of the city followed. Tables started to fill up, and as Kris, who had no formal culinary training, grew in confidence, he started to expand the menu to include a roster of dishes, like Prakas' Rib Eye (named for his dad, Prakas, who created the recipe), a boneless rib eye steak marinated in Thai seasonings and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, that were less beholden to tradition and more driven by flavor—and more suited to pairing with his favorite wines.
Unexpectedly, the Yenbamroongs' approach to wine pairing takes beer as a point of inspiration. "In Thailand, with Thai food you basically have one drink, which is a Singha Light beer," Kris explains. "It's really simple, really clean, refreshing, and it doesn't weigh you down." The wine list is formulated with the idea of refreshing in mind: lightly chilled reds, dry whites, orange wines from Georgia, pét-nats. Most essentially, to combat the perception that sweet wines are the ideal accompaniment to Thai cuisine—when in fact they often mute its complex flavors—the couple looks for wines that amplify those flavors instead.
It's not uncommon to find three or four different bottles of wine on the table at Night + Market, where the food is served family-style, and Sarah and Kris encourage diners to go back and forth among the wines as they go back and forth among dishes. "It just kind of has its own rhythm," Kris says. "You might want to have a little bit of something and then try it with one wine, and then have another bite and try it with another wine. And that's part of the fun. It's not like 'OK, finish this so I can clear everything and we can bring out the next wine.'"