If you're in the mood for mushy pad Thai drowned in ketchup and sweet green curry bastardized with broccoli, don't bother going to Maenam.
If, on the other hand, you are the least bit curious about the pungent taste of rarely found holy basil, the mouth-popping sensation that occurs when you bite into the bitter shell of a berry-sized pea eggplant or the bracing vibrancy of a perfectly balanced grilled prawn salad, I highly recommend this new Kitsilano restaurant that promises to revolutionize Thai food in much the same way that Vij's changed everything we thought we knew about Indian.
Maenam opened last month, replacing Gastropod on West Fourth Ave., and is owned by the same trio: executive chef Angus An, his wife, Kate, and their business partner, Ken Lum.
The dramatic shift from avant-garde fine dining to authentic casual Thai was partly motivated by the economy. As much as I loved the boundary-pushing, award-winning Gastropod, the owners wisely surmised that bacon-infused ice cream and horseradish-"snow"-adorned oysters weren't going to be top-selling flavours in a recession.
Mind you, this Siamese dream didn't just appear out of the blue. Before returning to Canada to open Gastropod, Mr. An had spent a year and a half working in London at Nahm, the first Thai restaurant in Europe to earn a Michelin star. It was there that he met his Bangkok-born future wife, who was running the front of the house.
About a year ago, when the economy was still rosy and two restaurants seemed feasible, they began scouting for another Vancouver location and sent their sous chef, Emily Waters, to London to spend six months training at Nahm under David Thompson.
Mr. Thompson's influence can't be understated. This renowned Australian chef doesn't just own the best Thai restaurant in London. He's the English-speaking world's leading authority on the dying art of haute royal cuisine from the South Asian kingdom.
Before opening his original Darley Street Thai restaurant in Sydney, Mr. Thompson studied for several years in Thailand with an elderly woman who had been raised in the royal court.
He also began collecting Thai funeral books dating back to the 19th century. These private memorials, which are recorded after a person dies, include a wide selection of the deceased's favourite dishes and provide one of the few written sources of classic Thai recipes.
Thai Food , the 700-page tome that Mr. Thompson published in 2002, is widely regarded as the definitive collection of traditional Thai cuisine.
And now that tradition has been brought to Vancouver.
Maenam isn't as refined as Nahm sounds. The previously formal dining room has been warmed up with pale pink paint, textured bamboo wall coverings, funky cork-top tables and an expanded bar, where you can kick back and relax.
The restaurant now also offers a lunch and late-night menu that features chicken satay with freshly ground peanut sauce, robustly peppery stir-fry noodles and various other snacks and street foods that will satisfy the munchies (the kitchen is open until 1 a.m.) and can even be ordered to-go.
The dinner menu, however, is pure homage to Mr. An's mentor. Some of the dishes, including David Thompson's 3 Flavour Fish, are almost exact replicas of what you'd eat at Nahm. But here, this lightly crispy deep-fried fish (made with lingcod in place of trout, yet still intoxicatingly fragrant with the sharp licorice scent of purple Thai basil) only costs $17.
As with any restaurant trying to introduce something new, Maenam can be confusing. The traditional Thai way of eating - with soup, salad, rice, curry and a grilled dish all served at once - is completely foreign to Westerners.
On my first visit, with eight dishes spread across the table, I felt overwhelmed. I'm sure the meal comprised some sort of holistic balance, with countervailing spicy, salty, sour and sweet flavours all meant to be savoured in the proper sequence.
But my palate got pooped. (It would be nice if the floor staff provided more guidance as to what should be eaten in which order.) Even though it's not recommended, I suggest asking for staggered service. With only or two dishes at a time, you can more fully appreciate the amazing astringency of a tenderly grilled hangar steak salad ($13) that's been blasted with fresh mint and bound with the subtle crunch of toasted ground rice. Or the layered complexity of the seemingly simple hot and sour prawn soup ($12), which only becomes brighter and zestier the longer it sits in the serving tureen.
The soups really are fabulous. Do try the Muslim oxtail soup. With its freshly pounded curry-powder depth, it somehow manages to tastes unctuously beefy and crisply gingery all at once.
I also recommend you spend some time experimenting with different drinks. It's quite remarkable to see how the semi-sweetness of a good German Riesling assuages the spice. Sommelier Tara Thom has compiled an impressive list.
Even more startling is the wonderfully refreshing effect of the Siam Sun Ray ($10), a vodka-based cocktail blended with lime, chili, soda and ginger-infused toasted coconut juice. Created by bartender Ben de Champlain, it cuts through those deadly bird's eye chilies in a single sip.
Some of the dishes, because they are so different to what we're accustomed to, may not please at first bite. Take, for instance, the pad Thai prawn ($9). It's made with tamarind syrup (so costly you won't even find it very often in Thailand) and tastes oddly sweet. But the fresh, firm, al dente rice noodles, which Mr. An imports from Los Angeles, elevate this dish into something quite extraordinary.
Green curry halibut ($16) is another unexpected, but pleasant surprise. This isn't the familiar creamy cocktail that most Thai restaurants serve. The uncompromisingly spicy sauce, which is let out with chicken stock instead of coconut milk, is actually very thin.
Give it a chance. The light broth, rather than masking the delicate mix of rare ingredients, really allows the clove-like flavour of holy basil and camphorous qualities of wild ginger to shine through. And those strangely hollow pea eggplants? The tongue-popping texture will blow your mind.
If you're looking for something a little less shocking, I recommend the rich Mussaman chicken ($16), with chewy lychee-like logans and crispy shallots, or the sweetly sour smoked duck red curry ($18).
There are certain essential Thai dishes that you won't find on the menu - including anything that calls for a lot of gapi, a fermented shrimp paste. Mr. An says our province's Foodsafe regulations probably wouldn't allow him to make his own.
But he plans to soon start importing some basic pastes and products from Mr. Thompson in London (who sources all his ingredients from Thailand), which will eventually enable him to expand his menu and begin packaging his own vacuum-packed sauces for commercial distribution in the same way that Vij's does.
When that happens, mark my words, Thai food in Canada will never be the same.
Maenam: 1938 West 4th Ave; 604-730-5579
Editor's note: The original version of this article mistakenly identified Ken Lum. This version has been corrected.