Head for the Hills
Daughter Thai Kitchen does Thai cuisine exceptionally in Montclair.
Daughter Thai in Montclair scores with the flavors of southern Thailand and dishes such as hat yai fried chicken.
Photo by Lori Eanes
“The best Thai restaurant in the Bay Area.” Those aren’t my words. Rather, that’s what’s displayed prominently on the home page of Daughter Thai Kitchen’s website for all visitors to see. It’s a bold statement, but this new spot nestled in Montclair Village in the Oakland hills is nothing if not ambitious. And based on my experiences, there’s a case to be made.
First and foremost, Daughter Thai is a stunning place to dine. As can be the case, the current owners have in large part the previous tenants to thank. That would be Tracey Belock and Joe Schnell, the husband-and-wife team who did the heavy lifting in completely transforming the longtime Montclair Bistro space into their labor of love, Chowhaus. Billed as the hip, young restaurant that the old-school neighborhood lacked, this local, sustainable twist on American comfort food proved popular before it closed suddenly after less than a year, the couple citing personal reasons (they have three young kids, reason enough in my book).
It was a disappointing end for a promising concept, but their legacy lives on in a light, airy, lofty interior, offering a sort of contemporary spin on a rustic French farmhouse vibe. By day, the natural light from skylights and ample windows make it a lovely spot for lunch, while the fairly small space retains a sense of intimacy and liveliness for dinner. That’s not to say that new owners didn’t put their own stamp on it. Spectacular floral displays, strikingly oversized light fixtures, and Thai-themed décor details (Sriracha bottles replace jars of pickled veggies on one display shelf) add welcome flair. But there’s no denying that they inherited a place with, as they say, good bones.
TPhoto by Lori Eanes
That’s all window dressing, of course, if this were just another run-of-the-mill Thai restaurant. You know the type and you know the menu: pad thai; papaya salad; spring rolls; Thai iced tea; red, green, yellow, and pumpkin curry. It’s all good, but if we’re being honest, the formula has gotten a little stale, especially given the recent trend among Asian restaurants in the Bay Area toward more authentic, less homogenous, regional cuisine. For its part, Daughter Thai has a strong emphasis on the fare of southern Thailand.
What that means, explained co-owner Ling Chatterjee, is that the food is a bit richer, a bit spicier, with more of an emphasis on seafood. Chatterjee, her husband Kasem “Pop” Saengsawang (who also own Farmhouse Kitchen in San Francisco), and partner Kim Gamble (whose mother runs Lanna Thai in Livermore and is from southern Thailand) stick to their guns in keeping the heat, the intensity, and occasionally the funkiness of authentic Thai cuisine—and it makes for what can be a thrilling dining experience.
I say remarkable, because Montclair Village is not exactly a neighborhood known for its cutting-edge dining scene. Which is something the wait staff seems keenly aware of as I was warned—sometimes repeatedly—about the spiciness of certain dishes on the menu. At one point when my dining companion and I asked for fermented fish to be added our papaya salad, the waiter came back twice to warn us about the intense taste. And in the end, the kitchen added salted crab by mistake. But we didn’t mind—the miniature hyper-salted chopped segments of crab provided an intense, savory bite to the salad’s classic sweet-tart-spicy-fishy flavor mix.
One nice thing about Daughter Thai is that standard Thai dishes are done very well. That papaya salad is great on its own, for example. So is the tom yum soup, which balances tartness from kaffir lime with just the right amount of heat and comes loaded with add-ins like fresh greens, two different types of mushrooms, tender wedges of lemongrass, and moist strips of simply poached Mary’s organic chicken. Ditto for the fresh rolls, which come eight to an order, standing at attention amid a bath of sweet peanut sauce spiked with chili.
But for those seeking it, there is a more intense, exotic palate of flavors to be mined. The nam kao tod falls on the extreme end of that spectrum. Only adventurous eaters need apply for this “rice salad,” a traditional Lao dish that takes you on a roller-coaster ride of flavors and textures. The base crispy red curry rice—essentially cooked rice that’s fried with curry and then broken apart—has a dense, risotto-like consistency. Peanuts add crunch, chopped jalapeño provides sharp jolts of spice, while ginger, cilantro, and basil add aromatic elements (it comes with romaine leaves to make your own wraps). Hints of lime, garlic, and fish sauce float in the background, but the boss ingredient is undoubtedly the fermented pork sausage. Translated as “sour pork,” this raw-fermented sausage is tart and sour with a loose, chewy consistency (the meat is mixed with sticky rice, bird’s eye chili, ginger, and garlic, wrapped in banana leaf, and left to ferment for a few days before being poached). It’s intense and definitely not for everyone, but if you give it a chance, you might find, as I did, that the flavors quickly grow on you.
Something similar happened with the kang kua prawns. Served inside a halved coconut, a homemade southern Thai curry made with fresh red turmeric root (a common spice in southern Thailand) is smothered onto large, sweet, bouncy prawns, sautéed peppers, sliced lemongrass, and strips of tender coconut meat (which at first I mistook for mushrooms). I was expecting a wetter curry, something creamier and sweeter as is more common in northern Thai cuisine, and so I was underwhelmed at first. And then the heat kicked in. As if lying in ambush, the fresh Thai chilies built slowly, stealthily, until my entire mouth—from throat to tongue to lips—was enveloped in a painfully invigorating heat. I found myself repeatedly taking breaks, sipping on my Thai iced tea to cool down—and then starting the whole process all over again.
That’s not to say that Daughter Thai is all about extreme flavors. In fact, the kitchen is more than capable of producing elegant and beautifully presented dishes that are accessible for all comers.
Photo by Lori Eanes
A couple of my favorites were in the starter section. The mieng kum kung featured crunchy, golden brown–fried tiger prawns served atop a delicious mash of roasted coconut, ginger, onion, and peanuts, seasoned with lime and drizzled with a syrupy sweet-and-sour tamarind sauce. Even better were the neua num tok rolls. These delectable bites offered strips of meltingly tender Wagyu beef rolled around cucumber, mint, and cilantro, skewered, and bathed in a light, flavorful, vividly green cilantro-lime vinaigrette. There were four to the order; I could have eaten about a dozen.
You can pretty much take your pick from any of the entrees. The crab-fried rice is excellent. The twice-cooked rice is remarkably light and fluffy and infused with the smoky wok hei, or “breath of the wok,” essence imparted by stir-frying on a piping hot wok. It’s topped with a generous helping of shredded Dungeness crab and served with two dipping sauces—a milder smoky chili paste and sharper seafood sauce—along with a delicate bone broth.
The 24-hours beef noodle soup lies somewhere between a Chinese-style beef noodle soup—chili oil and Chinese broccoli—and a Vietnamese pho—lime, basil, and bean sprouts. However, the addition of egg noodles and a rich, umami-packed veal broth gave it extra oomph, as did the perfectly cooked, fork-tender, whole, bone-in beef short rib balanced picturesquely atop the bowl.
I’m hard-pressed to ever pass up pork belly, and Daughter Thai’s version didn’t disappoint. Chatterjee told me that first they slow-cook the kurobuta pork in an herbal broth, then it’s baked in the oven to crisp up the skin, and, finally, it’s deep-fried to order. The result is a sweet-and-savory pork belly that’s exceedingly tender and fragrant, but that retains a satisfying exterior crispiness. But what made this version stand out was the small side of chili plum sauce. This fiercely tart and spicy concoction (made with chilis, plum, palm sugar, and rice vinegar) was the perfect way to cut the richness of the fatty pork. It’s totally addicting and it might have been my favorite single item on the entire menu.
There are other pleasures to be had here. There are seasonal, Thai-themed cocktails, a fun dessert menu, and the Thai iced tea, which comes with a ball of shaved ice reminiscent of a snow cone, is a must order. The quality of ingredients and dishes and presentation mean that, yes, you’ll be paying a premium over standard Thai food fare—entrees run in the $18 to $20 range.
But for me, it’s well worth a few extra bucks because what’s being provided—interesting, elegant Thai food in a beautiful setting—is fairly unique. In fact, it’s a recipe that would lure me back up to Montclair. A place like Daughter Thai Kitchen is a real find, which makes it destination dining. In Montclair. Imagine that.
Daughter Thai Kitchen
6118 Medau Place, Oakland, 510-823-2354, DaughterThai.com.
Lunch daily 11am-2:30pm. Dinner Sun.-Thur. 5-9pm, Fri.-Sat. 5-10pm
Average dinner entrée $19. Full bar. Credit cards accepted.
This report appears in the April edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on April 21, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.