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Chef Andy Ricker and Redefining Thai Food With Wine

Fresh Thai ingredientsLast night I was lucky enough to be cooked for by a chef featured in The New York Times¬†Dining section last week, Andy Ricker (“Cuisines Mastered As Acquired Tastes,” May 29). Ricker is the proprietor of Thai restaurant Pok Pok in Brooklyn but, I should note, the experience occurred entirely by accident. I’d been invited to a cooking class and wine pairing in a place I least expected to find one: the eighth floor of Macy’s in Herald Square. After weaving through the perfume counters to the elevators, my skepticism only grew as I got lost in the bridal section, wandered by some Waterford crystal, past the Au Bon Pain to a back hallway guarded by retirement-age security, and through a door next to the employee cafeteria.

But there is the De Gustibus cooking studio, a beautiful demonstration space packed with attentive diners, jotting notes with one hand, other extremity raised to ask questions about what’s being bashed apart in the mortar and pestle or being sliced and diced on the cutting board. The walls are lined with photos of famous chefs who’ve taught here recently (Angelo from Top Chef) and forever ago (Emeril 10 years and 100 lbs. removed and a grinning Tom Colicchio with a shaggy mop, to name but two).

Chef Andy Ricker of Pok PokNow the things I truly didn’t expect to happen: One, that my concept of Thai cuisine would be completely upended. And two, that Riesling is not the only wine that pairs well with it. In fact, just burn the damn rulebook on pairings. The three wines paired with the half-dozen dishes or so all came from New Zealand: Quartz Reef NV sparkling wine from Central Otago, Craggy Range Te Muna Road Sauvignon Blanc from Martinborough and, one of my all-time favorites, Craggy Range Le Sol Syrah from Hawkes Bay. The star dish of the night (a salt-crusted whole fish, recipe below) paired as beautifully with a minerally Sauvignon Blanc as with the peppery, powerful Syrah.

If you ever get the chance to attend a class at De Gustibus, don’t hesitate. Grin and bear the mobs of tourists looking for Diesel jeans and everything DKNY. But, just as importantly, get yourself to Pok Pok and let this fresh, traditional, vibrant cuisine wash that soupy green curry chicken takeout you’ve come to expect of every Thai place out of your head forever. Same for all the “rules” about what wine to choose.

Plaa Phap Kleua
(salt-crusted whole fish with dipping sauce)

Sauce
2T Cilantro, whole root
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 C garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
1 Cup serrano chilies (measure before grilling), whole grilled until charred and soft. Peel, but leave some skin on. There should be some charred bits in the finished sauce
1/2 Cup lime juice
1/2 Cup fish sauce
6T superfine sugar
1/4 Cup chopped cilantro
Pound the cilantro root and salt in a mortar and pestle until mashed. Add garlic a few cloves at a time and pound until a consistent, mashed texture is achieved. Combine cilantro root mixture with chilies, and whiz in a food processor until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl, add fish sauce, lime juice and sugar. Mix with a whisk to combine well. Taste and adjust seasoning. Should be a little hot, medium salty, sour and a little bit sweet.
Fish
1 Whole snapper or large porgi
2 Stalks lemongrass
Kosher salt
Eggs
Clean fish, pat dry with paper towels, place on a wire rack above a sheet tray. Smash the whole lemongrass with a pestle to release the flavor, but keep the stalks whole. Stuff the lemongrass into the cavity of the fish, with the tops sticking out of the mouth. Make an egg wash out of the eggs. Brush the fish liberally with the egg, then coat heavily with kosher salt. Allow it to sit in the refrigerator for a couple hours, so a firm salt crust forms. Grill or bake the fish over medium heat until fully cooked, about 20 minutes. Peel skin and pull the meat off the bones. Serve with the sauce.