Heat is a heck of a thing. It can be gauged a few ways. The Scoville scale is a generally accepted measurement that more or less assigns alarms to chili peppers. Bell peppers are at the bottom and Carolina Reapers are at the top, with tabasco around the slightly-high middle.
Individual interpretations of heat are more subjective. You might be joined at dinner by somebody for whom nothing’s hot and somebody for whom everything is. And restaurant staff is trying to manage both of their expectations. It might all complicate sharing to a degree, but who thinks what is too spicy can also be a conversation accelerant.
My preference is on the high side, so rarely does the promise of piquancy seem to deliver on its stated claims. But I’ve met my match at Kru.
Kru’s “modern interpretation of hundred year-old Thai recipes” first appeared in our fall restaurant preview last year. The married co-owners of Fish Cheeks, chef Ohm Suansilphong and pastry chef Kiki Supap opened this independent venture a few days later in September. In November, the nicely lit, handsome space lined with illustrations of Thai herbs and spices was listed among Esquire’s best new restaurants in America. In the last few weeks, it was introduced to the Michelin Guide and named a James Beard Award semifinalist in the best new restaurant category. And it has earned a position on my personal list of places that actually test the limits of my heat tolerance, even with some puzzling gaps.
A staff member details every menu item once you are sat and settled; a unique routine that sounds somewhat daunting for all parties but only takes about two minutes, saves time on any Q and A later on and makes a first visit feel as informed as a second. Small plates are up top, then relishes—five dips with bounties of vegetables arranged like bouquets—mains and a couple of sides. It’s all described as more or less increasing in heat as you go down the row until reaching the final boss kaeng pa, with beef tongue featured in the avowed fiery broth.
The first and thus mildest preparation, ma hor ($10) is specified as an ancient Thai ceremony treat. Two pink pineapple triangles and a pair of pineberries are topped with an excellent dollop of caramelized chicken, pork, prawns and peanuts, all pulverized beyond recognition and into an almost sweetly meaty marvel happily married to the fruit and doing right by the perfect party platter dish. Last in the sort-of starter category, signaling spice, the bone marrow ($17) didn’t get the message, apparently absent its listed chili paste and scant on its supposed turmeric. It’s also just skimpy, so you’ll have plenty of rice crisps left over for whatever’s next once you’ve scooped up the good enough, as silky as expected, quivering, buttery, but scant bits.
Those relishes would be good with practically anything; the fruit and chips before them and especially their garden-lovely endive, Bibb leaves, carrots, cauliflower and accompanying halved soft boiled egg. There are crab, ham, and almond options, and in the middle of the lot, a cooling smoked whitefish variety ($24) with anchovy, shrimp and chili pastes, coconut cream and grachai, the mix of gentle and more pungent flavors combining into a dynamic dip that I’d happily have, with its accouterments, every day for lunch. It is curious, though not necessarily a detriment in this case, that it carries so little bite, given its menu position.
Each of Kru’s five kaeng comes with rice and centerpiece ingredients like a half cornish hen or pork belly. The last two on the list, theoretically positioned as the hottest, are both terrific and could scarcely have a wider Scoville chasm between them. The pineapple-lobster selection ($38) is like a warm, borderline confectionary hug in a meadow on the nicest day; its primary components joining bright, fun flavors with an ideal texture on the deconstructed crustacean. Again, the missing scorch isn’t a deficiency here. You might even detect a spark in the back of your throat if you concentrate and conjure one, and the real elements at play are together creamy and near-rich and satisfying enough to not want improvement.
At last lies the volcanic climax, the one true metric to define how Kru can deal heat, the beef tongue curry ($28). It is hot; bitty-bite, more white rice, yes, it was a good idea to keep the extinguishing leafy greens from the relish on the table hot, heat derived largely from Thai chilis. But it is not novelty hot like something from a segment on a mid-2020s Food Network show, rather hot enough to appreciate. It is so hot, however, that its intensity does dim some of its other parts like eggplant, baby corn and Thai basil that didn’t stand a chance.
The beef tongue is also a brilliant base, with a dainty, satiny texture conceptually in a love/hate romance for the ages with all that permeating fire. It’s an exciting thing to eat, and to discuss.
The Vibe: Warmly industrial, roomy enough for large parties and cozy enough for pairs.
The Food: Hits from Kru’s “modern interpretation of hundred year-old Thai recipes” include a supremely hot beef tongue curry, milder pineapple-lobster variety, delightful ma hor and a great smoked whitefish relish.
The Drinks: Wine, beer, a full bar with on-menu cocktails best to avoid and smartly selected non-alcoholic drinks.
Kru is located at 190 North 14th Street. It is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday from 5:30pm-10pm, Sunday from 5:30pm-9pm, and lunch Saturday-Sunday from 12pm-3pm.