The fish curry was the color of mud, thick and murky, and funky enough to make even veteran offal eaters wrinkle their noses in mild alarm. My dining companion took one bite and simply said, "I'm sorry, I can't."
We were eating at Daughter Thai Kitchen, an upscale spot that opened in Oakland's Montclair neighborhood six weeks ago, and the dish was a Southern Thai specialty known as gang tai pla, whose intensely gamey flavor was the result of slow-cooking an entire fermented mackerel — including, most notably, the entrails of said mackerel. It was the most pungent thing I've eaten in the past several months.
I don't know of any other restaurant in Oakland that serves gang tai pla, but it's the kind of dish I would expect to find at some no-frills noodle joint on a gritty stretch of the San Antonio neighborhood — not at a farmhouse-chic dining establishment in the heart of lily-white Montclair. When I reviewed Chowhaus, the California-inflected comfort-food restaurant that preceded Daughter Thai in the space, I argued that it wasn't just the best restaurant in Montclair. It was also "the specific kind of good restaurant" that was perfect for an area not known for gastronomical risk-taking.
Daughter Thai seems to have assumed that mantle as the neighborhood's best restaurant, but it has done so on different terms: as a Thai restaurant with bold flavors, $25 entrées, and, yes, even fish-gut stew. In Montclair! I'm still trying to wrap my head around it.
In that sense, the restaurant is a fascinating experiment. On the one hand, Daughter Thai is the kind of Asian restaurant where the beef stock has been rebranded as "bone broth," and where servers in Tommy Bahama shirts hold sparklers while they sing you "Happy Birthday." On the other hand, co-owner Iing Chatterjee estimated that while 85 percent of the menu is completely accessible to the average American diner, the other 15 percent consists of dishes that she says are unapologetically intense and "adventurous."
The question that follows, then, is: Can a Thai restaurant — one that, by virtue of its location, must cater to a non-Thai audience — succeed in splitting the difference between these two approaches? The very idea that you could serve a dish like gang tai pla in Montclair is a rejection of the usual binary between upscale Americanized Thai and the kind of down-and-dirty Thai cooking that's meant for "real Asians."
Chatterjee and her husband Kasem "Pop" Saengsawang, the head chef, run two other Thai restaurants in San Francisco, including Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine, which serves many of the same dishes as Daughter Thai. But Chatterjee said the original inspiration for the restaurant was their third partner, Kimberly Gamble, a first-time restaurateur who grew up in restaurant kitchens. (Her mother, Prakin Chaipan-Gamble, owns Lanna Thai in Livermore — hence the name "Daughter Thai.") Gamble's family hails from the southern part of Thailand, so she wanted to bring that region's cuisine to a broader audience.
Many of Daughter Thai's most interesting dishes are adaptations of Southern Thai recipes that Gamble learned from her mother. Chatterjee explained that the cuisine is known for being intensely spicy. And it's true that this was the spiciest food I've encountered in the Oakland hills, if not necessarily spicier than what you can find at, say, the Lao-influenced Northern Thai restaurants that have become increasingly widespread in the Bay Area.
Mostly, though, Daughter Thai serves regional dishes that fall under the broad umbrella of what Chatterjee calls "Thai food, new generation." It isn't exactly that the food has been Americanized — just tweaked to make it more agreeable to diners who are in the habit of dropping $100 on a farm-to-table dinner for two. Hence, the Thai iced tea was served in the form of a snow cone, with a mound of plain shaved ice that slowly melted into the drink. The yung moo krob was a larb-like meat salad, with bright and limey dressing that had an undercurrent of heat. But the star of the dish was big, crisp-skinned, juicy chunks of roasted Kurobuta pork belly — delicious, and a surefire winner among America's legion of pork-belly connoisseurs.
The most interesting appetizer was Saengsawang's take on mieng kum, a kind of leaf-wrapped snack food that's relatively rare in the United States. As is traditional, each leafy green came topped with toasted coconut shavings, chopped shallots, peanuts, chili peppers, pieces of rind-on lime, and a sweet tamarind sauce. Normally, the only meat in the dish is small dried shrimp, which are meant to add a salty counterpoint. At Daughter Thai, each wrap was topped with an enormous batter-fried shrimp, like the kind you might be served at a tiki bar — a luxurious addition, but one I thought overwhelmed the delicacy of the other ingredients.
Many of the best dishes are the ones explicitly marked as being specific to Southern Thailand, which weren't always spicy and tended to make liberal use of turmeric. For the Hat Yai, or southern Thai-style fried chicken, organic breast cutlets were marinated in turmeric and then batter-fried. These were akin to particularly fine chicken tenders, served with a curry dipping sauce and flaky, excellent (if somewhat ungenerously portioned) roti. The cha ca la Vong is actually a Vietnamese dish that's popular in parts of Thailand. Daughter Thai's "Southern style" take on the dish featured turmeric-tinged grilled basa (a kind of Vietnamese catfish), which we wrapped up in rice paper — softened after dipping it in water — along with fresh herbs and two delicious housemade sauces, one bright and limey and the other smoky and slightly sweet.
Another favorite was the "24-hour beef noodle soup," which, like many of the dishes here, came with a built-in wow factor — in this case, a mammoth bone-in short rib that jutted out from the mass of thin Chinese egg noodles. How luxurious it was to pull the slow-braised meat and soft, gelatinous connective tissue off the bone, and to sip the clear broth infused with the natural sweetness of daikon radish.
If you were to rate any of the above dishes on a ten-point scale of "difficulty," as far as food that would challenge the American palate, none would score higher than a four or five, whereas the aforementioned gang tai pla is easily a nine. That particular fish curry came studded with bamboo shoots and chunks of mackerel — just the meat of the fish; the actual guts had been removed after infusing the sauce with their intensely earthy and pungent flavor. Served with thin vermicelli noodles and more of that crisp-skinned pork belly, it's one of the more unusual surf-and-turf combinations you'll ever encounter.
I appreciated the interplay of spicy, funky flavors and both the variety and the immaculate condition of the accompanying spread of fresh herbs, which included chrysanthemum greens, raw longbeans, and a Southeast Asian varietal of dill. The truth is I didn't love my first gang tai pla experience, but I did love the intention and the audacity behind serving a completely uncompromised dish like this at an upscale restaurant in Oakland. One suggestion, though? A little more hand-holding might be in order: A menu description listing "pickled fish" as an ingredient (nothing about entrails) and the server's warning that the dish was "very spicy" didn't really give us an idea of what we were in store for.
In any case, if you want something a little tamer, you can always play it safe with one of Daughter Thai's "street food" dishes — a catch-all for things like pad Thai and more typical curries and stir-fries — listed on the back of the menu. In fact, these might be a more appealing option to the stereotypical Montclair crowd. But I say if you're going to eat at a restaurant that has the strength of conviction to serve fish-gut stew, you might as well take a chance and try something new.