- Photo by Lance Yamamoto
- Saengsawang says the Panang short rib really tells "my own story."
The foot-long, bone-in beef short rib arrived at the table looking more like something out of Jurassic Park than Jack London Square's newest and hippest waterfront dining destination. Listed on the menu as Panang Neua, the beef fell off the bone with the slightest prod of the fork. The Panang sauce delivered familiar Thai flavors, but with unparalleled levels of depth. The crunchy stalks of garlicky broccolini underneath might seem like odd accompaniments to Thai food, but here they felt perfectly at home on the plate.
Chef-owner Kasem "Pop" Saengsawang and his wife and co-owner, Iing Chatterjee, said that Farmhouse Kitchen's new Jack London Square location, which opened in July 2018, is a more sophisticated hybrid of their earlier Thai ventures. Farmhouse's original location in San Francisco is more casual and specializes in Northern Thai food, while its sister restaurant in Oakland's Montclair district, Daughter Thai, focuses on Southern Thai cuisine. Farmhouse Kitchen in Jack London Square features both Northern and Southern-style dishes in a more upscale setting. At all of their locations, Saengsawang and Chatterjee serve up what they call "New Generation" Thai food. Many dishes offer a twist on what you'd find at your typical Thai joint, but that doesn't mean the food is Americanized.
"When [I] say 'twist,' it doesn't mean I use cheese on my pad Thai. I use local ingredients," Saengsawang said. For instance, he uses locally grown broccolini instead of Chinese broccoli for a fresher taste. "The taste is authentic, but the way I represent it is more like a modern touch."
Saengsawang draws from his own life experiences in his cooking. "It's fun to translate my life story to the plate," he said.
Growing up in Leoi, Thailand, Saengsawang's family of 65 people gathered annually to roast a whole cow for the Thai New Year. They dug a hole in the ground, buried the cow, and roasted it with banana leaves, garlic, chili, and Thai herbs. His childhood bedroom was right next to the pit, so he could smell the aroma of roasting meat all day. After the cow had been roasted, his grandmother served it with homemade Panang sauce.
"To me ... the whole short rib [with] my Panang sauce is something that's really telling my whole story," Saengsawang said.
Saengsawang loves to tell customers the stories of his food — and nearly every item on the menu has a story. Saengsawang learned to cook from his grandmother. She often sent him to the market, where he learned how to select the freshest fish and how to choose the right cuts of meat for stew.
Saengsawang said the Bangkok-style herbal rice salad brings back memories of his grandmother making it for him when he was young. "Back in Thailand, it's super hot. Whatever [was] left inside the fridge, my grandma always chopped it really fine and tossed it with tamarind dressing sauce. [On a] super-hot day, anything that cools [me] down is perfect. ... Every time I walk through the restaurant [and] see the cooks make it, I'm like, 'Oh my God, you remind me of my grandma.'"
At Farmhouse, the herbal rice salad was served with little piles of toasted coconut, shredded green mango, crispy shallots, lemongrass, cilantro, peanuts, sliced long beans, chili, dried shrimp, puffed crispy rice, and a lime wedge, all arranged artfully around a scoop of distinctive blue rice. The natural color comes from blue butterfly pea flowers, which grow abundantly in Thailand in early summer. The server mixed everything together at the table with a sweet tamarind dressing. The result was visually and texturally striking, but the sugary dressing could have used more salt for contrast.
The neua num tok rolls delivered savory flavor with an appealing presentation. Strips of Snake River Farms American Wagyu beef were marinated in black pepper sauce, then grilled to medium-rare perfection. The beef was rolled up with slices of cucumber and mint leaves, skewered with a toothpick, and served on top of a cilantro-lime vinaigrette. The beef was tender, yet slightly under-seasoned — but when slathered with vinaigrette, the seasoning was perfect.
The gai som rod — crunchy fried chicken in sweet and sour sauce with cashews and pineapple chunks — was impressively presented in a half pineapple, leaves intact, with a generous handful of bonito flakes on top and a scoop of blue rice on the side. "In Thailand, this dish is one of my favorites," Saengsawang said. "It's more like a late night food." The sam rod sauce, which translates to "three tastes," is sweet, salty, and spicy. It's made with a Thai chili sauce called nam prik pao and seasoned with garlic, shrimp heads, and oyster sauce. The sauce was complex and addictive, and the crisp of the chicken held up to the heavy sauce. Unfortunately, the chicken pieces were cut too small, which caused them to dry out and threw off the breading-to-chicken ratio. Otherwise, this would have been a strong dish.
The kang kua prawns are a must-try — particularly for lovers of spice. "I can eat [them] every day," Saengsawang said. The plump, perfectly cooked tail-on prawns were served in a blisteringly spicy turmeric curry sauce inside a half coconut shell, along with tender cooked coconut meat, bell pepper slices, long beans, green peppercorns, and Thai eggplant. On the side was a scoop of blue rice and a pile of raw, leafy greens: bok choy, Chinese broccoli, lime leaves, basil, mint, and lettuce. Saengsawang said that in Thailand, raw greens are often served alongside spicy curries to cool the palate. "That's meant to be for you to enjoy. It makes it so fun," he said.
While not every dish at Farmhouse is a show-stopper, the experience is undeniably fun. Unlike the original Farmhouse in San Francisco, the Jack London Square location has a full bar — complete with unique cocktails developed by Chatterjee herself. "The cocktails are themed around the house menu, the concepts, and the location," Chatterjee said. "The cocktails [make customers] feel like they're on vacation on the beach in Thailand." The Fresh Curry cocktail, featuring St. George Green Chili Vodka, ginger puree, lemongrass, and lime, is an excellent choice for those who don't like sweet drinks — and is eerily reminiscent of curry. The Island Thai Tea, which is Farmhouse's play on a Long Island, comes in a golden, pineapple-shaped drinking vessel with Mekhong Thai rum, pineapple, coconut milk, and a splash of Thai tea.
Even the decor is a unique, Instagram-worthy hodgepodge of designs that Saengsawang created himself. The indoor fountain mimics the flow of the Oakland estuary outside, and the rose garden on the dining room's walls was inspired by the couple's newborn daughter. According to Chatterjee, that's what Farmhouse Kitchen is really about: self-expression and being one-of-a-kind.
Farmhouse Kitchen Thai Cuisine
336 Water St., Oakland
Hours: Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-9 p.m. Fri. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Sat. noon-10 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Cash, all major credit cards
Neua num tok rolls ... $15.75
Herbal rice salad ... $12
Kang kua prawns ... $22.50
Panang short rib ... $27.50
Fresh Curry cocktail ... $13