Photo by Chris Kessler
The salad has a sublime Thai name – nam tok. That means waterfall. Months of living near a glacial Great Lake shoreline makes this tropical vision seem as uncanny as seeing a unicorn. But it’s really just a salad – an herby, intensely flavored salad in the lexicon of Thai salads. And I’m enjoying it with a side of Neil Diamond, whose song “Holly Holy” is playing inside jownai fouquet. A bell-bottomed Diamond, performing that song onstage 40 years or so ago, is projected on the wall behind the bar.
At this point, my heart grows three sizes for Jownai. The restaurant – “Jownai” is the name of the owner’s son; “Fouquet” is a riff on “Phuket” Island in Thailand – has characteristics of an underdog. It lives in a competitive neighborhood (the East Side) for Thai cuisine (four similar restaurants are within blocks of it). It’s in the former digs of Abu’s Jerusalem of the Gold, which was at least a recognizable visual marker on Farwell.
But here’s the thing: Out of the mystery kitchen – the entrance hidden by the bar and server’s station – comes mindfully prepared Thai food.
The sign of a sloppy spring roll is a bundle of 90-percent noodles. That’s not happening with these plump fresh rolls (two, $6.95). If you choose chicken and shrimp (over vegan meat), there’s more than a token meaty piece, along with cucumber, fresh herbs, lettuce and noodles. The chicken satay ($6.95) is no mere meaty token, either. Try generous grilled breast cutlets with cucumber salad and a chunky peanut sauce.
The Waterfall beef (appetizer $8.95; entrée $12.95) looks nothing like cascading water. (The name was given to it because of the way the flames looked on the grill while the beef strips cooked.) To me, it offers the sweet, pungent, salty flavors common in Thai salads, which are never meek. The curries are not without menace – in a very good way. The pudt prik ($11.95) is pure heat, without the creaminess of coconut milk. Jownai isn’t stingy with its vegetable assortment. You can ask for extra veg instead of meat, and there is respect paid to vegetable crispness. When you head down the coconut milk road, a satin texture follows. The massaman curry is a peanutty-potato Indo-Thai classic ($11.95), and I quite approve of the sweet-hot duality of the green curry (with Thai basil and green chiles, $12.95).
Stir-fried with eggs, veg and choice of meat, Thai noodles come in the form of thin rice (pad thai) and fat, chewy flat noodles (sometimes called pad see ewe). You’ve heard it here first: 2014 is all about fat and flat. OK, seriously: The appealingly gelatinous noodles add a more unexpected textural component.
Expected-slash-unexpected is the winning Jownai formula.