Restaurant News & Reviews

Chef's new venture will make you say 'Yum'

There's a small rock waterfall fountain just inside Yum Yum's entrance, but you might not notice it.

For one thing, the dining room walls of this jewel box of a Thai restaurant are painted in rich, attention-getting hues of cranberry and plum. For another, if owner/chef Ketkanok Kamdang happens to be making one of her many forays into the dining room as you enter, her ebullient greeting is likely to divert your attention even further.

Kamdang's charms -- personal and culinary -- are familiar to a small but dedicated following at Thai Villa, a hole-in-the-wall eatery that the chef has quietly run for 10 years in an outbuilding at South Hills Plaza.

Yum Yum, her second venture, raises the ante with a more visible location and vibrant contemporary décor. The menu boasts a fresh, contemporary design, too. Some traditional dishes have been given catchy new names such as Shrimp Bikini (Kamdang's delicately crisp rendition of goong hom pha, shrimp wrapped in wonton skins and deep-fried) and The Abyss (mixed seafood curry).

But the menu changes are more style than substance. As Thai Villa fans will be happy to know -- and as Yum Yum patrons should be pleased to discover -- there's little difference between the two restaurants in terms of what comes out of their kitchens.

If you like the kanom jeep at Thai Villa, you'll love the kanom jeep at Yum Yum: steamed dumplings with a savory filling of pork, shrimp and water chestnuts, their puckered tops dusted with crispy shreds of fried garlic, served with a light soy dipping sauce.

Same goes for larb kai, another appetizer, which serves up minced chicken tossed with scallions and slivers of red onion in a spicy chile lime dressing, on a bed of lettuce. Ditto yum talay, Kamdang's rendition of the classic Thai seafood salad that delivers a generous catch of shrimp, squid and mussels.

Entrees are, for the most part, similarly rewarding.

Shrimp pad thai is first rate, the shellfish fat and fresh-tasting and the noodles stir-fried with bean sprouts, tofu, egg, scallion and peanuts in a light, exceptionally well-balanced sauce that's neither too sweet nor (worse) too ketchupy. I'd even go so far as to say that Yum Yum's pad thai is the best in town. OK, one of the two best.

Another winning option is nua siam: lean, tender slices of beef, marinated in sesame oil and spices, then stir-fried. Playing bright counterpoint to the beef are a shower of fresh ginger root slivers over the top and lightly pickled vegetables on the side.

The spicy basil dish krapow gets a respectable rendering, too, though I wouldn't call the beef krapow I sampled particularly memorable. The dish is also available in pork, chicken, seafood and vegetarian versions. The protein takes the form of tofu in the vegetarian krapow, one of eight meatless entrees on a menu that is unusually vegetarian-friendly.

The menu gives a credible accounting of Thai curries with five variations: red, green, panang, massaman and rain forest. The green curry is authentically soupy and tropically fragrant, though that fragrance isn't as complex and intense as some.

If the kitchen has a weakness, I suspect it may be a tendency to cater to American tastes. Order a dish with Level 3 heat rating ("raging fire"), for instance, and you're apt to get something closer to Level 2 ("tingling sensation"). And if you want to eat that larb kai in the traditional manner by tearing off pieces of lettuce and using them to scoop up a bit of chicken, you'll have to ask for more lettuce leaves.

By and large, though, Ketkanok Kamdang's experience shows in cooking that is solid, sometimes stellar. The chef is clearly eager to please. If you would like a dish adjusted to your taste, I'll wager all you would have to do is ask. That is, if she doesn't ask you first.

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