By Eric Sandler
A familiar face is returning to the Galleria area after two years in Sugar Land. Chef Jurrajet "Jett" Hurapan moved to Houston from New York to open the recently shuttered Gigi's Asian Bistro before moving to Sugar Land to open restaurant/nightclub BLU.
Now BLU owners Amy and Jiten Karnani are bringing chef Jett back into town with a new restaurant in Uptown Park called Songkran Thai Kitchen. Set to open in the next two or three weeks in the space previously occupied by 1252 Tapas, Amy Karnani tells CultureMap that Songkran is a "farm to table restaurant . . . (that serves) traditional Thai food with authentic flavor in a modern style."
Similar in concept to Donald Chang's Korean restaurant Nara, Songkran will elevate traditional Thai cuisine through the use of high quality ingredients like wagyu-style beef and local produce. Additionally, the restaurant will grind its own spices to ensure their freshness and complement the cuisine with a full menu of wine, beer and cocktails. Hurapan's wife Jiraporn will join him in the kitchen as both sous chef and pastry chef.
Hurapan says he's looking forward to getting "back to my roots: Thai guy. Thai food." The menu will consist of the Northern Thai dishes Hurapen knows from his childhood in Bangkok. "I'm a city boy," he says. In contrast, he notes that Asia Market, while still very traditional and a frequent destination for him, is more Laotian-style Thai.
Regardless, Amy Karnani doesn't want diners to confuse Songkran with a restaurant like Sway in Austin. "It's not fusion at all," she notes.
The restaurant takes it name from the Thai New Year and wants to be a destination for similar celebrations. A hand-painted angel looks over the hostess stand, and a banquette near the kitchen will host a chef's table where large parties can order custom menus. Although the build-out isn't complete, Songkran already has a festive atmosphere, and that isn't the only way it will set itself apart.
"There're a lot of Thai restaurants in Houston that are commercial," Hurapen says. "What I bring to the table is something that in Thailand people don't see. You're not going to see normal Thai food like at every other restaurant." Although restaurant staple pad thai will still be on the menu, because "I think I have one of the best pad thai. I'll give myself a pat on the shoulder for that."
In addition to returning to his roots with Thai cooking, Hurapen is excited to be back in Uptown Park with good restaurants like Etoile and Uptown Sushi. As he says, "I'm back to my old stomping grounds."
As at BLU, Songkran is a true collaboration between chef and restaurateur. "Chef and I work hand in hand as far as working on the menu, doing the tastings, the decor, the ambiance, the plating . . . pretty much everything in getting it all done," Amy Karnani explains.
Hurapen prepared a tasting of some of the other dishes that he says will distinguish Songkran. He began with a housemade, fermented sausage filled with pork and rice. The sausage itself wasn't spicy — that came from Thai chilis — but it did have a mild, addictive pork flavor. On the other hand, grilled flat iron steak had strong heat courtesy of a chili vinaigrette.
Hurapen says the crispy chicken and shrimp rolls that followed are intentionally slightly different sizes to emphasize the "rustic" style of cuisine he's aiming for at Songkran. The housemade dipping sauce with fermented plum provided a sweet counterpart of the filling. Even a staple like fried tofu had a firm texture and crispy exterior that Hurapen promised would improve once he finished seasoning a new wok.
"It's a concept we want to replicate," Karnani adds. They're already scouting spaces for a second location, but for now, the group is eager to see how diners react to the food. Asked about her favorite part of owning a restaurant, Karnani doesn't hesitate to reply.
"Just feeding people and getting a reaction and seeing them smile and say 'Wow, this is something that we've never had before.' "