When the Covid-19 pandemic first struck, acclaimed local chef Darren Chin spent a lot of time at home with his Thai wife Pachsita Kitikornchalowemwong (better known as Nana) as well as his in-laws, fondly known as Papa Suwit and Mama Nuanta, who live with them.
The older Thai couple are accomplished home cooks who once ran a food stall in Chiang Mai, Thailand where they sold som tum and grilled chicken. Realising their potential, Chin – who is the chef behind fine-dining haunt DC, and upscale eatery Bref – launched a food delivery business for them called Gai, which focused on a few, streamlined Thai offerings.
Last month, he turned the fledgling business into a charming little physical restaurant also called Gai, ensconced just one floor above his existing eatery Bref in a quiet, leafy stretch in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.
In many ways, Gai is also Chin’s sweet love letter to Nana and her parents, as he opened the restaurant for his wife in a bid to give her a sense of ownership and empowerment.
“I set up the business basically for her and I run it with her. So it’s more about giving her a leg-up and more responsibility, rather than having her husband support her.
The eatery is only one-and-a-half months old, so I am still guiding her from the side, but this will be like her legacy – she can do what she wants and make decisions,” he says.
At Gai, Nana and her parents are central figures who are there every day to ensure everything runs like clockwork.
They are helped in their endeavour by Chin as well as a team of eight Thai chefs and cooks, who churn out meals according to Chin’s specifications and his in-laws’ recipes.
The menu is also a lot more expansive than the bare bones offerings that once came out of Chin’s home kitchen. Here, there is more room to play and Nana and Chin are determined to showcase the true breadth and strength of Thai regional fare.
“A lot of Thai restaurants are focused on Thai street fare like pad thai. But this is a proper restaurant, so we really wanted to do justice to Thai regional fare, with an emphasis on northern-style meals to recognise my in-laws,” explains Chin.
Prices at Gai are on the high end, but these price tags are also reflective of the quality and provenance of the produce, which Chin goes to great lengths to source. As the restaurant doesn’t serve pork, there is a marked focus on seafood (there is also a selection of live seafood on offer) as well as meats like beef.
“Sourcing for the best has always been our modus operandi. When you have great ingredients, you have great food – that’s a simple analogy.
“People think Thai food is cheap and you can’t charge higher prices. So if you charge higher prices especially in Malaysia, people think it is overpriced. But they don’t understand the value of technique and the provenance of sourcing those ingredients,” he explains.
To begin a meal at Gai, definitely try the Son in Law Foie Gras (RM78), one of Chin’s concoctions and a new addition to the menu. This is basically Chin’s take on the Thai dish of kai look keuy, which features hard-boiled deep-fried eggs. According to Thai legend, the meal was created by a Thai mother to warn off a son-in-law who had failed to treat her daughter properly!
In this iteration, Chin has added an opulent slice of foie gras to the mixture, in an unexpected pairing that also sees sweet-sour tamarind sauce and fried shallots, lemongrass and lime leaf. It’s an incredible thing when you chance upon a dish with no preconceived notions only to have your mind blown upon the very first mouthful. The explosion of gummy, gooey egg yolks and velvety, rich foie gras is truly sensational and this flavour profile is elevated even further by the shallots and lemongrass, which add tropical nuances to this incredible dish.
Up next (and if your purse strings permit), definitely try the Jay Fai Crab Omelette (RM180; pre-order is advisable). This is a dish that has been built off the back of the famed eponymous crab omelette in Bangkok that earned a Michelin star in the street food category.
In Chin’s incarnation, the eggs-traordinary dish (which only Chin or Nana are allowed to make) is pretty humongous and boasts onsen ivory eggs and 150g of fresh crab meat, paired with a spicy nam jim dipping sauce. The overall meal is divine – the outer carapace of the omelette is lightly crispy and this segues into an intricate lattice of egg and crab meat (there’s a lot of crab meat packed in here) that promise to subdue your senses into complete and total submission. A moment of silence is compulsory in order to fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of this revelatory meal.
Next, indulge in Lady Boss Nana’s Signature Tom Yum Seafood (RM188). The rich red broth is enough for at least four people and filled to the brim with Sabah river prawns, Hokkaido scallops, fresh squid and octopus. This is a tom yum that has reached the zenith in terms of flavour-balancing, as it straddles the sour-spicy divide with aplomb and an admirable sense of equilibrium. There is truly nothing to fault in this dish, which will leave you feeling sated and oh-so happy.
Also try the Northern-Style Gaeng Hung Lay (RM58) or tender wagyu cheeks in a sweet and spicy curry, with peanuts and boiled potatoes. This is a dish that at first looks murky and unassuming, but take a tiny spoonful and your soul will be filled, your spirit enlivened as you tuck into this uniquely sweet curry that is accentuated by chunks of melt-in-the-mouth tender beef. This surprise sleeper hit is one that guarantees total and complete addiction.
For a touch of something truly extravagant (with a DIY element to boot), try the Australian rock lobster jim jum set (RM348). According to Chin, this is a meal that is not commonly found in restaurants, as it is considered a home-based dish. Here, the lobster is presented sashimi style with a broth made up of chicken stock, coriander root and cabbage. The idea is to dunk the lobster in the broth (akin to steamboat) and cook the meat until just tender.
And truly, it is the lobster that is the shining star here – it is so pure and sweet, it almost feels sacrilegious to be eating it!
Chin says he is happy to have finally transformed Gai into a restaurant as this addition to his stable of eateries ably showcases the diversity of what he has to offer.
“Opening Gai was quite a natural transition because we already had the base so people were really looking forward to it. It’s great because it shows the range of what I’m capable of doing.
“And while I don’t know how to cook Thai food, I know flavour and I have a great sense of flavour memory so I know what works and what people want and how everything needs to have a certain connection. So it’s me connecting the dots and everyone in the kitchen cooking the food – that’s the uniqueness of what I am able to do,” he says.
Gai by Darren Chin
26A, Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 1
Taman Tun Dr Ismail
60000 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03 7732 4406
Order from Gai through gai-kl.com.