Photograph by Carey Sweet
Flying Down to Rios: Nit Bynum’s restaurant shares its space with the Rios bar.
By Carey Sweet
There’s a typo on the menu at Nit’s Thai Creations in Guerneville. Dish #13 reads as “mean” kum, instead of meang kum. It’s a small error, but when chef-owner Nit Bynum sees it for the first time, peering at the paper to describe the dish to a guest, her forehead wrinkles. “Oh,” she says softly. “That’s why everybody laughs when they order it.” It’s not as if her typical customer would be schooled in the language of the Southeast Asian country anyway, but she promises to fix the mistake.
Bynum stops at another table and apologizes for the heat. It’s an unusually fierce afternoon, and the best seats in the house are on the back porch of the un-air-conditioned restaurant, overlooking the Russian River. She pauses to swab a damp cloth over a spot of sauce left by previous customers with a gentle, “Excuse me, sorry.”
By the time she reaches our table, she wants us to know that our dinner and drink orders will be on separate checks; her lease does not allow her to serve alcohol. Instead, we’ll be ordering our cocktails through the bar with which she shares space, a river-rat hangout called Rios. She’s sorry for the inconvenience.
It’s charming, this concern by our hostess for our every comfort. A tiny woman who looks younger than her 39 years, she flits from table to table, delivering food, bussing dirty dishes and fussing over us like royalty. It’s clear that she wants everything to be perfect in her new eatery, even as a sweaty guy wanders in off the street into the room behind us, asking the bartender if he can borrow a hose. A high-end setting, this ain’t.
Yet when Bynum returns with our first appetizer, that notorious meang kum ($5.50), her shoulders are back and she looks me squarely in the eye. “Take the spinach leaf,” she directs. “Roll it all up and eat it all together.” She watches to make sure I do it.
Obediently, I take an emerald-green leaf, topped with roasted coconut strings, peanuts, dried shrimp, jalapeños, ginger, shallots and tiny chunks of lime glistening with ginger sauce. I fold it and pop the hefty bundle into my mouth. The lime rind crunches, the jalapeño burns and the whole explodes in a single sweet-salty delectable chomp. A delighted “Oh!” is all I can manage.
Bynum nods, smoothes her crisp white chef’s jacket and walks away. While there may be a few rough edges to her physical restaurant, the food she serves there is nothing short of exceptional. And Bynum knows it.
Growing up on a farm in Thailand, Bynum learned how to grow and gather the best ingredients, then cook them into traditional specialties with her mother. Formal culinary training followed in Bangkok, and after a stint as a journalist, she decided her true passion was cooking. Marriage to Hampton Bynum brought her to Sonoma County and the Davis Bynum Winery in 1993, where she continues to cater high-end events and run a permaculture garden to cultivate the fresh organic Asian herbs she uses in her kitchen.
When Bynum decided to open her first restaurant last May, she chose the Rios space simply because she can afford its low rent. After unpacking her Thai cooking equipment next to the bar’s chicken-wing fryer last spring, she created a polished crew; the friendly bar staff who are skilled in drawing brewskies are now so well-trained in Bynum’s cuisine that they can suggest wine pairings. She dug into the details, decorating plates with foods shaped like flowers, serving them on sleek wicker trays, and garnishing them with carrots hand-cut to look like lotus blossoms atop bright purple fronds of shredded cabbage.
Now if only more customers were discovering this unexpected joy, tucked into a weathered wooden shack on the edge of the Guerneville/Rio Nido border. Crafting haute Thai cuisine in a bar, jostling for space with a jukebox and beer signs, Bynum admits it hasn’t been easy drawing in the crowds. Because how many people drive past her place, seeing only the bright green palm tree and hot pink flamingo decorating the flame-red Rios sign? If they do stop, will they get past the nightclub-style canopy entrance, past the Austin Realty office sharing the patio, and beyond the mishmash dÈcor that has white cloth tables inside and scuffed wooden picnic tables outside? She says that over the past year, her place has only been really busy on weekend nights.
Happily, I doubt she’s going to need to worry too much. This is some of the most sophisticated, artfully balanced Thai cuisine to be found. Once word gets out, Nit’s Thai Creations is sure to be a huge hit.
Nit’s offers two styles of dining: almost two dozen tapas selections, and a half-dozen big plates. Either portion is large enough for sharing, and here’s a bonus of eating in a bar: prices are so reasonable, a diner can easily go wild and order it all.
Tom kha pak ($5.50), a thin hot-sour broth bobbing with fat mushrooms, soft cabbage, crisp carrot and green beans, lemongrass and galangal, is easily enough soup for three. As with all of Bynum’s recipes, the soup evolves as a complex layering of flavors, with each taste and texture floating against each other like veils.
A summer roll ($5.50) is perhaps the best I’ve ever enjoyed, the translucent rice wrapper stuffed with extra-firm tofu, rice noodles, carrots, cucumber, mint, cilantro and green onion, to be dunked in Bynum’s signature chile-pickled garlic sauce. (Tip: Pair the dish with chilled Fumé Blanc.) A smooth Pinot Noir, meanwhile, supports the silky red curry salmon ($8), the fish presented over rice and garnished with crisped basil leaves. A fruity Chardonnay is an excellent partner to the crunchy fried tuna roll ($8) drizzled in spicy lime dressing.
Green papaya salad ($5.50) is a bright, light nosh, layering julienned fruit with dried shrimp, tomatoes, roasted peanuts and tart lime dressing. The only appetizer that doesn’t thrill me here is the yum ma kuer pow ($6), and only because I find the roasted eggplant too powerfully smoky under its toppings of delicate bay shrimp and ground chicken.
As an entrée, the trout sam rod ($12.50) is particularly exquisite, the butterflied, skin-on fillet-fried crispy and ladled in a golden orange ginger-tamarind broth accented with cilantro and crispy onions. Another plate brings plump chicken breast slow-cooked in coconut milk and mild green curry ($10.50); as with most of Nit’s dishes, the meat can be substituted with tofu. And the only concern I have with the tooth-tender roasted duck in a sumptuous creamy red curry ($12.50) is that I can’t find any of the menu-listed Thai pumpkin among the snow peas, pineapple, tomato and crispy basil.
Red-meat eaters will find their choices limited to two dishes, but the appetizer and entrée make a terrific carnivorous meal.
Pla nuer ($7.50) is a small plate of thinly sliced barbecue tri-tip marinated in white wine with spicy lime dressing and a side of baby greens. Next, a generous serving of juicy lamb ($13.50) arrives skewered, bathed in curry and roasted coconut and teamed with yellow rice and pickled vegetables.
As my guests and I ooh and ahh, Bynum stops by, smiles and admits that, yes, someday, she would like to move to a larger city and set up shop in a proper storefront. Yet I sort of hope she never does; I’ve claimed this as my own private gem.
Besides, by the time desserts arrive–a choice of black sticky rice with mango, or fried banana with ice cream–a bar no longer seems like such an odd setting for such beautiful cuisine. We’re dining in the middle of the gorgeous redwoods, in one of the North Bay’s most charming little coastal towns. It’s blissfully quiet; the only sound is the gentle splash of kayak oars and the occasional pop-pop of an idling motorboat on the river below. We’re so much more relaxed here, sprawled on chipped picnic benches in our sundresses and shorts, than we would be in any fancy parlor in the city.
Even the menu typo now seems so perfectly clever, I hope it doesn’t get fixed. Because Bynum’s cooking is such thrilling stuff, and in the slang of the streets, I’d have to say, that makes this one “mean” dining destination.
Nit’s Thai Creations, 15025 River Road, Guerneville. Lunch, Thursday through Sunday, 11:30am to 4pm; dinner, Tuesday through Sunday, 5pm to 9pm. 707.869.3576.
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