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Rick Nichols


New spice

A Renaissance man returns with another chapter.

The Nan is a river in the north of Thailand, Kamol Phutlek explains to me, “like the Schuylkill River, that passes through my town.”
He has been here close to 30 years now, at first looking to America to finish his architectural degree, but quickly falling in with the revolution going on in Philadelphia’s famously stodgy restaurant kitchens.
There are those today – catering impresario Steve Poses among them – who argue that he more than fell in with that 1970s renaissance. They posit that Kamol Phutlek, a gentle, unassuming, almost Yoda-like mentor and chef, was a key behind-the-scenes architect of it.
“To me,” Poses says, “one of the things that would characterize so called Philadelphia cuisine was an openness to the world of flavors. Kamol was absolutely central to that. More than almost anyone, he brought those Eastern, Thai, ethnic flavors into mainstream cooking.”
In his Frog Commissary Cookbook, Poses recalls those heady days when he worked the line with Kamol at La Panetiere, the classic, meticulously French room that graced the corner of 16th and Locust.

The exposure to the exotic tastes of Thailand during staff dinners was a revelation: “sweet and fiery, red, green, blue and orange curries . . . lemongrass and fish sauce.” He’d soon introduce them to Philadelphia at large. Poses hired Kamol as a chef at the old Frog, that beloved, longtime trendsetter.
Kamol would go on, cooking at another oldie but goody, West Philly’s La Terrasse, in the late 1970s, then creating a loyal following with his own place, Alouette, which ended its run a few years ago at Fourth and Bainbridge.

So it has come to pass, a friend’s space having opened up on unglamorous corner at 40th and Chestnut, that Kamol has taken another leap. At 55, his ankles and back are killing him from years behind a stove. But at the restaurant named after his hometown river, his cooking – and that of his longtime cooking partner, Lucy Roongsri Sarikananda – remains remarkably fresh and subtle, artfully fusing French technique with Thailand’s sweet citrus and warm chilies.
That combination is no longer new, of course – Kamol helped popularize it and taught it to young cooks who went on to open Havertown’s Nais Cuisine, Alias Café in Upper Darby, and Gourmet Restaurant, the French-Thai in Mayfair.

But at Nan recently, though the wait seemed eternal, I had one of the loveliest French-Thai renditions I’ve had in years – a lunch of delicate spring roll, green salad with an exquisitely light raspberry vinaigrette, and a tender, gently flavorful chicken with yellow curry and perfect rice ($6.95).

At several Dinners in the minimalist former bank building – the only décor touch is detailing on the rafters – I’ve had delightfully crispy, pan-seared black sea bass in a light ginger-miso sauce ($13.95) and a remarkably juicy New Zealand lamb chop, done classically with garlic and rosemary ($19.95).
Recovering Alouette fans have been equally happy to find slightly modified old favorites – the sweetbreads in pastry, Peking duck breast in sweet Shanxi vinegar, and tender-sweet Thai Barbecued chicken on a menu that promises: “Great traditions from the West and East blended in updated, exquisite flavors without fads.”
That’s pretty close to a definition of Kamol’s culinary legacy. Which, happily, he is continuing to add to at Nan.

4000 Chestnut St.,
photography by Michael Bryant