Erika Chou and Doron Wong’s Rivers and Hills Hospitality Group has opened a string of hits since its founding in the mid 20-teens, led by the excellent Japanese-Italian hotspot Kimka on Kenmare Street, where chef Christine Lau is at the helm; and the equally great Thai street-food restaurant Wayla on Forsyth Street, which boasts a lovely garden out back and chef Tom Naumsuwan in the kitchen.
Now Chou, Wong and Naumsuwan have taken over the former Tartinery space on Mulberry Street with Wan Wan, a comfortably appointed oasis of a place that focuses on Old Phuket Town-style cooking. Thailand’s island province is mostly famous for its beaches — Naumsuwan, who grew up in Bangkok, often vacationed there with his family as a kid — but it also has a unique culinary history.
“Phuket was a town where there was a lot of Chinese miners that came in the 18th century, and brought their food and culture with them,” Naumsuwan’s wife and translator Lalita told Gothamist last week. “So if you go to Phuket, there’s a section of the city called Old Phuket Town, where all the buildings are Chinese or European style and there’s a lot of dim sum. People go to the beaches and the resorts, and take food tours of Old Phuket.”
The Wan Wan menu showcases the Thai-Chinese fusion of Old Phuket Town, and is divided into two parts, both well worth your attention. There are several stellar starters (or, when their liquor license comes through, drinking snacks) in the “shared plates” section, including Moo Tad Lam Pa, a pile of pork belly bits, sticky with fish sauce and fried to just the right combination of chewy and crisp, and a pair of fat Hor Mok Crab Cakes, which are loaded with crustacean and further enlivened with a spicy pineapple dipping sauce.
Shrimp and pork wonton make an appearance here as well, as do falling-off-the-bone spare ribs (Moo Hong) bathing in a broth of soy, ginger and garlic, and some excellent tempura scallops served over a spicy salad of sorts in a dish called Yum Koi. Naumsuwan was especially excited about his Hae Gune, a crab, shrimp and pork fritter that he wraps in fried tofu skin and slices up for easy dunking in his plum sauce. It’s a dish his father, who is Chinese (his mom is Isaan Thai), used to make.
We got to eat four of Naumsuwan’s noodle bowls, and they all were terrific, led by the Mee Hoon Ped, a mountain of wok-fried vermicelli topped with a funky, fatty, crisp-skinned roast duck. The Guay Tiew Nua is built from a base of slippery rice noodles, which get blanketed by translucently-thin slices of raw wagyu, some bitter broccolini thrown on for color and bite, and a generous tableside pour of beef broth to heat it all up.
Naumsuwan called the Mee Hok Kien, which are wok-fried yellow noodles laden with mushrooms and kale, “Phuket pad thai” for its ubiquity in that city. The fish noodles (literally, fish pressed into noodles) added excitement to the otherwise subtly flavored Sen Pla, with its veggie broth and slab of branzino. The baller order at Wan Wan, though, is clearly the Guay Tiew Tom Yum Lobster, which comes with an entire lobster floating around in a fiery lemongrass broth.
The space has undergone a complete renovation from its Tartinery days. Gone is the balcony and the two-story tree that once dominated the room. A more subdued design has taken their place, replete with velvet banquettes, throw pillows, raw brick, dark wood and drapes. The downstairs isn’t quite finished yet, but will be a more loungey area with a full bar.
And that line outside? That’s people waiting to buy $140 vegan sneakers next door.
wan wan is located at 209 Mulberry Street, just south of Spring Street, and is currently open daily from 5:00 pm to 10:00 pm (212-888-6278)