Pakpao Has Lost its Way
If you haven't been in a while, there have been a lot of changes at the Design District Thai restaurant Pakpao. Owners Richard and Tiffanee Ellman first got attention when they asked chef Eddie Thretipthuangsin to leave late last year. They said they wanted to make Pakpao a "national brand," and the restaurant remained without a chef until recently, when Jet Tila was announced as both chef and partner.
Catherine Downes The fried catfish and red curry of old-time Pakpao
Tila was introduced as a celebrity chef -- he had television appearances with Anthony Bourdain, Iron Chef and others to his credit. He also cooked in restaurants in Las Vegas, where he lives, so he had no intention of working the line in Pakpao full-time. Instead, Tila is leaving a few cooks in Dallas, so a member of "Team Tila" was always in the kitchen. He plans to drop in occasionally.
While he was last here, Tila reworked the menu, adding a number of his own dishes to the plates that Thretipthuangsin left behind. It was his attempt at putting his stamp on the restaurant without breaking what already worked so well. When the kitchen was under Thretipthuangsin's eye, The Dallas Morning News awarded three stars and the Observer gave a positive review, too. But after the two lunches I've had there recently, I think those old dishes are looking a little stale. Occasionally, it seems, isn't often enough.
Take the spicy red curry catfish. When I reviewed the restaurant last summer, I compared the dish to eating a rocket, an intense heat partnered with blasts of citrus. The heat is still there, but dull and brown herbs replaced the bright flavor of kaffir lime leaves. The vegetables were downgraded from delicate, miniature squashes of the past to large hunks of common yellow squash and Thai eggplants. Both vegetables were undercooked, and the topping of fried basil leaves was gone too. Everything special about the dish had been stripped away. All that was left was the burn and salty catfish.
I tried a duck curry, too, and was disappointed for similar reasons. It's obvious that the lack of a full-time chef in the kitchen has compromised some of the attributes that used to make Pakpao special. Thretipthuangsin's recipes have meandered since he's left, and not in a positive direction.