By Greg Morago
When chef Junnajet Hurapan saw the fountain out in front of the space that would be Songkran Thai Kitchen, his new Thai restaurant in Uptown Park, he couldn't help but consider it a good sign. That's because Songkran, the name he chose for the restaurant, is the word for Thai new year, which, he said, essentially is a water festival.
But Hurapan and Songkran owners Amy and Jiten Karnani went a step further to ensure good fortune: They had Buddhist monks bless the restaurant before its planned opening last week.
"The energy will be there - the positive energy," Hurapan said.
It's not like he needed a prayer for energy. Hurapan, known to his fans as chef "Jett," is a fount of enthusiasm - a boisterous, smiling, gregarious chef who many remember from his days at Gigi's Asian Bistro.
That Hurapan is back in the Galleria neighborhood that first brought him recognition in Houston is another good sign.
"It feels good," he said. "This whole area, the Galleria, is all about food to me."
And food - his native food - is precisely what Hurapan will bring to the table with Songkran, housed in the former 1252 Tapas Bar. The Bangkok-born chef said he grew up eating various styles of Thai food, from his mother's homemade curries to the spicier fare of street food to the fancy dining popular in restaurants of the international city where he grew up. He said he's eager to present his authentic Thai menu: "I want to send a message to foodies that Thai food" goes beyond satays, curries and pad Thai.
But, thankfully, there will be satays, curries and pad Thai at Songkran. Hurapan's menu begins with appetizers, including shrimp cake with peanut chili dip; house-made Thai sausage; chicken and shrimp roll with plum dip; and saw leaf salad topped with poached shrimp, mussels and squid in a light sauce of lemongrass and ginger. Main dishes include wok-seared garlic prawns; baked half lobster with "angry" dip; braised wagyu beef with Thai herb sauce; crispy duck with red curry and pineapple; and braised short ribs with green curry and Thai basil. Pad Thai, wok-fried noodles with beef and Chinese broccoli, and crabmeat fried rice round out the menu. Hurapan's wife, Jira, is responsible for the desserts that include lychee and jackfruit crème brûlée, taro balls in coconut syrup, coconut sticky rice with sweet mango and coconut milk ice cream, and a variety of house-made sorbets.
Songkran is the second venture the Karnanis have taken with Hurapan. They hired him and his wife in 2012 to helm the kitchen at their Blu Restaurant & Lounge in Sugar Land. Hurapan will continue to oversee both operations, but for now, his focus will be on Songkran. The 2,300-square-foot restaurant might just be the restaurant Amy Karnani was destined to open.
"Thai is my number one favorite cuisine," said Karnani, who is responsible for the décor of the restaurant - a charming boutique-style space with oversize paintings, pops of red, vintage trellis details over the bar and metalwork tables.
"I always had a vision we'd do other things," Karnani said of expanding beyond Blu with Hurapan. "I saw his vision and passion."
Karnani and Hurapan also saw passion in their sous chef, Micah Rideout, whose résumé includes work at Uchi and Blu. It just so happens Rideout was born in Thailand and understands the intricacies of Hurapan's menu and components of Thai cuisine.
And that's yet another good sign, Hurapan said.
Songkran Thai Kitchen, 1101-08 Uptown Park, 832-582-8445; songkranthaikitchen.com