Originally published for InFocus Magazine April/May 2008
Soulat Ma is relaxed and alert as he scans the room. He’s the perfect host, keeping tabs on all the details, helping with service when needed, conversing easily with the many people he knows, checking in graciously with those he doesn’t recognize. You get the feeling he could be taking care of guests in his own living room, but in fact, he’s running a restaurant.
“It’s my job to make sure everything goes smoothly—actually, goes perfectly,” explains Ma, co-owner with his wife, Pasthida Ma, of Kinaree Thai in Downtown Courtenay.
Pasthida is the head chef and kitchen manager, and Ma takes care of everything else, “from the toothpicks on up,” he explains. The most important part of that “everything else,” he says, is creating a welcoming atmosphere.
“This has been my goal with the restaurant. From the beginning I wanted to build a restaurant that would be part of people’s daily lives that would feel like part of their family. I want people to come here and be happy and relaxed, and to enjoy a lovely evening. The restaurant should feel like community,” says Ma.
The Mas chose the name Kinaree to embody their vision of a relaxed and gracious dining experience. “We liked the soft sounds of the word,” says Ma. The Kinaree is a figure from the ancient Thai legend of the Himmapan Forest, inhabited by magical creatures. Described as a beautiful half-woman, half-swan, the Kinaree embodies excellence in singing and dancing, and her graceful form is often depicted in sculpture, traditional architecture and temple murals. A bronze statue of Kinaree sits in the restaurant, complementing other Thai art mounted on the deep red walls.
Ma obviously enjoys the “everything else” of running a restaurant, but when it comes down to it, he insists that the most important element of the restaurant is the food. At Kinaree Thai, the focus is on keeping the food truly authentic, while responding to the contemporary Western preference for light, healthy food.
“I want people to come here and be happy and relaxed,” says Soulat Ma, who owns Kinaree Thai Cuisine with his wife Pasthida (above with their two kids at the restaurant).
“The food speaks for itself.” Photo by Boomer Jerritt
The desire to show Canadians authentic Thai food is what motivated Ma’s entry into the restaurant business. He was just 17 in 1988 when he and his older brother left Bangkok to live in Canada. Their instructions were to spec it out and report back to their parents. They landed in Winnipeg. One of the things they noticed was that Thai food was very popular, so they went to a couple of Thai restaurants. “I wouldn’t say the food was bad, but we were disappointed,” says Ma diplomatically. “It wasn’t the same as the food in Thailand.”
His brother decided to open a restaurant, with Ma’s help, that would serve genuine Thai food. That’s where Ma learned the ropes of the food service industry.
On one of his trips home to Thailand for a visit, Ma met Pasthida. “I fell in love with her because her cooking was so amazing!” says Ma, a twinkle in his eye. Pasthida had learned to cook as a child from her mother, and had worked in her sister-in-law’s restaurant.
As often happens with love, one thing led to another and eventually Pasthida moved to Winnipeg to be with Ma. They got married, had two children, worked in the restaurant business… and began to tire of the Winnipeg winters.
“I heard there was no winter in the Comox Valley,” says Ma, with that twinkle again. “I was told you can go fishing all year round.” The Mas wanted to open their own restaurant, and Courtenay seemed like the perfect place. “It’s a great place to bring up kids. There’s a great sense of community; people are very nice, very friendly.”
When Kinaree Thai opened its doors in September 2006, it was a welcome addition to the community.
“The reception was very welcoming from the beginning,” says Ma. “People were very appreciative, very warm. It was amazing.” Curiosity about a new Thai restaurant may be what brought people through the door the first time, but the quality of the food is what brought them back, says Ma. “The food speaks for itself.”
The restaurant has many regulars, both for lunch and dinner. Ma has become friendly with many of them, and makes a point of listening to their desires.
“Because we’re close to downtown, we heard from people that they wanted to come in for a quick lunch. So we created our lunch combination menu,” says Ma.
The lunch combination menu offer 12 choices ranging from the classic peanut-topped noodle dish, Pad Thai, to Drunken Noodle, a rice noodle dish with vegetables in oyster sauce, to Red Curry Chicken with Rice, as well as the vegetarian Mixed Vegetables and Tofu with Rice. There are three different versions of Thai Noodle Soup. All the combinations come with salad and Kinaree’s special Thai dressing.
The five-page dinner menu offers appetizers, salads, and fish, seafood, meat and vegetarian entrees. Dishes range from spicy to mild. All the tantalizing flavors and ingredients of Thai food are here—the rich spice blends of red, green and yellow curries; the silky sweetness of coconut milk; the tang of lime; the assertiveness of cilantro and mint, the subtlety of lemongrass; the crunch of peanuts and cashews.
In creating and adapting the menu, Ma has paid heed to his clients’ requests for healthy choices. “You can have a low-fat meal here,” he says.
When I go to Kinaree for a meal, Ma selects dishes for me that particularly reflect the healthy eating standard.
In the Fish Apple Salad, chunks of fish are marinated and deep fried in a miraculously light batter. Deep fried doesn’t have to mean greasy, says Ma, and this dish certainly proves him right. The fish is nestled in a salad with slices of crunchy green apple and toasted cashews in a tangy, delicate Thai dressing.
Stir-fried Curry Prawns is a house specialty and comes with Thai creamy sauce with plenty of celery, onion and bell peppers. The prawns are succulent, the vegetables done just right, and the sauce unfolds in layers of flavor.
Five-flavored Chicken, another house specialty, is a famous Thai dish of crispy chicken served in a medley of fresh fruits and cashew nuts. The pineapple and grapes complement the chicken and nuts in both texture and flavor, offering a cleansing counterpoint to the rich spices of the sauce. The dishes are served with delicately flavored coconut jasmine rice.
Ma explains that Thai food, properly prepared, enhances digestion. The herbs and spices are not just for flavor. They also help us process food by stimulating the digestive system.
On the other hand, when it comes to food, now and then it can be nice to throw our health-concerned caution to the winds, and for those moments, there is a tempting dessert menu. “People are crazy about deep fried ice cream these days,” says Ma.
The art and science of wine selection is a bit of a passion for Ma, and he is eager to talk about the wine list.
“The right wine with the right food really makes a huge difference. When I started working in a Canadian restaurant, I noticed that not that many people ordered wine. I started studying the wine list, and took courses in wine and how to blend the right wine with the right food. I even found courses offering wine tasting with Thai food,” he says.
“Many people ordering a white wine with our food make the mistake of ordering a dry wine like a Chardonnay. But the flavors of the wine are lost because of the spices of the food. Instead, I’d recommend a medium dry to sweet wine like a Sauvignon Blanc, a Gewürztraminer or a Riesling. These go really well with spicy food,” he says. One of his plans for the future is to offer a wine pairing menu.
Kinaree Thai is also popular spot for take-out food. Ma estimates that four in 10 orders are take-out.
“We use the take-out all the time,” says a regular at the next table. “We’re from Denman Island and so what we do is call ahead and pick it up on our way home to the ferry. Usually we eat it while we’re waiting in the ferry line-up.”
Ma clearly delights in having an ongoing relationship with his customers. Even if a regular is just coming in to pick up a take-out order, he’ll make his way over to say hello and ask how they’re doing. In return, he gets ideas from them.
He noticed early on that often customers visiting Kinaree would start telling friends about their travels in Thailand. He heard more than one person say, “Gee, if only I had a map, I could show you where I went (or where I’m planning to go).” This prompted him to put a map of Thailand on the cover of his menu. This way people can reminisce about a previous trip to Thailand, or dream of one in the future. The map includes a cheeky, “You are here” message, placing Kinaree in Bangkok. We’re not really in Bangkok, of course, but it’s a close as you can get in Courtenay!