Ayara Luk serves creative Thai cooking like nothing else out there
By Richard Foss
Whether or not you speak Thai, the mother and baby elephant logo for Ayara Luk is cute. Thai speakers know that it is also appropriate, since the restaurant’s name translates as “elephant child.” Actually, it works on two levels, since this Ayara Luk is the offspring of a well-known nearby restaurant called Ayara Thai Cuisine, and it is run by the children of Ayara’s founders.
The original Ayara became famous for their exacting dedication to traditional Thai cooking, but Ayara Luk has a more fluid attitude. Not only are other traditions in play here, there are contemporary ideas and presentations that depart from Southeast Asian standards of flavor and presentation.
Your surroundings don’t give you many clues about this, although the room is changed from the days when this was the Swiss restaurant Chalet Edelweiss. The former Alpine kitsch is gone, leaving bare brick walls sparsely ornamented with a shelf of books and culinary bric-a-brac.
The Ayara Luk menu changes regularly, and in two visits a month apart almost half of the offerings were different. Some of these changes seemed designed to reflect Southern California seasons — which isn’t much of a consideration in Thailand because, while there are wet and dry periods, the temperature there is fairly constant.
A mild vegetable soup that was featured during a cold snap had an intense vegetarian stock with no detectable chili heat, and I wouldn’t have identified it as the product of a Thai restaurant. It was simple and delicious, and our server told us that it was a grandmother’s recipe. Apparently grandmothers the world over know that vegetables just need some salt, pepper, garlic and patience to make a great soup.
On the next visit we ordered duck spring rolls that had a much more contemporary flair. Thin medallions of roasted duck were wrapped with vegetables, noodles and edible flowers in transparent rice paper to create a stunningly beautiful appetizer. These uncooked rolls, served cool, are often called summer rolls and are more associated with Vietnamese cuisine — and I’ve never seen this particular combination in a Thai restaurant. Again, the flavors were unadorned, with the crisp, fresh basil most prominent among the vegetables. The peanut sauce served with it was very mild, and I wished for just a bit of red pepper to add a frisson of spice.
There was just the right balance of spice in a dish of Japanese eggplant stuffed with ground chicken and shrimp and then fried — not because the filling itself was spicy, but because it was served on a bed of a fragrant Thai vegetable curry. We had asked for this to be served medium, and it was gringo medium rather than Thai medium: enough to raise a little sweat without actually hitting all bells on the fire alarm. If this dish is offered when you’re there, get it. It’s superb.
Our order of khao soi had an alluring hint of heat, as it should. This dish of chicken stewed in coconut milk with spices is from the Chiangmai region near the Burmese and Chinese border, an area with a slightly milder cuisine than the Islamic-influenced south. At Ayara Luk, the gently spicy coconut curry with chicken legs and egg noodles is served with sliced raw scallion and salty pickled mustard greens on the side so you can adulterate at will and enjoy the mix of cooked, raw and cured flavors. It’s a first-rate reimagining of a traditional dish and well worth ordering.
I don’t usually order dessert in Thai restaurants, but the Thai tea passionfruit custard was so interesting that we had to try it. The presentation was spectacular: a half-moon dollop of custard, strawberries, whipped cream and passionfruit curd topped with a delicate lacework of caramelized sugar. It’s a small portion — delectable nibbles for two people, but a tremendous finish to the meal.
This brings up the only thing about Ayara Luk that will put off some people: the price is well above what you’d pay at most traditional Thai restaurants. Dinner for two, with minimal leftovers, ran $78 with one glass of wine each. To which I can only say this is not a traditional Thai restaurant, but a creative fusion unlike any other west of the 405 or, for that matter, all of Greater Los Angeles. If you want traditional Thai food, there are plenty of places that serve it. If you want to experience Thai fusion that takes a few risks, this is your place.
Ayara Luk is described as a pop-up restaurant, a place that will keep the staff busy while the original Ayara is remodeled and expanded. That closure is scheduled to start soon and last a few months; after that the future of Ayara Luk is uncertain.
While I will be delighted when the parent restaurant reopens, I hope the child continues to grow and experiment because both contribute tremendously to the local culinary landscape.
Ayara Luk 8740 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Westchester (310) 881-4498 ayaraluk.com