With the help of chef Frankie Sawatdikiat, Kunche Vorabuta has been putting forth Northern Thai-style small plates at her restaurant, RICE Thai Tapas, since its soft open in mid-June. The restaurant has been quietly serving guests -- quite a few knew Vorabuta from her days at Sushi of Naples -- inside the corner unit of a strip mall a block from Arroyo Parkway. The official grand opening will occur sometime either this week or next, pending the arrival of several key pieces to complete the restaurant's design.
The menu shows the collaboration between Vorabuta and Sawatdikiat. There's a roll of thinly sliced rare beef, wrapped around julienned carrots and cucumbers, and if you stop by on a weekend, you may find a special of fresh lobster sashimi, which arrives with edible flowers, fried garlic and basil micro greens. Traditional mango sticky rice is given an update, coming in a trio of black sticky rice squares topped with mango slices, black sesame seeds and coconut cream. Vorabuta and Sawatdikiat have considered certain dietary restrictions as well; "There's at least six appetizers that are gluten-free. We make sauces specially for those."
Vorabuta, who also owns Oba Sushi Izakaya just a few doors down, took over what used to be Still Room. When faced with overhauling the space, she enlisted architect and friend Skyler Kogachi, who helped her create a modern aesthetic in everything, from Eames chairs to the font used on the menu.
"Kunche's restaurants are always family-friendly. We want to give visitors a beautiful dining experience, but not something where they feel like they're going to break something or things are going to get dirty. That's why there's the concrete floor and darker woods," Kogachi says.
Vorabuta chose RICE as the restaurant's name for both the simplicity of the word itself and its significance in Thai cuisine. She explained, "I just thought rice is a standard food in Thailand. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, every single person has rice."
The idea for a Thai tapas menu was inspired by her personal preferences when dining out. "When I go out, I'd like to be able to share a little bit of everything. Typically, if you go to a Thai restaurant, you order one dish and you're full. (Here), you can try 10 things amongst three to four people."
Vorabuta handles front of the house duties at both RICE and Oba, but she's been known to jump in the kitchen during busy hours. She sustains long hours every day of the week, often waking up early to shop at a market. Kogachi says it's why RICE is closed one day per week, giving her a little bit of down time to catch up with errands.
"It's not work for me. It's pure joy to create a dish that customers love. It's worth working seven days a week," Vorabuta explains.
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