Welcome to Mrs. Lek’s Kitchen

The kitchen may be in Lek’s name, but it was Yariv and a Thai sous-chef doing all the cooking. And Malili himself kept up a running commentary throughout the meal.

Khua Khun Lek (photo credit: JONATHAN BEN HAIM)
Khua Khun Lek
(photo credit: JONATHAN BEN HAIM)
Chef Yariv Malili is an undisputed pioneer of Thai cuisine in Israel, having opened Thai House (Bayit Thailandi) in 1996, long before Asian cuisine was as popular here as it is today. He learned his craft living in Isaan, the eastern province of Thailand known for its unique cuisine, and from his Thai wife, Lek. Now, the energetic Malili presides over two acclaimed restaurants: the original Thai House, and the trendy tapas bar Kab Kem, serving “drinks and Thai bites.”
Not content with this pair of thriving enterprises, Malili has now embarked on a more personal venture: Khua Khun Lek, Mrs. Lek’s Kitchen, a separate dining room in Thai House with its own small kitchen, suitable for private functions, as well as for special culinary events Malili has planned. The smaller venue gives Malili the opportunity to cook more creatively and offer the public dishes that he could not in a larger restaurant, because they take too much work and time to prepare.
Recently, Khua Khun Lek hosted Asia Week, several evenings of banquets devoted to Thai regional specialties and dishes reflecting influences of neighboring cuisines. The kitchen may be in Lek’s name, but it was Yariv and a Thai sous-chef doing all the cooking. And Malili himself kept up a running commentary throughout the meal.
Dinner was served for 16 people around one long table. It started with drinks: mineral water from Italy, cold Kirin Beer from Japan, and mango smoothies – all in unlimited quantities throughout the evening. 
The menu – in Hebrew, with headings in English – listed 14 courses grouped in five categories: Welcome Bites (four appetizers); Mid Courses (two more complex dishes); Bites from Isaan (two small plates); Main Courses for Sharing (three large plates); and Thai Sweets from the Streets (three desserts). The Asia Week banquet was priced at NIS 360 per person.
The four starters were served in quick succession: Saku sai kong, sticky tapioca shrimp balls in lettuce cups with coriander; Katong tong, julienned green papaya in pastry shells, served on a bed of crispy rice noodles; Nam prik nom, grouper served with its flesh and crispy skin separate, alongside a spicy paste and half a hard-boiled quail’s egg garnished with a tiny ring of red chili pepper; and Popiya pla, a Chinese-Thai fusion version of an egg roll filled with fish and a green vegetable from Isaan, enhanced by a vinegary hot sauce that was on the mild side.
The consensus of the sub-group in our corner of the table was that the winner here was the delicate quail’s egg and deconstructed grouper with schug-like hot paste; the pleasant heat continued to build in the mouth well after the dish was consumed.
THE FIRST of the mid-courses was astonishingly picturesque: a whole fried fish on a curved bamboo serving plate, alongside cold noodles on banana leaf and a mound of greens, all on a huge bamboo platter. The idea here was to wrap chunks of fish and rice vermicelli in fresh greens, and dip it all in a scrumptious tamarind-ginger sauce. This outstanding creation was a variation on one of the hits of the Gault-Millai tasting tour of Tel Aviv earlier in the year; the sauce alone was good enough to eat with a spoon. 
The Kwityao lot pet palau reflected Chinese influence: a manicotti-like homemade pasta sleeve (from a mixture of rice and wheat flour) filled with duck cooked in five-spice sauce. Unfortunately, ladled over everything tableside was a dark, sludgy soy sauce that overwhelmed the flavors underneath.
The tapas from Isaan were two duck delicacies: Laab pet yang, in lettuce cups with sticky rice, and Tom sep pet, a tangy broth made from duck bones. The former is what is often called elsewhere larb, except instead of starring the more commonplace chicken, beef or pork, it featured savory duck inner organs, which were chopped rather than ground. The latter, meanwhile, was reminiscent of the traditional Tom yam soup.
Sharing the three main course honors were beef, fish and seafood, each served with endless jasmine rice. The Penag naah was a rich, Malay-style beef curry from southern Thailand, made with homemade coconut milk, while the Pla pad che was a reprise of grouper, this time fillets in a piquant sauce containing such exotic spices as black pepper clusters. The Gong plamuk kai kem,
meanwhile, was juicy, plump shrimp and local calamari in a sauce characterized by egg that had been marinated for a month in salt. There was plenty for second and third helpings to go around.
Finally, the three desserts were served together, including the sole item that lacked a Thai name: banana-tapioca cake, pale wedges that actually had the look and feel of Turkish delight, chewy and sticky. Boloy, on the other hand, was balls of sticky rice and tapioca simmered in coconut milk, ginger and poached quail’s egg. Best of all, however, was the Kanom kok, little tartlets made with coconut milk, tapioca flour and rice flour, and topped with – as incongruous as it sounds – a sliver of green onion,
Needless to say, you won’t find meals like this at any standard Thai restaurant; and that, in essence, is the raison d’etre for Khua Khun Lek. 
Khua Khun Lek
Not kosher
Ben Yehudah St. 39, Tel Aviv
Ph: 03-517-8568
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.