Monday, October 19, 2009

Nan Sequitur

It's often a strange feeling when, after days spent stuck in the campus grind, one enters a realm so far removed from the humdrum of academic life. Yet this was the very experience I had when I walked into University City's Nan Restaurant and was welcomed (as mentioned on the menu outside of the entryway) to experience the finest French-Thai Cuisine. Aiming to provide diners with "great traditions from the East and West," chef Kamol Phutlek's cuisine is described as "fusion," a perfect balance of French and Thai flavors in a similar vein as other culture-combining restaurants that have become Philadelphia's mainstay. Though such an establishment seemed out of place among streets-worth of cheap Indian restaurants and pizza places, such a new experience was exactly what I was looking for after being beckoned to try out Nan's by its calming, inviting atmosphere.

After waiting briefly at the front of the restaurant, myself and my fellow diners, two other contributors to Penn Appétit, took note of the ethereal, zen-like ambiance that surrounded us. We continued to take note of the décor that sets Nan apart from the typical campus eatery, as our hostess for the evening led us to a modestly adorned table along the wall toward the middle of the single dining room, dressed only in a white tablecloth and simple dining accouterments off to the side. Our perusal of Nan's expansive menu grew even more enticing as our server presented us with an assortment of rolls and fresh, unsalted pats of butter, perfect for a pre-entrée appetizer. Though we were expecting foods prepared in the blatant definition of fusion, such as, say, roasted duck with spicy flat egg noodles, each dish seemed representative of one of the two featured ethnic cuisines, but not both, combined into one. I still had high hopes, though, for one of my favorite Thai dishes, the slightly nutty, wonderfully textured Pad Thai, and could not turn down the chance of experiencing Nan's rendition.

Our orders placed, my party could not help but appreciate the refreshing change of scenery characteristic of Nan's elegant dining room, a gourmet environment despite the very down-to-earth nature of the restaurant experience. When our dishes arrived, timed perfectly to augment the dinner conversation to which the quiet, upscale environment was so conducive, I was immediately impressed by the care and attention to detail that had gone into my dish of noodles--pieces of lightly bronzed tofu distributed radially from the center, with a an array of sliced parsley and carrot serving as a garnish to crown the middle of my bowl. As our waitress kindly adjusted to our dining preferences and supplied three pairs of traditional wooden chopsticks and a small dish of characteristically Thai sriracha hot chili sauce, my first taste of Nan's tofu pad thai began when noodle met tongue.

The dish was, in a sense, delightful, if not inventive. My main complaint stems from it's failure to truly break new ground in the tastes such a dish could provide. But for Pad Thai, I appreciated every stick-full, each accompanied by freshly ground peanuts sliding down the stalks of the noodles that accounted for the perfect blend of sweet and nutty. While the flavor provided more than met my expectations, it was the texture of the noodles themselves that did not exceed that of Nan's abundant competition as I so hoped. Slightly soggy, they detracted form some of the crunch I felt the dish deserved, and their absorbent nature overpowered each bite with the otherwise deliciously flavored, sweet and spicy sauce just a bit. Tender chunks of tofu, generously apportioned, were the crux of this dish, as I found their flavor not bland but rich, the perfect addition when smothered with sauce-accompanying noodles. Overall, my meal had everything I had come to expect when sitting down for a delicious bowl of Pad Thai, and this may be the main reason why my Nan experience satisfied but didn't completely overwhelm me with a foodie's fervor. For the somewhat elevated price associated with such faux-gourmet fare, I expect my Pad Thai to not blend in, but to stand out and reach above and beyond in flavor and innovation. As the last remaining noodles left the dish, I summed up my thoughts concerning the entrée in my mind: very tasty, wonderful even, but inconsistent in terms of uniqueness when compared to the other aspects of the Nan dining experience.

We left Nan's mostly pleased, satisfied, but not blown away. If you're looking for a pleasantly atmospheric, uncharacteristic University City dining experience that provides the very best of two touted food-famous cultures, may I suggest a walk down Chestnut to Nan's Restaurant. You may find better fusion fare downtown at a swanky Starr-owned store, but for a wonderful, close-to-campus dining experience filled with the best offerings French and Thai cuisine has to offer, this is really a Nan-issue.

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