KAEN (แก่น)- Isan Cuisine Elevated in Khon Kaen

Last year my gal and I had the good fortune to attend the Michelin Guide Thailand press event in which they revealed that their 2023 guide would include 4 provincial cities in Thailand’s Isan region. I was really happy to see the inclusion as Isan cuisine hasn’t received much recognition despite the fact that its dishes are often the most recognized favorites of Thai food. I was also excited to see who might have landed on Michelin’s radar and hoped that someday I’d get a chance to travel and visit the places that earned their recognition.

Dare to dream!

Sometimes dreams really do come true, because my gal and I were recently invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) on a sponsored media trip to experience many of the newly awarded Michelin Bib Gourmand restaurants in the Isan cities of Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. For 4 days we were treated to a whirlwind culinary journey in which nearly every dining experience we had was a Bib Gourmand recommendation in the 2023 edition of the Michelin Guide Thailand.

It was a fantastic experience for us to be able to combine our love of food and travel. One restaurant impressed us so much that I feel compelled to write about it and share it with you. That restaurant is called KAEN (official Facebook page). What they are doing so impressive that not only should you make sure you dine there if visiting the city of Khon Kaen, you ought to seriously consider visiting Khon Kaen just to dine there!

Let’s dig in!

Their menu offers a refreshing twist on contemporary Isan cuisine using healthy local ingredients and every single dish we tried was beautifully presented and delighted everyone at our dining table with its creativity and incredible flavors. You know it’s an amazing meal when all at our table of 12 can only talk about what an amazing meal it is during the entire experience.

But let me show you that experience so you can see it for yourself!

A bit about the menu…

KAEN’s menu is re-engineered quarterly based on the seasonality of ingredients. The next menu coming out in May 2023 may not have all of the dishes that are mentioned in this article. However, I’m certain from our experience with these dishes that whatever they decide to put on their future menus will continue to elevate contemporary Isan cuisine and be an amazing dining experience from savory canape starters to decadent desserts!

Canape of 3 Bites (90 baht)

The current menu offers dishes a la carte but those wanting to explore the dishes more thoroughly can opt to try one of their set tasting menus which are priced at 555++ baht and 1,500++ baht per person. For our group of 12, we chose from the a la carte menu their most popular dishes to dine shared family-style.

Creative salads

There’s nothing simple or boring about the salads on KAEN’s menu. Nor is there anything vegetarian about them. Each salad dish presents bold flavors, crisp veggies, and succulent meaty treats from the farm or sea.

Spicy bamboo shoot salad served with grilled pork neck (290 baht)

An example is this salad of spicy marinated tender shredded bamboo shoots loaded with fresh herbs harvested fresh from their on-site garden.

Spicy jícama salad served with mussel satay (290 baht)

For a really satisfying salad, this spicy jicama (Mexican turnip) salad was enjoyed with each crunchy flavorful bite and complimented well with skewers of plump satay marinated mussels.

Pomelo salad served with grilled cajun squid (320 baht)

But the must-order salad from KAEN’s menu has to be this Western-inspired showstopper, a simple pomelo salad elevated with bold flavors from savory herbs and cajun spiced squid. This is a salad that once experienced will be craved in the future…

Inventive pasta dishes

If you think KAEN’s salads are creative, wait until you see their pasta dishes! Forget traditional Western pasta or Asian rice noodle dishes. These are inventive pasta creations that will surprise your tastebuds and have you scraping the plate for each saucy bite!

Stir fried rice noodle with seafood and bisque sauce (320 baht)

Rice noodles themselves do not have much flavor. But what is good about them is that they are great at soaking up the flavors of the sauces they are cooked. This is why they are often used in Asian stir-fried dishes with garlicky soy sauces. But this Western-inspired dish takes it to a whole new level by stir-frying the rice noodles in a rich seafood bisque sauce. This culinary fusion results in one amazing pasta dish that will get you thinking creatively about what to do with those boring rice noodles in your own kitchen!

Wok fried 3 kinds of local stinky vegetables (120 baht)

Wok fried stinky vegetables” certainly doesn’t sound appetizing as a menu option. Don’t let the name turn you off. It’s just a figurative translation that the 3 types of local vegetables used have strong smells (not “stinky“).

However, as pungent as these veggies are when fresh, when they are fried together with the spiced sauce, glass noodles, and crispy pork belly, the vegetable scents are muted allowing the incredible flavors to shine through!

Bring on the meats!

If you were impressed with the sampling of meats available in KAEN’s salad dishes then prepare to have your mind blown with their meaty mains. Each is cooked to perfection, super tender, and lightly seasoned so that the incredible flavors of the meat itself are not overshadowed.

Khon Kaen Wagyu Striploin (850 baht)

When this generous portion of carved Khon Kaen Wagyu Striploin came to the table it didn’t really impress me. I mean, it looks like a good steak and all, but after so many vibrant dishes with amazing flavors, this simple steak looked boring in comparison. But then I tasted it and immediately got the “WOW“!

Sometimes simple can be shockingly good. This beef is so tender it just melts in your mouth. Forget how it looks. Its flavor cannot be understated. I would happily put this beef against its more expensive Western peers and feel confident it would take home some ribbons!

Kaen Restaurant Massaman lamb shank
Massaman lamb shank curry (590 baht)

KAEN’s Massaman lamb shank curry is the Michelin Guide Thailand’s recommended dish for visitors to KAEN. Massaman curry is one of my favorite Thai dishes and it’s a SOLID recommendation to enjoy it here at KAEN. The curry is hearty and you’re able to taste each delicately spiced flavor in it. The lamb shank is so tender it sloughs off the bone and just falls apart with gentle prodding from your spoon and fork.

 

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But don’t take my word for it. You can see just how amazingly tender this lamb shank is in this short Instagram reel!

Save room for desserts…

There are so many fantastic dishes to try on KAEN’s menu. It can be understandably difficult to make sure you save room for dessert. But with so many small yet extraordinary dessert options to choose from it shouldn’t be too hard to finish your amazing meal with something sweet!

Because we were such a large group, we had no problem getting a sizeable sampling of the dessert options offered. All were standalone stunners for sealing the evening with a sweet finish. But if I had to pick a favorite I’d be hard-pressed to choose between the creamy avocado and subtly sweet mulberry matcha ice cream or the custardy pumpkin crème brulée with its crunchy carmelized sugar and side of coconut sorbet.

A chat with the co-owner/chef…

Kaen Restaurant Chef "Jib"
Me and Chef Kanyarat “Jib” Thanomseang

During our visit to KAEN, I had the good fortune to meet and chat with the Chef and Co-owner, Kanyarat “Jib” Thanomseang. The restaurant is a collaboration between Chef Jib and Chef Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat. Each brings to the table over 20 years in the F&B industry with both honing their culinary skills across several five-star hotel brands both within Thailand and abroad.

They both met working together at the popular wellness resort, Chiva-Som. Working well together, Chef Paisarn proposed the idea to Chef Jib that they start their own casual fine dining restaurant in his hometown, Khon Kaen, which would be focused on elevating Isan food. On October 20, 2021, KAEN was born!

Making a name for themselves…

Many are familiar with Shakespeare’s soliloquy questioning, “What’s in a name?”.  Well, if that name is KAEN the answer is a lot, actually. The Thai word “kaen (แก่น)” holds multiple meanings like “core”, “heart of life”, “wood”, and “playful”. In the Isan language, it also means “well-being” and a “sense of place”.

KAEN applies all of these meanings in their restaurant concept using the section of heartwood as their logo, and the long heartwood family table holding restaurant prominence near the pass-through kitchen. The playful creativity they exercise crafting their inventive dishes while utilizing wholesome, fresh, seasonal local ingredients to promote well-being. Finally, designing their restaurant to create a sense of place for their guests to enjoy unforgettable dining experiences to share with their friends and family.

Kaen Restaurant interior

Of course, let’s not forget that KAEN is also a nod to the namesake city in which the restaurant has planted its roots, Khon Kaen. With its recent recognition in the prestigious Michelin Guide Thailand, you could say that KAEN is also making a name for itself!

Well-deserved Michelin accolades!

I’m hungry. Where is it?

If you live in, are visiting, or just looking for a reason to visit Khon Kaen, KAEN is a must-experience restaurant to dine in. What they’re doing in the kitchen, and the dishes they’re presenting are sure to be an unforgettable meal for you, your family, and your friends. In fact, I highly recommend you visit with enough guests to eat family style so that you can really explore the menu and share the experience.

Eat family-style!

The below Google Map will get you there and if you want to see what specials they have or reach out to them for a reservation, check out their Facebook page!

I want to hear from you!

Should you decide to experience KAEN, I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below, directly to me, or via message on either the Chow Traveller Facebook page or Chow Traveller Instagram (and feel free to like/follow these pages if you want to learn about more about the foodie gems I find). However you choose to reach out, I’d love to hear from you!

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