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Chef's Files 

Rangsan Sutcharit's Serene Cuisine

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"I wanted to do my own food," says chef Rangsan Sutcharit when asked why he left the top-rated Thai restaurant Arun's after working there for nine years. Last fall on far west North Avenue, Sutcharit opened Amarind, where doing his own food means less elaborate presentations, more affordable prices, and a hands-on approach that begins most mornings with a visit to Caputo's, the vibrant, always crowded market in Elmwood Park. Caputo's originally catered to an almost exclusively Italian clientele, but as the neighborhood has become more diverse its inventory has expanded. Fresh ginger, garlic, mint, cilantro--most of the items on Sutcharit's list are readily available. And for the things he can't get in the neighborhood, specialty items like galangal and kaffir lime leaves, he goes to Thai Grocery in Uptown, which is owned by his cousin.

A devout Buddhist, Sutcharit named his restaurant for Amarind, the green-skinned deity depicted in a painting that hangs near the front door. A similar shade of green is used as an accent color throughout the L-shaped, 50-seat dining room, where it complements pine wainscoting and white walls and radiates a perceptible serenity.

Behind the scenes Sutcharit exudes a similar calm, even when the pace quickens and the orders start to pile up. He works quickly; in the restaurant's compact kitchen, he can access most of the prepped vegetables and herbs with one hand and still tend the wok with the other. Liquids, including the salty fish sauce (nam pla) ubiquitous in Thai cooking, are typically poured straight from the bottle to the pot.

Like many chefs, Sutcharit didn't originally plan on a culinary career. The son of an avid hobby cook, he took up the same avocation during his college days, first in India and later in San Diego. As he watched people enjoying the food he'd prepared, Sutcharit's enthusiasm for the government career his parents had envisioned for him gradually faded. By the early 80s the social and economic freedoms of the United States proved an irresistible lure. Sutcharit moved to Chicago, settled in Hyde Park, and met Arun Sampanthavivat, who was about to open a restaurant on Irving Park Road. A few years after Arun's moved to its current location on Kedzie in 1988, Sutcharit--by then a veteran of several smaller restaurants--joined the staff.

Many of the dishes on Amarind's menu are rooted in tradition; Sutcharit's chicken panang curry, for instance, is made with ground roasted peanuts rather than the nontraditional peanut butter used by some chefs. Served in a wide bowl, it's spicy enough to be interesting yet mild enough to suit most palates.

Other preparations--like the herbed salmon--are unique. Marinated in a mix of red curry paste, fresh garlic, shallots, and cilantro, the fish is sauteed Western-style and finished with a Thai-inspired sauce made of cilantro, garlic, chilies, fish sauce, and lime juice. Sliced star fruit and a vegetable roll wrapped in napa cabbage and nori and drizzled with a sweet-and-sour apricot sauce complete the presentation.

Also nontraditional are the spinach noodles tossed with shrimp, crabmeat, and bean sprouts and seasoned with chili sauce and tamarind. But no dish is more popular than the "golden cups" appetizer. Made from a batter rich in egg yolks, the small, flower-shaped pastry shells are deep-fried one at a time, filled with a mix of corn, shrimp, cilantro, and shiitake mushrooms, and served--nicely garnished--at room temperature.

While the golden cups, like the restaurant's decor and much of the menu, reflect a cultural balancing act, Amarind's castlelike facade, complete with a rounded turret-style entryway, is thoroughly Western. "I chose the building because it's interesting; people notice it," Sutcharit says. "And for a restaurant to succeed, you have to get people's attention."

Amarind is at 6822 W. North, 773-889-9999.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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