Z: Eureka! We found it! Satdha Plant-Based Thai Kitchen stands proudly on the corner of Lincoln Blvd. and Strand St. in Santa Monica and prepares an awesome feast of unique Thai dishes that are vegan versions of preparations Thai chefs might serve to palace royalty.
R: Gunn Pankum is the former owner of the very successful Bulan Thai Vegetarian Kitchen on Melrose Ave. in Hollywood, a vegan eatery always packed with hip Hollywood regulars. Gunn enjoyed her many years of success at that location but wanted to expand her Thai offerings with unique dishes other restaurants never offer. She yearned for an opportunity to apply her skills more fully and creatively and broaden her knowledge of cooking.
Z: After selling her Hollywood restaurant, she took time off, traveled to New York, and enrolled in classes at the Natural Gourmet Institute. There she gained a host of special techniques that she now applies to enhance her native Thai cuisine. Satdha, her new restaurant baby, opened in November 2013 and enjoys a clientele of loyal vegan and non-vegan diners who appreciate the exceptional foods she and her staff prepares. "Faith in yourself," the English translation of Satdha expresses Gunn's philosophical approach to her food preparation. While she is aware her creations are purely plant-based, she focuses more on the art of developing beautiful dishes with exquisite flavors.
R. The restaurant has a bonus feature all will appreciate--its own parking lot, unique for restaurants in Santa Monica. Once inside, we noticed the understated elegance with ceramic tile floors in sandy earth tones, warm green walls in the front portion of the restaurant, white resin tables with wooden benches that hug the walls, and comfortable wooden chairs.
Z: Since we arrived before dark, we could appreciate the natural lighting from the floor to ceiling windows that surround the dining area. The long wood-paneled wall opposite the windows sports a striking display of lighted, white panels that hold a single bamboo plant tastefully attached with a small metal clip.
R: While the décor is tastefully chosen, the food is amazing and innovative, and takes the taste buds on an adventurous flavor journey. We came with our friends Lionel and Diana and asked Gunn for menu suggestions. She was eager for us to taste the Meang Kham, an appetizer she conceived to emulate one enjoyed by wealthy families who could afford to dine at upscale restaurants in Thailand.
Z: She also suggested the Mung Bean Croquettes and Endive Cups for starters. Within moments our server arrived with tiny square cups filled with well-seasoned, pleasantly crisp kale chips to nibble while we waited for our starters. Diana ordered a cup of French Lemon Ginger Tea that arrived in a clear glass cup along with a miniature white cup for the used teabag. "What a sweet touch!" she said.
R: Next came the Meang Kham, and what a treasure it was! Not only was the presentation stunning, but it was also a brilliantly composed dish that combined multiple flavors and textures in an appetizer consumed in one or two bites.
Z: This artisinal presentation warrants a detailed description. Standing in a row on a long, white rectangular dish were four tiny cups, each lined with a Swiss chard leaf filled with tidbits of shredded coconut, minced cashews, bits of shiitake bacon, lime zest, and a host of herbs and spices. Accompanying the little cups was a tiny pitcher of herb tamarind chutney to drizzle over the top. With each bite a magnificent medley of flavors burst onto the tongue at once, sending us into a flurry of ooohs and aaaahhhs as we savored this exceptional dish.
R: We thought nothing could top the Meang Kham, but soon discovered the Mung Bean Croquettes were an equal match, though uniquely different. Made of mung beans and mushrooms and formed into little one-inch balls, they were rolled in breadcrumbs and briefly deep-fried. Each was pierced with a tiny bamboo skewer and artfully arranged on a bed of crispy, angel-hair carrot shreds. For dipping, a delicious sweet, toasted chili-cilantro sauce served in a tiny pitcher accompanied the croquettes. We loved the combo of textures--crispy on the outside and soft and creamy inside--and, yes, the irresistible flavors left us wanting more.
Z: Our final appetizer, Endive Cups, was a work of art. It's such a shame it disappeared in just a few bites. Each endive leaf was filled with a mixture Gunn calls "cashew-tuna," made with finely minced ingredients of coconut, ginger, lemongrass, peanuts, shallots, and her unique herbal seasonings. The artful garnish of anise leaves and a tiny slice of Thai red chili was the finishing touch. What a concept and what a divine marriage of sweet, savory, and spicy flavors!
R: Salad came next, and truly displayed Gunn's culinary talents. Snap Pea Thai Salad came to life with long, thin slivers of snap peas combined with toasted coconut shreds, finely ground peanuts, slices of baked tofu, and crispy shallots tossed with a light dressing of sweet and sour chili tamarind coconut cream. The artful garnish of pickled radish wedges was nestled into a cluster of baby lettuces.
Z: Our three entrees, Kow Kuk Kapi, Catfish Eggplant, and Beet Dyed Noodles, arrived together decorating the table with a splash of eye-popping colors. Kow Kuk Kapi is Gunn's take on marinated and well-seasoned foods designated haute cuisine in Thailand. While traditional brown rice might be flavored with shrimp paste, this clever chef uses bean paste to enhance the rice. Clusters of tasty Thai treasures surrounded the rice: slivered shiitake mushrooms, pickled shallots, finely chopped green beans, marinated shreds of green mango, and faux fried egg made from tofu.
R: My personal favorite was the Catfish Eggplant--admittedly, because I'm a total eggplant nut but also because of the tasty originality of the composition. Large chunks of eggplant were breaded and fried with a julienne of red and green bell peppers. The eggplant was then smothered in a fabulous red chili paste highlighted with Thai basil.
Z: I couldn't possibly choose a favorite, but I did love the Beet Dyed Noodles, a dish Gunn remembers eating in Thailand as a young child. Rather than vermicelli colored with artificial food coloring, she uses beet juice to color the vermicelli pink and sauces them with coconut, tamarind, and fermented black bean sauce. Finely sliced yuba stands in for the traditional egg garnish.
R: We concluded our royal meal with a regal dessert, actually two tasty sweet treats enhanced with the chef's unique touches. Coconut Sticky Rice with Mango was prepared with black sticky "forbidden rice" lightly sweetened and coated with a coconut sauce. A sesame seed cookie was poked into the rice along with a mint leaf garnish. Forming a line from the rice to the edge of the plate was a neat row of fresh mango slices. This is a dessert that pleasantly refreshes the palate.
Z: Taro Tapioca Pudding may sound like an ordinary pudding, but with its ultra creamy, rich coconut milk base and exceptional presentation, it was truly indulgent. The pudding was dotted with cooked chunks of taro and served in a square, clear glass bowl garnished with three perky red pomegranate seeds dropped into the center. One corner of the bowl held a fan of thinly sliced Asian pears and a wedge of sesame seed cookie. It was gorgeous to look at and utterly divine to eat.
R: We recognized this restaurant is blessed with a chef of exceptional talent. Gunn really has a flair for assembling an outstanding menu of extraordinary foods. She admitted her dishes are labor intensive, but she has trained her staff so well they make it look easy. We truly appreciated the special touches, the unique garnishes, complex flavors, and visually appealing presentations.
Z: The surprise is the very reasonable prices for a meal of this high quality. Appetizers are $8 to $9, Soup $6, Salads $9 to $12, Rice and Noodles $9 to $12, Entrees $10 to $12, Vegetable Dishes $8 to $10, Desserts $5, Non-Alcoholic Beverages $3.
R: We noticed the attractive mural on each side of the building exterior as well as other murals along the street. A Santa Monica non-profit organization known as Beautify Lincoln offered to paint free murals on any buildings along Lincoln Blvd. Owners could choose their own design as long as the subject matter was not religious or political.
Z: We know Satdha will soon gain its place as one of the top vegan restaurants in Los Angeles. The food, service, and ambience are a pure delight.
2218 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, CA 90405
Reviewed June 2014