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Thai restaurant poised to open soon
Three monks in saffron-colored robes chanted a blessing at the new Thai restaurant on Vashon last week while, in the kitchen, another drama quietly played out: The state health inspector was making a final walk-through, ensuring the small eatery was up to snuff.
The restaurant did, indeed, pass the inspection. And based on the smiles on everyone’s faces after the blessing, it, too, was a success.
And now, after months of anticipation, May Kitchen + Bar is days away from opening its doors to the public.
The new restaurant will have several invitation-only dinners this week, working out any glitches in the process. It will likely open to the public on Sunday or Monday, ready, the owner and manager believe, for a steady stream of Islanders hungry for Thai food.
“The key is in the prep,” said Rod Moore, the manager. “Thai food cooks fast, as long as the prep’s done.”
May Chaleoy, the owner, an ebullient Thai woman with hair down to her waist, smiled. “I think I can handle it,” she said.
Indeed, Chaleoy comes to her Vashon effort with considerable experience in Thai cooking. After managing a popular Thai eatery in Fremont for two years, she opened a restaurant in Wallingford in 2004 — a business she eventually owned with two other partners. Called simply May, the restaurant garnered considerable praise from Seattle restaurant critics over the years. In 2008, Seattle Magazine named it one of Seattle’s 10 best restaurants — an honor no Thai restaurant, up to that point, had received.
Chaleoy came to Vashon two years ago at the invitation of a friend, Tom Schwaegler, helping him manage his property. He’s now a partner in her new business, an undertaking that has taken more than a year to come to fruition.
The process has been time-consuming, in part, because of remodeling difficulties, from plumbing challenges to a roof that leaked, both Moore and Chaleoy said. But it’s also taken time because of the care Chaleoy has brought to the project, they said.
Formerly Heather’s Homegrown Café, the small space is now completely paneled in richly hued mahogany and teak, wood that she had shipped from Thailand, where it clad the interior of a 150-year-old home, she said. Artful lamps hang from a timbered ceiling. A U-shaped bar with polished wood counters juts out from the back wall.
Chaleoy has kept the process under wraps, wanting the interior — a vast change from its former life as a breakfast-oriented café — to be a surprise. She’s also given great attention to every detail, she said.
“I want it to be perfect for Vashon people,” she said. “They waited so long.”
Chaleoy and Moore spoke at Nirvana, the nearby Indian restaurant, where they gathered for a celebratory meal with family, friends and the monks after their morning blessing last week. Chaleoy, 43, talked easily and warmly of her new venture, expressing gratitude toward the people who have helped her and excitement about what lies ahead.
She came to the United States from Bangkok 16 years ago at the invitation of a friend and to study at the Washington Academy of Languages in Seattle. She was soon working in Thai restaurants — her first one the then-popular Fremont Noodle House — while pursuing her interest in fashion design and performance production. She attended both the Art Institute of Seattle and Cornish College of the Arts.
But the program at Cornish was expensive, and she didn’t finish it, she said. Along the way, however, she learned valuable skills, including painting, lighting and building — skills she’s put to use in the creation of her new restaurant.
“She’s communicating with the electricians, the plumbers,” Moore said. “She knows as much as they do.”
It was serendipity that brought Moore into the picture. Moore lived in Thailand for 20 years, returning to the Seattle area a few months ago not sure what he would take on next but wanting to continue to practice his Thai language skills.
He came to Vashon to visit a friend two months ago and, while at the Red Bicycle Bistro, ran into a Thai woman and began to talk to her, asking her if she knew anything about a Thai restaurant that was rumored to be in the works. That woman was Chaleoy, and on the spot, she offered to give him and his friend what amounted to a midnight tour of her place.
Moore, who once waited tables at the Four Seasons, is thrilled to be working at May Kitchen + Bar.
“Now, I’m going to speak Thai every day,” he said, smiling.
The small restaurant — it will seat about 60 — will be open seven days a week, with Chaleoy, a sous chef and Chaleoy’s mother doing all of the cooking and food prep. For the first week, it will serve dinner only; after that, Chaleoy will begin a lunch menu, with a focus on noodle dishes. The menu will offer what she described as fairly traditional Thai food, including local seafood and nightly specials; dinners will be priced at $10 to $25, lunch at $8 to $10.
She said she hopes to educate Vashon diners on some of the finer details of authentic Thai food. The food doesn’t come out all at once, for instance, but, rather, dish by dish; condiments on the table, meanwhile, are used to add to the spiciness and flavor of the food.
In another nod to Thai culture, she’ll invite guests into the kitchen to talk to her about her food and see her and her small staff at work. Those who order to-go will come to the back door to get their food, a door that opens to the kitchen.
A connection between the dining room and the kitchen is common in restaurants in Thailand, Moore said. For Chaleoy, it will enable her to meet her guests and get feedback.
“And that way, people who work in the kitchen don’t feel stuck there,” she said.
She hopes her restaurant won’t take away from others on Vashon. In fact, she said, she’s working with Rohit Sharma, owner of Nirvana, a restaurant she likes, helping him with his eatery’s interior design. “We have to support each other,” she said of the restaurateurs on Vashon.
Meanwhile, she knows she’ll be exceedingly busy when her doors open in a few days. Many have been asking about the new eatery; she knows there’s a keen interest in her place. But she said she’ll have an excellent staff as well as her mother — who speaks very little English — at her side, and she’s ready for what will come.
“If I have my sous chef right next to me and my mother preps, and if I have a dishwasher, I can handle it,” she said. “I’m not worried.”
May Kitchen + Bar will be open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and until 10 or 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Its website, still under construction, is www.maykitchen.com. Or call the restaurant at 408-7415.