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On Flavor’s Wings

by B.A. Nilsson on January 31, 2013

Kinnaree, 193 Lark St., Albany, 813-4944, kinnareeonlark.com. Serving lunch 11:30-3:30 Mon-Fri, dinner 3:30-10 Mon-Fri, 11:30-10 Sat-Sun. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Korean-Thai-Japanese

Entrée price range: $10 (beef dumpling soup) to $18 (deep-fried half duck with red curry sauce)

Ambiance: storefront

It’s a cold corner, this time of year, at Lark and Spring Streets in Albany’s downtown. A blast of the chill enters with you when you step inside Kinnaree, and you’ll note that the dining room fills from farthest to closest to the door.

I was close. I silently prayed for folks to stay away, but for two reasons. I’d already had enough of the Arctic walking the several blocks from my parking space to the restaurant. And I get selfish about sharing such a terrific dining experience. I write this, therefore, with the worried hope that I’ll be able to find a seat when I visit again soon.

Kinnaree opened two years ago in the former site of A Taste of Greece, and takes its name from a winged woman of Buddhist legend. Chef-owner Jamaree Rajrawiwong worked at Mino’s Sushi Thai during its brief life on Central Avenue, and has put together a menu here dominated by Thai and Korean fare, rounded out with a few Japanese noodle soups.

The appetizer list contains familiar items like chicken wings ($7), spring rolls (four for $5) and shrimp or vegetable tempura ($8/$5). But there’s also goong sarong, five noodle-wrapped shrimp ($8), a Thai crispy rice noodles dish called mee krob ($7) and hoi ob (steamed mussels, $8) among the offerings.

The wonderful Thai cure-all soup called tom yum is available in a cup or pot, its price varying according to ingredients, with chicken, tofu or veggies running $3/$9 and shrimp $6/$13. Tom kha, which features coconut milk, has the same pricing structure. Miso soup is $2/$6 and the house special, a homemade soup called Home Made Soup, featuring shrimp, scallops, pineapple, onion and mushrooms, runs $5.50/$13.

There’s a garden salad for $4.50 and ten more complicated ones, including an $8 fried duck salad with lime dressing, Thai sausage and rice fritter salad for $7, the evocatively named tiger tears salad (yum nuea), with beef and cucumber and scallions ($8) and a string bean salad ($7) that I had to sample when its description promised chicken-fried onions and a spicy coconut dressing.

You won’t find savory and sweet mixed so ambitiously anywhere but in Thai cookery, and a dish like this one exemplifies the surprises that await. I mean, beans? With peanuts? Works like a charm, kicks out some heat and the flavors are drawn together by the coconut.

Fried rice and noodle dishes include pad Thai, a melange of chicken, shrimp and egg with rice noodles ($11), a variety of veggie-based curries with rice ($11) and drunken noodles ($10.50), with onion, mushrooms and peppers.

Green and red curries are offered with various vegetable arrays, most with coconut milk as a component ($10.50-$11). Massaman curry ($10.50) includes potatoes, sweet potatoes, onion, carrots and peanuts.

Kinnaree proved a quick favorite with my daughter, who eats sparingly and with ingredient-choice care. A mixed-vegetable stir-fry ($11) gave her broccoli, zucchini, red pepper slices, mushrooms and onions in a light, piquant sauce, garnished with kale and carrot shavings.

My wife saw a dish sizzle by as we waited to order and figured it out to be kimchi jigae ($12), which arrives in a hot pot with an egg still cooking on top. Kimchi, a fermented cabbage preparation, shares the space with pork slices and tofu, so she barely noticed a flavor she finds hard to take on its own.

You won’t be surprised that I enjoy kimchi, and welcomed it as part of the banchan served without meal. That’s the traditional array of side dishes served at a Korean dinner, and in our case it also included small dishes of potatoes, seaweed salad, bean sprouts (kongnamul) and fishcakes.

Seafood selections feature many preparations of salmon, shrimp and crab. Pla lui suan is a crunchy, fried red snapper ($15) presented in two generous slices coated with onion bits, cashews and rice, and, because I asked for it to be spicy, it had a satisfying sneaks-up-on-you heat that even my cayenne-o-phobic wife enjoyed.

As the pricing suggests, Kinnaree isn’t a fancy place. Plates are dressed simply, but there’s no mistaking the quality of what’s on them. Service is easygoing but attentive. And I saw no better testimony to the appeal of the place than the fact that most of the customers who were there and eating when we arrived were still there, lingering over coffee and tea, as we were finishing.

So even nature’s best efforts to frost each time the door swung open were to no avail. We fans of this cuisine know a good thing when we find one.