It’s an age old saying about seafood: the closer you are to the sea, the better it is. While Redlands is sixty miles from the ocean, you can find a fresh catch if you know where to look. Tucked away on a quiet street is such a place—a restaurant that serves fresh fish and seafood, amongst other plates, under the guise of Thai cuisine. Calling this a Thai restaurant though, is only half the story. MU, run by Daranee Muongpruan, is a restaurant with a Thai background and a contemporary edge, from the way ingredients are sourced to the different cultural influences that inspire the menu. Fusion wouldn’t be the right way to describe MU though—perhaps contemporary, or even global—because Daranee is a world traveler whose culinary experiences influence the philosophy behind each plate.
Daranee was raised in Thailand, but came to the United States in her teens. Owning a restaurant was not in her parents’ plans for her; instead, she was groomed to be an aeronautic engineer. “They had me study with an MIT tutor,” she says. But aerospace was not her calling; instead, she became an entrepreneur. Her childhood did have an impact on her ethos behind running MU, however. As a child, her mother's personal tastes influenced what the family ate. In their household they ate healthy foods from different cultures outside of traditional Thai cuisine. Her mother, she said, was a healthy and conspicuous eater. “She fed me oatmeal,” she said, “and healthy foods—tofu, nuts.” Not only did she eat differently at home, her parents loved to take the family out to dinner to experience different cuisines. Being raised on foods outside of traditional Thai cuisine allowed Daranee to cultivate her palate early on.
From a young age, she experimented with different tastes. Once as a child, she put rice vinegar in her cream of wheat simply because she “wanted to taste something different.” While you won’t find any cream of wheat on the menu at MU, you will find a mix of a few standard Thai dishes, but many more that land somewhere between elevated Thai and modern seafood cuisine—from French-style duck with Chinese spices to fried rice with fresh caught mussels and scallops. While she credits the menu to MU’s head Chef Michael, Daranee’s love of contemporary dining and travel is the touch the menu needs to stay fresh in a changing market. Every time she travels, she likes to experience a country’s culinary culture and bring back a new idea to play around with. Oftentimes, that won’t be in the form of a “traditional” restaurant, but instead something challenging and modern and influenced by “traditional” foods.
Prior to MU, Daranee’s brother opened a traditional Thai restaurant, and he brought her on as a partner. She wanted to be a hands-on partner, to see what went on in the restaurant, to meet customers, and to ensure it was a high quality experience. With a background in business retail, she had a knack for front-of-house—for managing numbers and making sure operations ran smoothly. But, she “was scared half to death to work inside the kitchen,” she says. When this restaurant shut down in the mid 2000’s, she came back to dining, but with a different idea—Thai influenced food, but with uncommon ingredients that she liked to eat herself. Much like her first foray into being a restaurateur, she managed the business side of things initially. But little by little, she found herself wanting to tweak the menu. At one point, her chef told her that since she knows how to do everything else in the restaurant, she might as well learn how to cook and see how the food is really put together. This was especially impactful on her philosophy as a restaurateur.
The philosophy behind MU is simple: make Thai inspired food with local ingredients. Often, this starts with her and Chef Michael collaborating on what fish she should buy, what local produce is available, and how stripped down yet elegant the dish can be. For a city so far inland, though, getting fresh-caught seafood requires a daily commute and intuitive buying. Daranee starts her days at 4am at the Los Angeles fish market. Before she took up this morning ritual, she would order fish and have it delivered, like many other restaurants outside the immediate proximity to the ocean. The quality of product she was receiving was not up to par however, so she did her research. Where do serious chefs go for their fish? She wanted to go there too. She wanted to serve her clients something she would want to eat herself.
Research led her to the early morning fish and seafood markets in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Harbor is the thruway to the Pacific Ocean’s bounty, but only if you know where to look and when. A steady supply of the West Coast’s seafood streams in through the morning marketplace where fishmongers sell the day’s catch. The apt restaurateur has to be there early, long before the rest of the city comes to life, to find the best seafood at the International Marine and L.A. Fish, the two prominent fish markets. Most of the reputable sushi restaurants in Los Angeles buy their fish from these markets, so Daranee finds herself there amongst the sushi chefs. The fish market is traditionally a male dominated area, like the kitchen itself. “I’m the only girl there,” Daranee says. What is the response to a woman in a male dominant industry? “They always want to know if I cook,” she says. But overall, many of the chefs at the fish market have responded positively to Daranee, the lone woman coming all the way from Redlands, buying fish with the sushi chefs. The chefs agree, there is something admirable about the quest. Getting something as common as tuna can easily be a phone call and a next day delivery, but the best product is closest to the source. This is what Daranee wants her customers to experience at MU.
Some people are not sure how to eat food on the menu, but Daranee takes care to ease her customers into new dishes. She is never forceful, though, because dining is all about tastes. If a customer is hesitant, she is open to interpolation, to experimentation. “What would make it taste good to you?” Daranee asks. “If you prefer to have soy sauce,” she says, “go ahead.” But customers often come around to what is on the menu; they try it eventually and love it. And with the freshest ingredients, often acquired on a 4am fish market run, it’s hard not to be compelled to try new influences on old standards.
Daranee can also be found in farmer’s markets, sourcing herbs and produce for their menu. She likes knowing where her produce comes from, how fresh it is, and how soon it can be put into a dish. She buys from local farmer’s markets, where many classic Thai ingredients like bay leaves, bean sprouts, and chiles can be found. This is part of the collaboration process. The menu is influenced not only by what she brings to Chef Michael, but by the rest of her employees as well. “Collaborate with your employees because they have great ideas,” she says. “I have a dish created by Anna, who’s Vietnamese, and we put her dish on the menu.” The dish is there because it is something she likes to eat, and her employees like to cook. This synergy is perfect for modern, more globally inspired Thai cuisine.
While MU has global tastes influencing its menu, something Daranee has recently readdressed is Thai street food. Thai street food is not often food found in Thai restaurants, but the simplicity of a street vendor is not unlike a restaurant with ten items. Daranee believes those ten items can be perfect though, exquisite even. Something like classic Crying Tiger typically uses a cheaper cut of beef. But Daranee likes marbled beef, so she has tried different cuts, inspired by various locals she’s eaten at, to elevate the dish.
Not only does she encourage experimentation with ingredients, but preparation is also open to interpretation. “You can torch the steak,” she says, “you don’t even have to grill it.” When she first started the restaurant, she did not want to be another Thai restaurant that “competed over Pad Thai.” Instead, she wanted to take those Thai flavors and use them to cook simpler, more refined plates. “I want to follow my passion,” she says, to create menus around what is in season—what fish and seafood, what vegetables. “Just these ingredients,” she says; simple, elegant, different.