By Rachel Huffman
At Nick Bognar’s restaurants, Indo and Sado, every flavor tells a story.
Nick comes from a family of exceptional chefs. His grandmother, lovingly known as Yai, grew up in The Grand Palace, the longtime official residence of the kings of Siam, in Bangkok, Thailand. During her schooling, she learned to cook what locals consider royal Thai food, which focuses on the freshest seasonal ingredients and their presentation.
After eloping to Chiang Mai, Yai added Northern Thai dishes to her repertoire. Khao soi (curry egg noodle soup), laab (a minced meat dish), sai oua (grilled pork sausage) and gaeng hung lay (tamarind-based pork belly curry) stand out among the regional dishes, which are seasoned with common ingredients such as garlic, ginger, turmeric and herbs.
That amalgam of Thai flavors has always been part of Nick’s life, and today, it pervades the menus at Indo and Sado. Consider the fried ribs glazed with palm sugar or the crispy skin king salmon served with coconut broth and chive oil at Indo. The decadent Japanese pumpkin gets a splash of green curry sauce at Sado, while tamarind-cilantro sauce, Thai chile and Thai basil make the akami maki sing.
Nick’s calling card, the Isaan Hamachi – which is available at both restaurants – features similar flair, pairing fatty yellowtail with coconut nam pla (fish sauce), Thai kosho (a play on traditional yuzu kosho), candied garlic and housemade chile oil.
“In my opinion, Hamachi is a blank canvas,” Nick says. “Whereas a lot of Japanese restaurants serve a simple crudo, I add a bunch of Thai flavors, especially some of the funky, fermented flavors from northern Thailand. It’s bold. It’s surprising. It hits you in the face – but it definitely works.”
Purists will say that the Isaan Hamachi isn’t authentically Thai or Japanese – and it’s not – but it represents Nick and his background. That’s the beauty of it.
When Nick was born, Yai helped care for him for approximately five years before returning home to Thailand. Seeing as her love language was cooking, she refused to let his mother, Ann Bognar, feed him store-bought baby food.
“My grandmother made all my baby food from scratch,” Nick says. “Even when I was older, we never had processed food in the house; we always cooked with fresh ingredients. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t go to my friends’ houses and crush Lunchables and Pop-Tarts, though – I still love that stuff.”
Nick’s earliest memories involve him watching his grandmother and mother cook – he paints an adorable portrait of the former making an assortment of curry pastes for her beloved khao soi while watching soap operas. “My mom [who opened her first restaurant, Nippon Tei, in 2001] is a really great chef, too, and I would pay attention to what she was doing in the kitchen,” he adds. “At a young age, I understood what to do, and I started copying my family’s recipes.
“When I was eight years old, or some other ridiculously young age, I used one of my mom’s cookbooks to make spicy basil chicken,” he continues. “She loves to tell this story, explaining how she came home to find a plate of food on the counter. It looked just like the photo, and more importantly, it tasted good!”
As far back as he can remember, Nick has enjoyed food – no matter how sweet or spicy or sour. “I wasn’t a picky eater,” he says, “and I really enjoyed eating. In Thai culture, a person’s relationship with food is important, and mine has always been very comforting.”
From perfectly executing recipes as a kid to working at Nippon Tei as a teenager, Nick’s culinary path was seemingly written in the stars. After graduating from St. Louis Community College – Forest Park, he cut his professional teeth at Uchiko, an upscale sushi restaurant in Austin, Texas, followed by E+O Kitchen, an Asian restaurant with a Latin spin in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“As soon as I got to Uchiko, I realized that I didn’t know a lot about the fundamental cooking techniques used in Japanese cuisine,” he says. “I was thrown into a serious, fast-paced kitchen where no one was family, and I had to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible.”
How to cook and season rice, how to cut and age fish, how to plate a dish – Nick has used the knowledge that he gained in the kitchen at Uchiko to dazzle St. Louis diners at Indo and Sado.
Uchiko also showed him the possibilities of fine dining, and he began to understand just how far the right skills could take him and his cooking. “If you can serve food that your guests can’t prepare at home – food that they wouldn’t even attempt to prepare at home – there’s unbelievable value in that,” he says. “Uchiko taught me to harness my creativity to bring value to a restaurant.”
Nick is intentional with every aspect of his restaurants – something else he picked up on during his experience at Uchiko. From the décor to the playlist and the tableware to the service, every detail of Indo and Sado aims to blow your mind.
As sushi chef of E+O Kitchen, Nick was given a lot of responsibility – by someone other than his mom. “E+O Kitchen was very professional,” he explains, “and I saw the pros and cons of that approach. I also began to understand the business side of the restaurant industry. At Uchiko, I worked on the line, but at E+O Kitchen, I oversaw labor costs and food costs, which prepared me for the future when I could create my own concepts.”
Nick returned to St. Louis in 2018, driven by the desire to cook – whatever he wanted. “When I opened Indo, I said we were going to cook what we wanted to cook, and if we didn’t want to cook it, we would change the menu.”
Not concerned with labels, Nick concentrates on making the best food that he can make, preparing fish with Japanese techniques and adding new dimensions of flavor while honoring his family’s Thai heritage. “At Indo, especially, you don’t really know what’s going on,” he says. “You just know that the food is great – and your inner Asian fat kid is happy.”
Although Nick repeatedly states that he’s been selfish with the menu at Indo, guests have been on board from the beginning. “I’ve been surprised by the success of a lot of dishes, including the laab,” he says. “It’s a lamb tartare with my grandmother’s spice and candied peanuts. I wasn’t sure if people were going to eat raw lamb – or be down with all the crazy shit in it – but it’s become our most popular dish, and I’ll probably never take it off the menu.
“When a guest eats the laab – and they love it – I feel like I’ve succeeded in sharing a piece of myself and my family with them,” he continues, “and that’s pretty cool.”
Continuing to cultivate creativity at Indo, Nick and his team recently introduced temaki (hand rolls) to the menu. More than seaweed and rice, some temaki feature Japanese milk bread or wontons as the vehicle for the exquisite fillings.
“We love the flavor-bomb, small-bite sector,” Nick says, “and temaki fall into that category. We’re playing with the same great fish, experimenting with textures and thinking outside the box. It goes back to our goal to consistently amaze guests.”
Nick also wants to give people a reason to visit both restaurants. Sado offers impeccable sushi, nigiri and sashimi, allowing Indo to remain undefined and unpredictable.
Despite the luxury ingredients – from Japanese madai to American unagi to A5 Wagyu beef straight from Kagoshima – and the accompanying price tag, dining at Indo or Sado is a cool, casual affair. Nick also aims to keep a portion of the menu approachable for those who might not consider themselves adventurous eaters.
“I’m a Midwest boy,” he says. “My favorite food is pizza. We don’t have that on either menu, but I don’t think there are many people who won’t like the palm sugar ribs or the chicken and pork dumplings or the shrimp toast. Once we’ve earned your trust, then maybe you’ll try something out of your comfort zone, and things will spiral from there.
“That’s been my family’s business model for more than 20 years,” he continues. “My mom was giving people their first bites of sushi back in 2001, and they’re still dining with her.”
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