A Restaurant Reimagined

kō•än's main dining room
kō•än's main dining room

kō•än opens this month in the old ãn location in Cary

At owner Sean Degnan’s and chef Andrew Smith’s new Southeast Asian restaurant, kō•än, we’d encourage you not to sit at a cozy two-top off to the side. Instead, take a seat at one of the five long communal tables situated throughout the vast, 350-seat space.

At first they may seem intimidating, but the point of the tables is to bring people from all over the Triangle together while building a sense of community over great food and drink; nothing bonds a group of strangers better than a good meal. kō•än, which translates from Japanese to “public table,” will, in Smith’s words, “bring people back to the table” and create a dialogue among guests—and the restaurant’s staff—through an exceptional dining experience.

“I see the tables as ancient and contemporary, and hopefully, future intersections of time, space and people and their stories gathered around, filling in a beautiful space,” Degnan adds. “We as humans are drawn to public spaces because of a shared desire for good food and water, and sometimes wine, and even more so, the vital need for community.”

Cary’s ãn, which shuttered in 2017 after a decade in business, was seen by some as unapproachable for its ambitious menu in a food scene that wasn’t yet fully realized, and for its cavernous location in Cary’s outlying Arboretum shopping center off of I-40. But Smith and Degnan agree, ãn was a special space and an amazing restaurant.

The team behind so•ca in Cameron Village and downtown Raleigh’s now closed bu•ku paid tribute to ãn not only in the new restaurant’s name but also through the renovations they did to the building. Many of ãn’s tables will be reused to seat new diners. Original chairs were refurbished with gray and brown details to coordinate with the rest of the space and the “spirit” of the culture ãn celebrated is preserved in various decorations, including a wooden canoe from Vietnam hanging over the communal tables—themselves constructed by Raleigh-based Tactile Workshop—in the bar area. The bar also features an exquisite live plant wall from the local Atlantic Gardening Company. Past the bar, the expansive space is home to a main dining room and an omakase room. Though large, both spaces are enveloped in natural light from a fleet of windows lining the walls and ceiling and feel open and inviting. Fresh eucalyptus plants adorn each table; the communal table, a beacon in the center of the room, features three of the plants while glossy wooden walls envelop the entire interior.

As at other concepts the kō•än team has piloted over the years, Smith encourages diners to order several small plates to share, whether it’s with the people they came with or with those they’ve only just met at the communal table. The main dining menu is inspired by foods Smith experienced while living in Vietnam and Thailand, as well as by dishes from other Southeast Asian culinary traditions.

Guests can expect unique items like charred octopus, shoyu glazed pork cheek yakitori—a favorite at kō•än’s summer pop-up series at sister restaurant so•ca—and tonkatsu ramen, a dish that prompted Smith’s initial foray into cooking at bu•ku in 2011. “Some of the stuff is going to be weird,” Smith admits. “There’s certain things we’ll have that nobody else is doing around here.”

Meanwhile, in the omakase room—complete with its own communal table, soapstone bar top and comfortable booths—chef Jeremy Beck will experiment with more technically difficult dishes for a locally driven menu that changes weekly. A separate bartender will sling cocktails curated by kō•än’s beverage director Tolson Kenny.

Although ãn wasn’t well served by what was once seen as a remote location, Smith sees the burgeoning area now as an “ideal sweet spot” between Raleigh, Cary and Durham. He says he expects that kō•än’s communal, zen-like atmosphere and unique offerings will attract patrons from all over the Triangle.

“Cary is growing rapidly and Durham and Raleigh are becoming saturated with so many restaurants,” Smith says. “As the area continues to grow, I think we’ll find ourselves right in the middle of everything. If we are considered outlying, it won’t be for long.”

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