Thursday, November 02, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: THAILAND RESTAURANT, PORTLAND, MAINE

Review of an interesting restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


RESTAURANT REVIEW: THAILAND RESTAURANT, PORTLAND, MAINE

John Chuckman

Thailand Restaurant is located on Wharf Street, a cobbled lane with the atmosphere of early urban New England, lined with restaurants that in the warm weather spill out of their doors and windows onto the pavement with little clusters of tables.

Despite this fine setting, the entrance to Thailand is less than promising. The door opens onto a narrow hallway that gives you the sense of entering a basement. The dining room is small and, I think it fair to say, makes a drab impression. There is an odd collection of decorations varying from a coach-light sharing one wall with a large photo-mural of a Thai temple to some shelves with a collection of kitschy plaster statues, including religious figures, and Thai tourist mementos. Along the way there is a copy of an 18th century, wall-mounted, pendulum clock, a strange mix of potted plants and flowers, and a dark green pedestal fountain burbling water. Simple blonde wooden tables with paper place mats stand on tired red indoor-outdoor carpet. The glass candle holders on each table are old Christmas decorations.

And the appearance of the menu itself is a little discouraging with its system of letters and numbers for each item and its chart of meats that may be added to various curries, stir-fries, or noodles. One can't help but think of a fast-food menu.

But appearances can be deceiving, as they proved to be at Thailand.

We relaxed with some beer. Thai food, which tends to be seasoned with a good deal of chili or in some cases is sweet with fruit, goes handsomely with beer. Our choices were Singha, a Thai import ($3.75), and Casco Bay ($3). Singha has a slightly sweet taste.

We ordered soup while studying the complicated menu, and, as soon as we sipped our hot-and-sour and coconut soups ($3.50 each) from large, bowl-like cups, we knew that Thailand was a serious restaurant. Thai hot-and-sour soup uses lime juice for the sour component instead of the rice-wine vinegar in its perhaps better known Chinese counterpart. Its basic lime-and-chili-flavored chicken broth is turned into a wonderful soup with lemon grass, coriander, scallions, and plump shrimp. Sometimes tomatoes are included, but not in Thailand's version. Coconut soup blends coconut milk, ginger, lime-flavored chicken broth, scallions, coriander, and shrimp.

These were both delicious.

Thai food has some of world's most mouth-watering appetizers, so much so that I've imagined - undoubtedly inspired by the delightful Chinese custom of dim sum - having a wonderful meal of nothing but a large assortment of appetizers. The offerings on Thailand's menu would permit you to do just that - including skewers of chicken satay, tiny, crispy egg rolls, deep-fried, coconut-coated shrimp, and spicy, marinated chicken wings. We read the list with relish and picked two favorites, fresh spring rolls and steamed chicken dumplings ($7 each).

The fresh spring rolls were the best I've had, and that includes my own. These are a sensational mix of cucumber, carrot, lettuce, bean sprouts, basil leaves, and bits of shrimp and chicken wrapped in the traditional steamed rice paper. They were large, generous rolls, and every vegetable was fresh and crisp. Thailand serves them with a version of the usual sweet, garlic dipping sauce but adds a second thick, rich bean sauce I've not tasted before. The bean sauce was magic with the spring rolls. All the sauces were served in amounts adequate for lavish dipping.

One of my favorite treats in Asian cooking is dumplings. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Thai - I adore a well made dumpling. And the dumplings at Thailand were beautifully made, gently crimped half-moon shapes, glistening from steam, aromatic with fresh cilantro. Inside each melt-in-your-mouth wrapper, dripping with sweet chili-soy dipping sauce, there was a plump morsel of Thai-seasoned ground chicken. Eating just doesn't get much better than this.
The range of entrees at Thailand includes chicken, duck, beef, pork tenderloin, seafood, and tofu. These come combined in several cooking methods with various medleys of bamboo shoots, carrots, onions, peanuts, cashews, pineapple, coconut, tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, green pepper, celery, green beans, peas, scallions, zucchini, eggplant, plus the pungent flavorings of lime, lime leaf, chili, lemon grass, ginger, garlic, sweet basil, and mint. Apart from its delightful tastes, Thai food makes it almost impossible to eat without getting a balanced diet.

Our entrée of tamarind duck ($16) was a stir-fry of tender pieces of duck, green pepper, cashew nuts, ginger, onions, peas, and chunks of pineapple, in a tamarind-based sauce. The exquisite flavor of tamarind - tartly sweet and savory - is used in a number of South Asian cuisines, and I've not had it with duck, but the two make a very happy marriage.

Our special of soft-shell crab, Royal Thai ($18), was a beautiful dish. A bowl of vegetables - onions, baby corn, carrot, mushrooms, bean shoots, and peas - pineapple, and cashews topped with chunks of lightly battered, deep-fried crab. Slices of orange were tucked around the sides with halves of cherry tomatoes decorating each slice. The dish was as flavorful as it looked. The vegetables were fresh, the sauce mildly sweet with the flavors of ginger and garlic. The crab pieces were crisp on the outside and tender inside with the clear taste and texture of the shellfish.

There are no desserts on the menu at Thailand, and our very polite waiter, after patiently boxing up the remains of our little feast, perhaps felt that mentioning dessert seemed excessive. And the truth was that neither of us were inclined to have dessert, but I asked him, just for information, and he said there was a cheesecake.

Our bill was $73.30. There can be no doubt that dining pleasure is enhanced by attractive surroundings, there being a strong element of theater in the restaurant business. But for this lover of good food, atmosphere never substitutes for cooking. And excellent cooking is what there is plenty of at Thailand. I left thinking we had discovered quite a special little restaurant, just the place to go back for that meal of appetizers.

Thailand Restaurant
29 Wharf Street
Portland
775-7141
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 2
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 3:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Credit cards: Visa, Master, American Express
Price range: entrees $9 to $20
Vegetarian Dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: beer and wine
Wheelchair access: only with assistance for stair
The bottom line: Excellent cooking in an unpretentious little place.

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