Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: SIAM CITY CAFE IN PORTLAND MAINE

Review of an enjoyable 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


The snow swirled up the length of Fore Street and into our faces, and Siam City's cheery little bubble of light was welcome indeed as Portland's large snowstorm began.

We were enthusiastically greeted. Of course, the staff was glad to see anyone in such a storm, but friendly, helpful service was maintained through the evening as a number of others braved the weather.

Siam City is a charming place with a small entrance counter displaying fresh flowers, raw brick walls, black wood tables and chairs, pink linen napkins, and little cobalt blue glass light shades suspended over each table.

A huge bay window offers one of the most spectacular views in the city, a remarkable row of buildings on the other side of Fore Street, running from early to late 19th century. The swirling snow turned them into a scene from "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

Only a few items such as framed pictures hint at the restaurant's theme of "Thai country cuisine." I couldn't help wondering whether little Thailand had more than one cuisine, but checking later, I learned that "little" Thailand has a population about the size of France or Italy with more than sixty million people. So the equivalent of a Provence or Tuscan regional cuisine is a good possibility, though one I'd never hit upon.

Siam City has a small wine list, and while I generally regard wine as not a good match for the alternating fieriness and sweetness of Thai food, on a cold, blowy night, wine was most suitable to start. Bulletin Place Australian Shiraz ($5) went down nicely while watching the gusts outside and studying the menu.

There is a fairly small list of five appetizers. Our special of mussels steamed in a sauce of garlic, butter, and sake ($8) was tasty and generous, although I'm not aware that Japan has had any influence on Thai food, country or otherwise, but fusion dishes are found everywhere these days and need not reflect any historical influence.

Hot and sour shrimp soup ($6) is listed on the menu as "classic," but this version was a little different than any I have had. The familiar elements were mostly there, including four very large shrimp, although it did not have the vegetables often found in this soup, but the small Thai bird chilies had been roasted until they resembled very well cooked bits of bacon. This produced a sensation of savory sweetness along with the fieriness for which they are well known. This combination plus the fresh mint leaves sprinkled on top, rather than the more commonly used cilantro, made an extraordinary taste. The first spoonful perked up every bud on my tongue. This is a wonderful bowl of soup and is highly recommended.

We also sampled Thailand's spring rolls ($6.50), the tiny fried ones rather than the large, uncooked ones. The dish consists of four crab-meat-and-vegetable rolls plus a somewhat sweet dipping sauce with cucumber slices in it. They were good, but I have to say that they were disappointing after the wonderful soup. They just didn't have the texture or magical flavor I associate with them, the outside being an ordinary, smooth, well-fried wonton skin and the inside lacking a truly distinctive flavor of marinated crab. I also missed my favorite Southeast Asian method of eating fried spring rolls - that is, with fresh lettuce and mint or cilantro to wrap around each crisp roll before dipping.

Our som tum salad ($7) had the interesting combination of shredded papaya, carrot, garlic, chilies, cherry tomatoes, lime juice, and dried shrimp. This a good salad, a Thai "slaw" combining both astringent and hot flavors. The chewiness of the tiny dried shrimp resembles somewhat that of soft nuts.

Entrée selections on Siam City's menu are divided into several categories of four or so choices, each choice defined by a differing mix of vegetables or fruit, sauce, and noodles or rice - many of them available with either pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, or tofu.

Our gai teriyaki ($12) was listed as one of the chef's specials, but this dish was a disappointment. It consisted of some grilled boneless chicken coated with a thick teriyaki-flavored sauce sprinkled with sesame seeds, some very nice steamed broccoli, a few blanched carrot sticks, and a bowl-mold of rice. This was pedestrian both in presentation and taste. Teriyaki traditionally refers to the soy-stained, sugar-glaze produced on grilled meats after having been soaked in marinade, not to a thick brown sauce. This dish made a sort of Eastern blue-plate special - decent but unexciting food.

Our other entrée was called pad cashew nuts (with beef, $9.50). This dish was a colorful stir-fry of red peppers, scallions, snow peas, onion, cashew nuts, and beef, and it was served with a bowl-mold of rice. Again, while obviously more colorful than our other entrée, this plate didn't shine for appearance. Part of the reason was its being excessively soaked in sauce, giving it a bit of a vegetables-swimming look.

Its appearance was an accurate harbinger of its taste - good but unexciting food. Truly great stir frying accounts for the optimum heat exposure of each ingredient and adds them in descending order of required cooking time. Sauce should always be just enough to coat each piece, almost like a salad dressing. This clever, and deceptively simple, cooking method not only can produce everything just right in one pot, but served originally to conserve precious fuel resources. The cashew nuts, for example, in this dish were too soft - they should be tossed in only at the very end.

There are no desserts on the menu, and our waiter advised that the dish of fried bananas in a coconut sauce generally offered was not available that night.

Our bill came to $68.21. I am always disappointed to have to say that a new little restaurant, and particularly one with the charming looks and location of Siam City, is less than excellent, but that is the case here. The soup was astoundingly good, and perhaps other items on the menu may match it, still the overall impression of what we sampled was decent but unexciting.

Siam City Café
339 Fore Street
Portland
773-8389

Food: 3
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday
4:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Friday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $8.75 to $16.
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted
Bar: wine and beer
Wheelchair access: 2 steps at front with assistance
The bottom line: good but unexciting cooking in a cozy place with a beautiful view

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