The queen of Siam

A Thai restaurant worthy of a crown of laurels

Release Date: 2008-10-22

A Styrofoam box of Pad Thai, carefully bound in plastic wrap, sits reproachfully in my refrigerator as I write this — though not for lack of trying the night before. Four of us had fallen upon it like locusts, in fact, but there was competition — serious competition — from other dishes. The Pad Thai shouldn’t feel neglected, then; normally, I wouldn’t even have considered ordering this classic noodle dish, so knee-jerk and cloying has it become in most Thai restaurants hereabouts. But my dining companions, all of whom have become regulars at Siam Thai in the last few months, insisted. And it was a revelation.

So was Siam Bangkok Cuisine, for that matter. The quintessential mom-’n’-pop (plus tough-talking cook) hole in the wall with fantastic cuisine, it is every food writer’s dream. But before you dig in, too, one condition: Don’t all go at once. The place really is small, there’s one head cook, and the waitstaff (which includes both mom and pop on occasion) is charming and knowledgeable but limited. If you piss off the chef by barging in and making unexpected demands, there will be hell to pay on both sides of the kitchen door. So let’s agree on some ground rules: No groups larger than four. No arriving at 8:30 in advance of a 9 p.m. closing. I’m serious.

The Bangkok part of the restaurant’s name is not by accident. Owner Kent Nabarrete may be of Asian descent (his wife is from Montana, however), but Thai master chef Alexis Sirisupa Buneshu came out of the kitchen after dinner to make it clear who sets the tone. “He’s really American,” she says of Kent in her matter-of-fact manner. And her cuisine is really Thai — not Thai-Lao, Thai-Burmese, or any of a number of other possible hyphenations. Most local Thai is Thai-Lao, claims this firecracker of a character, whose business card lists Thai cooking, Thai language instruction, flower arranging, international dance instruction, and restaurant management among her many talents.

We could also add vegetable cutting to the résumé on the basis of the carrot “rose” that adorned one plate. (Carving is apparently a different art; think melons, for example.) Like many country capitals (with the obvious exception of our own), Bangkok apparently thinks of its cuisine as more sophisticated, more, well, genuine, than that of the surrounding crass and crude countryside, and the cut carrot was just the beginning. “Elegant” and “decorative” can be added to the list of superior qualities based on the evening’s first appetizer, the normally attractive but not necessarily eye-popping summer rolls. A literal bouquet of slivered vegetables sprouted from the bias-cut tops of upright cylinders that hinted at more of the same — supplemented with shrimp — through the translucent wrappers.

In the end, it was all about the vegetables and the accompanying sauce. Sophisticated sauces seem to be another hallmark of the capital’s cuisine, and chef Buneshu didn’t duplicate a single one during the course of the evening — though a hint of sweetness did pervade each of them. Warm spices such as clove and cardamom, not normally thought of by us commoners as part of the Thai pantheon, also appear in many dishes, and the only unsuccessful offering of all I have sampled was “the Bloody Mary of Curry,” a red Mussamon variant whose overabundance of clove obliterated the tamarind and other spices.

A Top Special appetizer whimsically titled “Where are you?” was gasp-provoking as well, and to describe it fully would take the rest of the review. So here are some highlights: romaine leaves, tiny shrimp, mini-wedges of lime with skin, toasted coconut, fresh ginger … and an “old-style” dipping sauce exhibiting the characteristic sweetness mingled with hints of what seemed to be fish sauce. The Sirisupa Siam’s Shumai appeared as a gorgeous dumpling filled with vegetables and ground pork (chicken and shrimp are options), accented with fried shallots and served with a molasses-like sauce that nevertheless managed to come across as delicate.

And those were only appetizers. Under the Hot and Spicy rubric we sampled Lucky L. (Laab) Original, presented in an amphitheater of lettuce leaves to stunning effect. Ground pork mingled with crisp green beans, cilantro stems, shredded carrot, and toasted rice powder, and there was no small amount of toasty chili contrasting with the pungent greenness of an herb such as kaffir lime leaves or lemongrass. The whole was an amazing amalgam of hot and perfumy. A discreet amount of clove scented the Topaz of Siam Indian yellow curry, bathed in coconut milk, topped with a tangle of deep-fried shallot, and sporting silky tofu along with potato and yam pieces cut with decorative ribbing. (The Emerald of Siam and the Ruby of Siam are other jewel-toned curries on the menu.)

The stereotype-shattering Pad Thai we ordered in an all-vegetable version at the suggestion of the chef (she hadn’t yet emerged from the kitchen at this point in the meal, but her reputation had preceded her, and no way were we going to counter a regal recommendation), and it was mountainous. Noodles, tofu, scallion, bean sprouts, lapidary bits of yellow squash and carrot, red cabbage and green beans, chopped peanut … and a spicy signature sauce were just part of the picture. Yes, it tastes good cold, as well.

Fresh mango we had seen come through the front door reappeared as sticky rice with mango and coconut cream; it was both beautiful and just what was needed at evening’s end. Chef also insisted we taste squares of what seemed to be a rice custard that often accompanies sticky rice, and it had a noblesse-oblige kind of grace: simple yet serene.

Remember, now: small groups only and not everybody at once. If chef ain’t happy, ain’t nobody gonna be happy.


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