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Andrea Fischman

My Thai
By B.A. Nilsson

Sushi Thai Garden
44 Phila St., Saratoga Springs, 580-0900. Serving lunch daily 11:30-3, dinner Sun-Thu 5-10, Fri-Sat 5-10:30. AE, D, MC, V.

Food: ****
Service: Prompt
Ambience: Charming

It’s a two-way street, this exploration of the food of other cultures. Around here, we have more opportunity than ever before to sample and learn about the elegant, flavorful Thai cuisine. In Thailand, American food is all the rage—meaning fast-food chain restaurants. We can take some small comfort in knowing we’re getting the better end of the bargain, but isn’t it a shame that the best this country can come up with to further international relations is McDonald’s?

Rice and coconut are staples of Thai cuisine; garlic and cilantro are among the favored seasonings. An Indian influence comes through in the curries (but what a luscious difference!) and there’s a note of the Chinese in the noodle dishes. Harmony is the key to a Thai meal: You want the components to balance one another in a salubrious way.

In a restaurant, of course, you’re free to rearrange all that, and in this restaurant you have the added bonus of Japanese fare. The owners of Sushi Thai Garden have three other Thai restaurants, including one (Thai Garden) in Williamstown, but this is the first time they’ve added another country. “It was because of the size of this place,” says Lily Vamcanij, who owns the restaurant with her husband, Sam. “Also, the community already knows about sushi and sashimi.” With the ongoing success of the other restaurants, they felt confident about conjoining the styles.

Sushi Thai Garden has been open about four months, and they’re within days of securing their liquor license. They’ve taken over a space on Phila Street where other restaurants have died, and pleasantly reappointed it, and are set to cruise into a summer season that I suspect will be the making of the place. Because it deserves adulation.

My own capacity to impart such was seriously undermined by the meal I enjoyed there on a recent weeknight, and the embarrassing story starts like this.

I met my friend John, an actor who’s also a brilliant chef. He’s also a guy who likes exploring whatever’s not mainstream. It was a beautiful Saratoga evening, chockablock with summer-garbed strollers, and the restaurant already was bustling when we arrived for a 6:30 reservation.

Inside is a large el, with a sushi bar paralleling the sidewalk along an inside wall. We sat at a comfortable but small table, studied the menu, and realized there was no way to do justice to the variety of offerings. So we skipped the sushi and most of the other Japanese offerings (there are many, including a variety of tempura, teriyaki and noodle dishes) and put together a Thai array.

John started with skewers of beef satay ($5) in which small, marinated cuts of the meat (coconut figures into this) are grilled and served with sides of peanut sauce and vinegary cucumber sauce. He also ordered dynamite, a Japanese appetizer with a splendid name, that turns out to be a blend of “seafood” (looked to me like surimi, a crablike substance made from steamed whitefish) and masago, those orange smelt eggs that decorate many a sushi creation. It’s mixed with a spicy mayo that’s not really spicy enough to warrant so explosive a name, but it’s served warm and very tasty.

Chicken hot and sour soup ($3) also purports to be spicy, but turns out to be fairly easygoing. But what a stunning presentation! Very simple, filled with flavor: a clear broth, large morsels of chicken and mushroom caps, with scallions and cilantro filling out a flavor panoply that includes lemongrass and lime juice.

From the sushi bar came tuna tataki ($9), a standout in an impressive meal. A ring of tuna slices, raw within, seared without, ringed a bed of shredded carrots and served with ponzu sauce, a pungent mix with the essence of the bonito fish.

Entrées were the most difficult choices, but John finally settled on a massaman curry with duck ($12) and jasmine rice ($1). Massaman curry takes its name from the Muslim traders who introduced exotic spices, and it’s one of several curry choices you’ll find.

Mine was called basil and chili (with pork, $9), celebrating a favorite Thai herb in a sautéed dish that includes red and green bell peppers, onions and mushrooms.

But, “This doesn’t taste like duck,” said John. “Try it.”

It was a little tough, unlike the meat in my entrée, which was surprisingly tender. John tasted it. “I don’t see any basil,” he pointed out. True. Yet there was fresh basil in evidence on his plate. It wasn’t until we’d finished our entrées (or as much as we could manage) and I was taking notes that I realized I’d only seen peppers on his plate and that . . . we’d been served one another’s entrées and simply chowed down on same.

I don’t fault the servers, who were otherwise very eager to please. No, this was something John was trying to tell me while deferring to the food critic, whose nose was buried too far in the curry to bother critically appraising anything. So either I’m a fraud or that curry was outstanding, and I’ll thank you not to decide so quickly.

Both showed a deft hand at seasoning, even though they didn’t display anything approaching the pepper-based heat we requested. The basil-garlic combo, so striking in a tomato-based dish, was equally effective in the tomatoless sautée.

John finished with the very sweet fried banana and honey; I ended with a Thai custard (both desserts $2.75) that’s light and sweet and refreshing.

Dinner for two, with tax and tip, iced tea and desserts, was $69.

TABLE SCRAPS

In culinary terms, we celebrate Independence Day in order to assert our right to cook our favorite style of barbecue, that most all-American meal. I’m celebrating barbecue with Celebrating Barbecue by Dotty Griffith (Simon & Schuster), a handsome book that bravely looks at the four main regional types and travels the minefield of characterizing each. It’s a dangerous pursuit because passions run so high in this field, but you’ll learn the differences among Carolina (vinegary sauces, pork predominant), Memphis (pork ribs with a sweet-n-smoky sauce), Texas (BEEF) and Kansas City ’cue (pulled pork, tomato-laced sweet-sour sauce). With this book, a slow-cookin’ smoker, a pork butt and a lot of time, you’ll quickly master food that can actually cause you to regress to those cave-dwelling days. . . . The Cappiello Festa Italiana takes place in Schenectady’s Central Park July 5 through 7, with menu items like fried calamari, cavatelli with broccoli, greens and beans, pizza, calzones, sausage and peppers, fried dough and prosciutto and provolone sandwiches. You’ll get samples of Cappiello cheese products as well as many other treats. Cooking demonstrations are scheduled throughout the event, with a special appearance by the Food Network’s Rachel Ray at 6 PM Saturday. The Festa runs from 4-10 Fri, July 5; noon-10 Sat, July 6; and noon to 8 Sun, July 7. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland.

—B.A.N.

(Please fax info to 922-7090)


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