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,
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
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
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.
fax info to 922-7090)