Thai Me Up!

Our main courses arrived all at once, too massive an array to fit comfortably on the table. (Next time, we'll order half at the start, the second half when the first round arrives.) Pla Muk Kra Tiem ($9) had garlic-marinated calamari sauteed with carrot shreds and fresh cilantro in "Suriya sauce" -- a light, salty glaze, with clear, distinct notes of additional garlic and black pepper. "Better eat this one first," TJ cautioned. "Squid turns to rubber if you let it set!" We dug in happily. "Part of the joy of these flavors is their separation -- give 'em too much time and they'll meld," Dave noted. "I could eat the whole bowl." "But not fast enough," TJ warned. Ten minutes later, the scant orts remaining had indeed fulfilled the dire predictions, but by then our mouths were otherwise occupied.

Kai Basil Sauce ($9) held prawns in a Thai version of pesto -- a luxuriously thick, smooth, slightly sweet olive-green puree of basil and coconut milk, rimmed with a confetti of diced red pepper. "Perfect prawns," said Joey. "You ever eat this in Thailand?" he asked our waiter. "No, never," the latter laughed. Then I had to pay homage to Evil Jungle Prince ($8), a dish popularized by several Honolulu Thai restaurants (the most famous, but not best, being Keo's). It's a red curry with spinach, shredded napa cabbage, and a few red pepper slices and halved green jalapenos, with chicken, prawns, or vegetables. I loved the assertive kafir lime leaves' tart retorts to the unctuousness of the coconut milk. However, we'd chosen chicken and the thin slices were a little dry; also, in winter our fresh jalapenos are mere pussycats, so the dish could have used more of them to approach the Hawaiian versions' "evil" punch. We also had a special of pumpkin curry with pork -- creamy, golden, and lush, with a little nip of chile paste. Dave wondered if pumpkin was really a Thai vegetable; back home, I checked several cookbooks and learned that Central America's pumpkinlike kabocha squash has been adopted from Japan down to Malaysia.

Our final entree was another special, Khao Son ($8), "Chiang Mai noodles," a rare chance to try a Northern Thai dish. The fettuccine-shaped noodles were sauced in yet another variation of coconut milk curry, this one tasting more like Indian curry powder than Thai curry paste. "As is," the noodles were flat, but then the waiter brought a platter of condiments: a grainy red-black chile paste, a big slice of lemon for squeezing, a heap of minced red onion, and a ramekin of sharply pickled cabbage nuggets. With these, the dish came alive. There were also beef slices in there, which we all found supernumerary: "This would be just as good in the vegetarian version," said Dave. "The beef is mainly useful to anchor your noodles on your fork." Bellies packed to the dermis, we skipped the two desserts.

Was this authentic Thai food, we asked ourselves? Joey didn't seem to think so, and TJ was doubtful, given how dissimilar our dinner was to the fierce flavors and startling juxtapositions of other Thai food he'd eaten. "Unusual Thai," Dave characterized it. On reflection, I thought that Suriya's worldly, soigne version of Thai cuisine bore a resemblance to the food of neighboring Cambodia, with its milder, subtler, French-influenced treatments of a similar array of ingredients. Suriya's cooking is hardly "typical" Thai food, but distinct, individualized chef-style Thai cuisine -- delicious and fascinating.

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