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Some names are genius: Koh Samui & The Monkey pleased me from the first time I saw it, for a number of reasons. I had no idea what it meant, but it was fun to say (no matter how you pronounce Koh Samui, and I think it came out differently every time I tried it). It didn't sound like a restaurant, but rather the title of a fable, or a painting, or a magical-realist novel. And it was born to be Googled: The first site I turn up lists monkeys as the leading attraction (under "Animals and Animal Shows") of Koh Samui (which I've already learned, from a previous Google search that turned up a site promoting local hotels, is an island: "The magical Koh Samui lies about 700 kilometers south of Bangkok. Samui Island is famous for its long, sandy white beaches, clean crystalline water, and tranquil atmospheres with coconut palms drag [sic] one's sensation to full relaxation"). "On Samui," explains a Thai travel portal, "the monkey undoubtedly qualifies as man's best friend. This isn't surprising, since for centuries the people here have used monkeys to do the hardest part of the work climbing the trees to pick ripe nuts on their coconut plantations. Until the advent of tourism, coconuts represented the main industry here, so these industrious little animals were greatly prized. The monkey theatre offers shows in which the monkeys display their dexterity, and not just at picking coconuts." (Apparently there are also performing elephants.)
San Francisco, CA 94107
Region: South of Market
Calamari skewers $4
Tofu mieng kum $6.50
Sesame scallops $11.95
Pumpkin curry chicken $8.50
Grilled pork $10.95
Mango and sticky rice $5.95
Open for lunch Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner nightly from 5 to 10 p.m.
Parking: difficult during the day, easy at night
Muni: 15, 30, 45
Noise level: low
I fall, briefly, into a Google-hole, but pull myself out just before enrolling in SITCA (the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts, "recommended in the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide to Thailand"), remembering the local Samui institute of culinary arts that led me to become entangled in the well-named Web in the first place.
And remembering with pleasure: Indeed, both visits I made to this unusually beautiful restaurant managed to drag my sensation to full relaxation. In a restaurant, the most important thing, by a factor of, oh, maybe 10, is the food: If what's on the plate is really entrancing, I will come back despite a dispiriting or dingy or merely dull setting. And I'm not overly concerned with service, either. I remember dozens -- hundreds -- of meals, both in whole and in part, but what I remember is the food and the conversation. Brilliant service? Bad service? Not so much. (Oh yes, Jeff and I had a fabulous waiter at Gramercy Tavern once, and I regret that we only tipped him 20 percent, hefty though that 20 percent was. For some time I fantasized sending him an extra $20, but I never got around to calling up the restaurant and inquiring his name. "He's blond, with a goatee, married to an actress, and very knowledgeable about wine ...." A sweet idea, unrealized.) Service has to be really rude or clueless before it intrudes on my dining pleasure. I'm there for the food!
Still, even before I've tasted a thing at Koh Samui & The Monkey, I'm happy to be there. I find the décor unexpectedly pleasant: many-paned factory windows, walls painted in fresh tones of creamy yellow and dusty sage green, a cherry-wood bar that runs along one side of the rectangular room. The tables and chairs are of generous size, in a grainy wood, and of clean modern design (the slant of the chairs' backs is reminiscent of the iconic chairs of Gerrit Rietveld). There are touches, but just touches, of Asian exotica -- a huge golden Buddha sitting calmly against the rear wall, highly colored flowers (and candles made to imitate flowers) floating in deep bowls. Even though everybody likes to say that the Thai don't use chopsticks, despite the resemblance of many of their dishes to the cuisines Americans have learned to use chopsticks for, there are chic bright-green plastic ones waiting on the table.
I just realized that both of my visits to Koh Samui were made with people whose kitchens were in the process of being renovated, hence unusable. No wonder they were available on short notice! No wonder they were pleased rather than chilly when I called them in the a.m. to invite them to dinner in the very same p.m.! No wonder they were happy to join me! They were pleased and happy just to be fed.
Little did they know just how well fed they'd be. The familiar ingredients of Thai food are all over the menu: limes, peanuts, coconut, ginger, onion, chili, lemongrass, kaffir leaf, mint, galangal (a spicy root you've tasted if you've ever eaten Thai food). We can still be surprised, though. Peter and I order a couple of starters while waiting for Anita, who's driving over straight from work. The Thai fish cakes are spongy little discs, spicier than my favorite shrimp cakes at Sanamluang in Hollywood, but equally addictive (and prettily served, as everything is here, with lettuce leaves and garnishes chosen for color as well as a bit of added crunch and flavor, on green ceramic dishes, some ringed with elephants). The Golden Triangle crispy tofu are beautifully fried, their fragile shells enclosing a creamy, custardy interior.
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