This is a tale of two Thais.
I recently visited two new Thai restaurants, each with good food but each distinctly different from the other in its style and experience.
On one end of the spectrum is Orchid, a splashy and elegant restaurant with a hip vibe that befits its Park Avenue milieu.
And then there’s Chai Thai, a modest, unpretentious and unadorned eatery with a family-style mien. Unfortunately, it, too, has an ambience that matches its Curry Ford Road locale. (Isn’t there an Extreme Makeover: Urban Street Edition yet?)
But even with its decidedly downscale décor, Chai Thai delivers delicious Thai favorites. So does Orchid, but its menu also extends to more ambitious fare that is based on Thai seasonings and ingredients that may be unfamiliar even to devotees of the area’s many Thai restaurants.
Short rib massamam ($22), for example. It featured a large beef short rib, braised and then sautéed with potatoes and small pieces of sweet bell peppers with a chili sauce and a bit of roasted peanuts. That the meat was not the most tender hunk of rib I’ve had – a bit more braising might have helped – does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the dish.
And part of the enjoyment of this entrée, and indeed most every dish served here, was the elegant presentation, which almost invariably included luminous purple orchid blooms as plate garnish. (Yes, orchid petals are edible, but frankly I enjoy looking at them much more than ingesting them.)
More traditional entrees occupy the menu, including pad Thai (would it be possible for a Thai restaurant to operate without pad Thai?) I ordered mine with chicken ($14) and was surprised when the server asked me how spicy I wanted it. Pad Thai is done without spicy seasoning and is traditionally served with a condiment tray that includes crushed peppers and chili sauce, as well as chopped peanuts, for the diner to add at will.
There was no condiment tray, but the mix of rice noodles, bean sprouts, tangy chicken and ground peanuts was nonetheless delicious.
I also had the pad Thai ($9.95) at Chai, and again I was asked how spicy I wanted it. Are Thai restaurants going the way of Indian restaurants, succumbing to the uninformed notion of the dining public that these cuisines are nothing but spicy foods?
Chai Thai’s version was equally as good, the only difference being the presentation – and the price, which probably had something to do with the presentation. Orchids aren’t cheap.
Chai doesn’t decorate with orchids, but the crispy duck ($14.95) was a beautiful presentation all by itself. It was a fully platter of sliced meat with cispy crunchy skin topped with basil. There was a small amount of sauce, barely enough to wet the fluffy jasmine rice, but it wasn’t missed.
InWinter Park I ordered the Orchid duck ($24) and was surprised that what I was served was basically a salad. I didn’t think I was ordering a salad – the menu didn’t say anything about greens – and I certainly wouldn’t have ordered a $24 salad. When a server noticed my dismay he removed the dish from my table and the charge from my bill.
At Chai I had the red curry with beef ($9.95), which I ordered medium-hot. It was perfectly spiced, hot enough to put some heat on the tongue but not so much that it scorched the taste buds for the myriad other flavors.
Orchid did a nice yellow curry with chicken ($14), although here the spicing was more muted.
Both restaurants also offer one of my favorite Thai appetizers, stuffed chicken wings. These are wings that have the upper bone removed and its cavity filled with chopped chicken meat, clear noodles and vegetables. It’s then breaded and deep-fried to create a drumsticklike treat. Both were tasty and similarly priced, Orchid’s for $6 and Chai’s for $5.95. Orchid offered an unusual appetizer called mieng kum ($10), which was an assemble-yourself morsel. It included mounds of fresh ginger, tiny cubes of lime, onion, peanuts and – don’t be frightened – tiny freeze-dried shrimp. These were accompanied by fresh spinach leaves to wrap the ingredients in. Despite the woefully small leaves, it was an interesting and filling starter course, except there wasn’t enough freeze-dried shrimp, words I never thought I’d say.
I seldom order desserts in Thai restaurants, but I had to try the coconut sticky rice with mango ($7), a long pad of sweetened rice topped with slices of cool mango. It was quite nice.
Orchid is in the small space that was occupied by Bistro on Park before it moved across the street. The walls are a sedate mocha, and colorful, geometric-centric paintings adorn the walls. And, of course, there are plenty of orchids that line the small bar, which also, it seems, doubles as an office for the owner.
Chai Thai doesn’t have the decorative accouterments of Orchid, but each does a fine job with its common cuisine.