The Nantucket Epicure
By Mary Beth McCahan
Thai House Restaurant is Off to a Good Start
I unexpectedly found myself without dinner plans the other night and thought I’d take the opportunity to try out Nantucket’s newest restaurant, Thai House, located at 118 Old South Road across from the airport, in the space vacated by the Dancing Pickle last year. Thai House is operated by the Thairatana family, and they offer not only Thai specialties, but also a number of Chinese-, Asian Fusion-, and Japanese- inspired dishes, including a full sushi menu.
The layout of the restaurant hasn’t changed from the way it was when the Pickle was there – the kitchen is situated along one side of the building, separated by a counter, but open to customer observation. The opposite side of the building contains a small and nicely decorated dining room where table service is available. The place is bright and clean, and both times I’ve walked in (first to pick up the takeout menus and the second time to pick up my order), the room has been filled with appealing sweet and spicy aromas. Service, both on the phone and in person, was prompt, friendly, and capable.
For my first experience with Thai House, I decided to focus on their Thai dishes. I ordered a broad selection of items to get a good feel for efficiency, quality, and technique (yep, I have a lot of leftovers). My food was ready for pickup in about 20 minutes from the time I called, which I thought was pretty reasonable given the number of different things I’d ordered and the fact that there were several customers ahead of me. As I arrived, I ran into a friend who was getting takeout from them for a second time, which I took to be a good sign.
On the whole, prices were reasonable, portions were generous, and quality was good, with appetizing ingredients carefully and competently prepared. Flavors were bright and authentic, though in a few cases I felt that they could be better balanced, as I’ve noted in the comments on specific dishes that follow. Spicy dishes tend to be pretty hot as prepared, so if you don’t have a great tolerance for spicy heat, you may want to ask them to tone it down a bit when you order.
Of course, I never miss an opportunity for testing wine pairings, and this was no exception. Optimally, I would have balanced the heat in the dishes with an off-dry wine (like a Riesling, Gewürztraminer, or Vouvray), but since I didn’t have any around the house, I settled for an interesting white Nebbiolo I’d gotten last year from Beth English at Current Vintage (2009 Pietro Nera Chiavennasca Bianco La Novella) – though dry with distinct minerality, it contains floral and fruity notes that provided a nice counterpoint to the dishes.
Here’s what I thought about the specific items I tried:
Tom Kha Kai Soup (Coconut milk with galangal, lime, mushrooms, and scallion) – Rich, tasty, and satisfying, though with a lime tartness that was a little too strong and could have been better balanced with the other flavors in the soup. My enjoyment was also briefly interrupted by a couple of overly tough pieces of lemongrass that I’d rather had stayed on the cutting board.
Fresh Rolls (Lettuce and other fresh vegetables with fried tofu and noodles wrapped in rice paper and served with slightly sour peanut sauce) – While certainly fresh, I found these rolls bland and uninteresting, though the appealing peanut sauce helped to punch them up a bit.
Crab Rangoon (Crabmeat with cream cheese wrapped in crispy wonton skin served with sweet and sour sauce) – I know, crab rangoon dumplings aren’t Thai, or even Chinese (word is that they may have been invented in the U.S. by Trader Vic’s in the 50s), but I wanted to try them because I haven’t found ones yet that I liked, and I thought I’d give Thai House a chance to change my mind. And they did. Usually when I’ve had them at other restaurants, they’ve been in thick wontons so overly fried that I could hardly taste the filling, but Thai House’s version were in lighter wontons that were lightly fried like tempura, creating a very nice balance with the creamy centers. Of course, fried things rarely do well in take-out situations, because they tend to get a bit steamed and soggy while waiting to be picked up, taken home, and eaten. But even with that complication, these were appealing (so much so that I broke my “working” rule and had more than just one). Next time, I think I’ll order them in-restaurant and eat them as soon as they come out of the fryer to taste them at their best.
Chicken Satay (Slices of chicken on a stick, marinated in coconut milk and light curry sauce, served with peanut sauce and sweet cucumber sauce) – The chicken was tender, tasty, and nicely grilled. An uncomplicated and pleasing appetizer.
Kung-fu Basil, with ground chicken (stir fry with basil, red and green peppers) – Simple, fresh, and flavorful, but very spicy (or so I thought, until I moved on to the green curry.)
Green Curry, with shrimp (rreen and red peppers, onions, zucchini, and fresh basil) – Good flavor, with nice, fresh vegetables that retained some pleasing crispiness and perfectly cooked shrimp (read: not overcooked, which isn’t easy to achieve with take-out). Sauce was on the thin side, but tasty. The spicy heat in this dish sneaks up on you, starting subtly but gaining significant strength as you continue eating. Definitely not unpleasant, but if you’re sensitive, you may want to ask them to tone it down a bit. I’ve had subtler, more sophisticated and better-balanced green curries in my time, but this one was definitely a contender, and I’d order it again (with less heat).
Velvet Salmon (steamed salmon filet sautéed with mushrooms, carrots, onions, red and green peppers, celery, and scallions, with ginger sauce) – A generous portion of salmon, in an appealing-sounding preparation, but it didn’t do so well in the take-out scenario. The plentiful vegetables in an aromatic and tasty ginger sauce were a little overcooked to begin with, and didn’t improve with the waiting time. And, piled as they were over the salmon, their heat resulted in an overcooked piece of fish, as well. A bit more careful planning on the chef’s part could correct this, of course, but if you like salmon, I think it might be better/safer to try this dish on a night you’re eating in the restaurant, rather than getting it for take-out.
Pad Thai, with pork (stir fried noodles with egg, ground nuts, bean sprouts, cabbage, carrots, and scallions) – Nicely prepared, with yummy and surprisingly tender pork.
Pineapple Fried Rice, with chicken (stir-fried rice with egg, pineapple, onions, peas, carrots, and raisins, with a light curry powder) – I have to say that this is not the best pineapple fried rice I’ve ever tasted, but it had a certain je ne sais quoi about it that usually is possessed by the best comfort/hangover food. The chicken and egg were nicely cooked, but none of the other ingredients, on their own, were particularly inspiring (frozen carrots and peas, non-descript and slightly gluey rice, etc.). However, together, they created something that was strangely compelling. I’m not sure how it was achieved, because as far as I could tell, the chicken wasn’t grilled and nothing else in the dish seemed to have been charred, but the dish had an agreeable charcoal-ly flavor that balanced very nicely with the sweetness of the pineapple and raisins, as well as the other components of the dish.
Yum Nur Yang (sliced grilled beef mixed with onion, carrot, scallion, lemongrass, mint, ground sweet rice, lime juice and Thai spices with Thai dressing) – This one didn’t shine for me – flavors and textures just seemed very unbalanced. The steak was on the tough side, the dressing was too strong and tart, the vegetables were wilted (from heat, spice and acidity), and the spice was so hot that it came close to obliterating everything else in the dish. I was surprised about the lack of flavor and tenderness of the steak, because judging from the other dishes I had, the chef seems to have quite a way with meat.
Steamed Jasmine Rice — The steamed rice that accompanied most dishes was unremarkable – not much aroma or flavor, and rather clumpy. It provides additional texture for the various dishes, but it would be more pleasing if it was firmer and fluffier, and a bit more aromatic.
Thai-Style Fried Banana (Deep fried, with grated coconut in sesame batter) – Really, what more can I say than, “What’s not to like about a fried banana?” If I’d had ice cream and caramel sauce, I would have been in heaven.
The Bottom Line
Thai House serves creditable Thai cuisine, offers a nice range of other Asian alternatives, and is definitely worth a try. It may not be Thai nirvana, but it’s good, authentic, and satisfying, and also provides a convenient lunch and dinner alternative for customers located mid- and East-island.
Mary Beth McCahan escaped from the corporate world a few years ago to write, enjoy life, and pursue her passions, which are centered on food, wine, and Nantucket. Her recently launched blog on those subjects, Nantucket Epicure, can be found online at http://nantucketepicure.com.