By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
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Unwilling, perhaps, to acknowledge the culinary influence of the Chinese on Vietnam, Mekong owner Phil Nguyen employs Chinese chefs as well as Vietnamese, with each chef cooking his own nation's cuisine. "That way they don't mess up," he insists. He enjoys filling Cutler Ridge's demand for Asian restaurants of quality but seems hesitant about going solo with the layered flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. The cultural duality is a draw in itself.
Candy Plessonti, owner of Cutler Ridge's Chopsticks House, would agree with him. The Thailand-born Plessonti opened her 30-seat Chinese/Thai restaurant with her daughter-in-law Noi thirteen months ago in the newly rebuilt Old Cutler Towne Center, deliberately working the double-demand angle. Manager Jerry Zaks acknowledges that "the market did need some Chinese" and that many elements of the two cuisines can, as he puts it, "interchange." But the Thai chefs in the kitchen prepare separate special sauces, doing their best to keep the cuisines separate.
Still, in an interesting reversal from the Chinese/Vietnamese gastronomic relationship, at Chopsticks House the Thai influences the Chinese, rather than vice versa. Which explained the fabulous black bean sauce we enjoyed over beef, less salty and a little thinner than the Chinese norm and highlighting the pungent soybeans rather than soy sauce. Crisp peppers and onions further anointed the beef, which was wonderfully tender but had been cut against the grain.
Spring rolls were the only appetizer we chose from the Chinese menu, but this pair of crunchy, greaseless snacks was clearly Thai: finely shredded white cabbage, carrots, and celery steamed fragrantly in rice-skin wrappers. The same sweet, vinegary plum sauce that accompaniwed the spring rolls came with gai kra-bueng, slightly slimmer but similar deep-fried chicken-stuffed fingers from the Thai menu.
Larb tofu was a tasty take on bean curd, chopped and marinated with lime juice, fresh mint, and scallions, then dusted with rice powder and thrown in the deep fryer. The result was crisp-skinned nuggets of melting-hot tofu, served on a bed of shredded cabbage and carrots. Tom kar gai soup, the only disappointment among the starters we tried, contained pieces of too-dry white-meat chicken and a coconut-milk thickener that was watery, lacking substance. Though tiny straw mushrooms were beautiful and lacked that million-years-in-a-can flavor and galangal (ginger) root and lime juice provided a necessary sharp tingle, they weren't enough to save the soup.
A judicious use of ginger elevated pla jearn, boneless deep-fried whole snapper. We had a few bones to pick with the fish, however, and it was just slightly overdone. Still, the sauce, a perfumey blend of ginger, onions, scallions, carrots, and mushrooms, more than made up for those flaws. Shrimp, pink as flamingos and curled cozily in a row along the large snapper, provided a generous touch as well.
We also sampled a platter of assorted seafood in homemade chili paste. Punchy with garlic, the sauce was fabulous, embracing a variety of freshly sauteed shrimp, scallops, squid, and chunks of fish. A confetti of bell peppers, onions, celery, and carrots gave body to all the succulence.
Pad Thai was a spicier-than-normal version, which we greatly appreciated. The rice noodles were perfectly cooked, and were adorned with the customary ground peanuts, egg, scallions, and bean sprouts. (The dish can be ordered plain, or with pork, chicken, or shrimp.) It also made an excellent alternative to rice as a bed for gang pak, mixed vegetables in a red curry and coconut milk sauce. Unlike in the tom kar gai, the coconut milk here was in exact proportion to the complex spicing. Vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, and onions) bloomed with just-steamed appeal, proving that manager Zaks's assertion about restocking the vegetable bins daily was no empty boast.
A combination of comfort and casual elegance, this restaurant features upholstered chairs, tablecloths, and fine folk artwork imported from China and northern Thailand. Of course, the starving poet I brought with me to Chopsticks House had no spare eye for the walls, keeping his focus firmly fixed on his plate. He reminded me of another reason I like dining with writers, especially when the meal is truly delicious: the pleasure of seeing them, for a change, at a loss for words.