IT'S A THAI: Phuket impresses in West Roxbury.
Almost all of the dozens of Thai restaurants in Boston are very good, but I keep reviewing them because they continually find new ways to improve this sophisticated and eclectic cuisine — already a fusion of Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, and native Southeast Asian food ideas, with some European colonial influences, as well. Now, later generations of Thai restaurateurs are beginning to re-fuse Thai cuisine with dishes more familiar to American customers. Phuket, named for the resort island hard-hit by the tsunami, has some novel traditional dishes, but also steaks, chops, and ribs, and desserts like tiramisu and crème brûlée, along with yet another attempt to pair wines. The owners formerly worked at Amarin in Newton, one of the flagships for this cuisine, so no spice has been lost in the serious curries, but there is also some fine dining for newbies.
Of the appetizers, I would stick to the classics, although whale tails ($7), shrimp wrapped in egg-roll skins, are fried as nicely as can be. Satay ($7) is classic skewers of marinated chicken or beef. I had the chicken, marinated with a lot of galangal, to be dipped in a fish-sauce cucumber salad, or a spicy peanut sauce, or both. Som-tum ($8) was a crisp version of the classic shredded salad, here with unripe papaya, carrot, grape tomatoes, and an unusual topping of grilled chicken, served in a garlic-chili dressing with chopped peanuts as a garnish. Mind the spice-key silhouettes: this was a one-chili salad with two-silhouette heat. And I would put the same rating on the hot-and-sour shrimp soup ($4), perhaps because the chili oil floats into the early spoonfuls — to open the sinuses for the aroma of lemongrass, I suppose. The filling of several shrimp, sliced mushrooms, and surprisingly effective tomato slices was generous.
A special appetizer of “Phuket’s soft noodles” ($7) was really two summer rolls, or raw spring rolls, but here cooked in a spicy gravy similar to the sauce some Szechwan restaurants put on spicy suan le chau show dumplings. It’s a nice sauce for vegetables, once you get the hang of eating a spring roll with a knife, fork, and spoon.
There are also some exceptional entrée specials. A recent one was “grilled chicken Indonesian” ($12). Again, the American-style gas grilling of non-marinated or lightly marinated meat introduces a non-spicy flavor into what is otherwise a typical stir-fry. Lemon scallops ($15) are sea scallops grilled correctly, in a fusion sauce that probably mixes lemon juice, instead of rice vinegar, with fish sauce. There are some interesting vegetables here: iceberg lettuce (a surprise, but it was originally bred to be cooked), grape tomatoes, peapods, and Chinese broccoli (another excellent surprise). The rice is real Thai jasmine rice; brown rice, fully cooked and just a little sticky, is an alternative and is actually made with some care.
The emerging specialty is spicy duck fried rice ($9/lunch; $12/dinner), which has two chili silhouettes, but either isn’t that powerful, or is so good no one notices. The fried rice is a mound topped with fresh and crisp stir-fry vegetables, the whole dome covered with a boned duck breast in a sauce that is both hot and sweet. The aromas are extraordinary, and the dish works brilliantly.
Also quite tasty was a special on garlic chicken ($12), with a just-tangy sauce that went well with the chicken pieces and was outstanding on usually bland mushrooms and zucchini. From the standard list of curries, green curry shrimp ($14) was excellent, toned up with fresh sprigs of anise-scented Asian basil and filled out with mushrooms, string beans (the best European vegetable in East Asian food, because the native long beans don’t have as much flavor), bamboo shoots, and bell peppers.
The wine list is a commendable effort, but unless you’re avoiding salt and hot pepper, Thai food works better with beer, or brewed ice tea, or vanilla-flavored Thai tea, served with sweetened condensed milk.
Desserts at Phuket are not Thai at all. Besides the crème brûlée, the tiramisu ($6) is rather good, and the mocha mousse cake ($6) is excellent, a pie-shaped wedge with a lot of flavor that makes for a decent dessert after a lean Asian dinner. More typical Thai desserts would be fruit or sweet concoctions of coconut milk and sticky rice.
This is a small restaurant, but impeccably redone since it was Café Royale. It’s now done in Barbie-pink and black (with gray), yet is somehow neither retro nor overly hip. It’s just cute. There are linen tablecloths with paper on top; the background music runs to jazz and Norah Jones. Unlike the museum-quality décor at Amarin, things here are simple and modern. There is even a small bar, but, blessedly, no television sets.
Now there is finally a way to standardize descriptions of extra-virgin olive oil. For some time, I have been describing most pours in restaurants as fruity (it’s all fruitier compared with the refined olive oil of yesteryear), occasionally branching off into “peppery” or “nutty” (overused, but very prestigious). Now the Alejandro & Martin company is selling a wooden box with four oils. The Greek oil is supposed to define fruity, and it rather does. The French one is “mild and delicate.” (I say “nutty.”) The Tuscan stuff is “olivey and peppery.” (I like this one a lot until the peppery afterburn. I’d say fruity and nutty, with a touch of new-mown hay.) And they went all the way to Australia for “green and grassy,” which really defines it, I have to agree. Alejandro & Martin also have food pairings, in which the stronger oils finish meats and fish, while the milder ones go with vegetables and fruit or cheese platters. In general, the oil I buy for home — especially for pesto — tends to be Spanish, which is fruity to the max, and goes on everything. So, readers, that’s the code, and now you have the decoder.
Phuket Thai Restaurant | 1856 Centre Street, West Roxbury | Open Sun–Thurs, 11:30 am–3 pm and 5–10 pm; and Fri & Sat, 11:30 am–3 pm and 5–10:30 pm | AE, MC, VI | Beer and wine | No valet parking | Street-level access | 617.469.5200
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