"We're trying to break the stereotype surrounding Thai cuisine," says Todd Sirimongkolvit, co-owner of Soi4 Bangkok Eatery, one of the newest restaurants on the bustling College Avenue corridor. "We're younger. Most Thai restaurants are from my mother's generation."
Sirimongkolvit opened Soi4 with his wife, Parichati Pattajoti, and his sister, Dannie Lum, six months ago after refining their formula at Basil in San Francisco's SOMA. It's a formula that has gained popularity in places like Nan Yang and CreAsian in the East Bay and Slanted Door and Yum Yum House in the City: high-concept Asian bistro fare for the high-cheekbone set. "The word 'Soi' [pronounced 'soy'] means street or alley. Soi4 is a street in downtown Bangkok that we took as the springboard for doing metropolitan Thai cuisine," Sirimongkolvit explains.
It's nice to see the creativity, skill, and subtlety of some of the world's most sophisticated food finally being treated like haute cuisine by both diners and the press. That Southeast Asian restaurants are using organic ingredients and broadening the scope of their menus past the standards we all know and (yawn) love is also exciting. On the flip side, I still feel protective of sparer restaurants that put out tongue-blisteringly sensual, elegant food without the hype -- and without the crowds of moneyed white people who look relieved at not needing to inspect the flatware when eating "ethnic."
On my first visit to Soi4, I had pleasant but run-of-the-mill food. Even when the ingredients were unfamiliar, the food tasted like fifty other places I've tried in the past decade. Appetizers are divided into "small plates," soups and salads, and a selection of satay skewers, offered by the pair. We tried two sets: thin strips of marinated pork, and large, undercooked chunks of portobello, both served over a pool of thin, overly sweet peanut sauce on a celadon plate. We looked to the accompanying cucumber and red onion relish for contrast, but it too was sugary.
I gravitated to the "crispy flaked catfish salad with tart green mangoes," primed for something new. A snarl of undressed baby greens with a pile of what looked like the stuffing from a padded envelope arrived at the table. It tasted crunchy and light and oily, not at all like fish and nothing like salad. But the dressing -- an eyebrow-curlingly hot, tart relish with chiles, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, and slivers of green mango -- gave the ensemble the character it needed.
For the main course, we paired one novel item with an old favorite. Chinese broccoli with Thai anchovies contained a small mound of young Chinese broccoli, steamed until just crisp, mixed with salt bombs -- fermented anchovies, great flavor in microscopic doses -- and a delicious sweet-soy and garlic sauce. Though the duck in the duck curry with pineapple was tender and velvety, the curry sauce surrounding it was milquetoast, so mild and sweet with coconut milk that it lost my interest after bite one. I picked out the duck, red and green peppers, basil leaves, and pineapple and made my own party on my plate.
No matter the flavor, the food always looks stylish and colorful. Both the sticky and the steamed jasmine rice are served in small bamboo steamers, and many of the dishes come in translucent jadeite bowls that I coveted. The entire room, in fact, is a pleasure to look at. Soi4 took over a space last occupied by Obélisque, and without altering much turned wannabe classy into effortless chic. Tall glass windows flood the storefront restaurant with natural light, brightening up the olive and redwood hues on the unornamented walls. At night, the room is lit by exposed white bulbs hanging from swags of white cables. Despite the buzz that rises off the main floor and hangs about the mezzanine level like a cloud of smoke, it's a top-notch date place. And the prices -- comparable to most Thai restaurants in the area, with most entrées in the $8-10 range -- kept me from feeling resentful when the food stumbled.
On my second visit, we must have ordered better. I had prepared my companions for mild disappointment, but course after course arrived with few missteps. We started with triangular Thai fried dumplings, a gingery mix of ground shrimp and pork encased in thick, chewy dough; like pot stickers, the dumplings were steamed and then pan-fried. Large shrimp and button mushrooms floated in the minimalist tom yum ga, the soup of the day. The lemongrass-speckled broth was excellent, just as tart and pungent as it needed to be. But perhaps even better was the grilled beef salad, strips of beautifully cooked steak tossed with red onions, mint, cilantro, and mixed greens in a tart vinaigrette with toasted rice powder.
Like the steak, all the ingredients in the entrées were cooked perfectly, with none of the undercooked vegetables and overdone meats that you find in mediocre Thai restaurants. But I still couldn't find a curry that I liked: Even the prawn curry, massive jumbo prawns, three to an order, half peeled and tender, were topped with an insipid "choo chee" curry dominated by kaffir lime leaves.
I had no other complaints. Beef short ribs were braised until they became little beef pillows that one sucked off the bone. This time, the cooks did the peanut sauce justice. Not sweet, it was nutty and pungent and garlicky, and it melded perfectly with the beef. We enjoyed another classic, ground chicken with red and green peppers and frilly, translucent deep-fried mint leaves in a spicy fish sauce. I didn't see a single black bean in the "asparagus and bamboo shoots in black bean sauce," but I plowed through the crisp asparagus and soft braised shoots coated in a spicy, inexplicably smoky dark soy sauce anyway.
All the traditional Thai desserts make an appearance on Soi4's menu, along with a few unfamiliar items and a couple of fusion sweets. The gastronomically overwhelmed may want to go for the fruity pineapple granita, sweet and clean, to finish their meal. I had only seen the "Bangkok rubies" once before. Floating in a martini glass of coconut milk were mango slices, ice cubes, and the rubies: fresh water chestnuts, all crunch and sweetness, covered with jellylike red tapioca. I told my companions to choose one of the two classic desserts. They skipped the sticky rice with mango in favor of the fried banana with coconut ice cream, a great version of the omnipresent dessert. The crisp tempura-style batter contrasted with the sweet, creamy flavors of the fruit and ice cream.
One stereotype of Thai restaurants that Soi4 hasn't dispensed with: friendly, attentive waitstaff. Some of the finer points of bistro service, such as clearing plates before the next course appears and replacing dirty silverware, still need polishing, but the kitchen paced the course of the meal perfectly so we had time to relax and enjoy it.
On the second night, our waiter kept bowing to the tables in his section. It was a comical and slightly uncomfortable old-world touch that stood out in a restaurant devoted to repackaging the classics. Of course, had he forgotten our orders, told us about his weekend plans, and ran out to gab on his cell phone every ten minutes, he would have been taking hip and cosmopolitan too far.
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