Trolling Gatineau for solid French food can be a hit-and-miss affair these days. But if it’s Thai cooking you’ve a hankering for, Old Hull has a few good options. This is one of them. At least on most days it’s one of them.
La Maison Samorn is hardly glamorous – just two tidy rooms rimmed in yellow, with a goodly amount of elephant art. Plants cover a window ledge. The floor has a scattering of bamboo mats, and lemon-coloured linen drape the 15 or so tables in two small rooms.
You find the glam in the flavours on the plates. Here are all those fab Thai flavours we northerners seem never to weary of – the sweet of cane sugar, the zing of chillies, lemongrass and galangal, the licorice zip of basil, the pungent tones from fish sauce, the sourness of lime juice and tamarind paste, and the sweet-soothing balm of coconut milk.
Samorn Pedthong comes to her own maison from 10 years cooking on the Thai side of the Mandarin Ogilvie’s menu. Before that, mom also catered for 20 years for various Thai embassies. Samorn now runs La Maison Samorn together with her daughters, Malee and Oranuj.
It is a typical Thai restaurant – nothing goes beyond the yawningly familiar menu of fried appetizers, soups, salads, curries, stir-fries, with the usual proteins and the usual season-be-damned vegetables – but the food is a cut above. This is not a ketchup and coconut eatery (everything too-sweet, too reliant on coconut milk to cover the lack of Thai flavours). The cunning layering of Thai spicing is evident in these dishes.
Although you may want Samorn to crank up the heat. The default, particularly at lunch, is to de-punch dishes. I miss the fire in the yum (Thai salad) but the lab kai is an otherwise pungently delicious plate of steamed chicken with lime, onions, fresh mint and toasted rice powder, and with a token toss of red chillies. The summer brightness of mint makes the beef salad stand out as well.
Samorn’s curries have depth and spark. Pork is tender in the panaeng, the sauce robust and just creamy enough. Chicken is moist and soft in the slightly more fiery green curry, a full-bodied stew best dumped on a wide mound of steamed rice. Noodle dishes are not the gummy, ketchupped versions you find in most other places. These are a spirited jumble of noodle, egg, peanuts, sprouts, and shrimp, with just the right balance of oil to slicken and separate.
We order a cut-above calamari dish. Good too are the spicy green beans with steamed chicken, and a garlicky broccoli stir-fry – though the latter seems expensive at $15.
For those who want beer with this food, there are the usual suspects.
Wine drinkers, will notice a decent list of wines that work well with this spicy, herby food, some available by the half-bottle.
So it was a very good dinner, complete with darling service. A quick lunch a week later revealed some troubles. Tough chicken and chopped-up baby corn in mildly spiced broth does not a delicious soup make. And while the pork stir-fry wasn’t dreadful, it wasn’t as vibrant as it had been the week before, propped up with too much green pepper. I hate green pepper. Bitter, dull, nasty stuff, best eaten raw if you must.
This was a Monday lunch, mind you, and I’m thinking a restaurant open for lunch on Monday, but closed for dinner, isn’t always on top of its game. I know for a fact Samorn is capable of much better.