Years of easy access to Thai food have probably made us blasé about it. But do you remember your first taste of a Thai curry? I do. The sweet-sour-salty-citrus-heat of it blew my twenty-something head off. I was hooked and I’ve never looked back.
Ottawa has a number of fine Thai restaurants (and a number who do dumbed-down, short-cut Thai). Siam Bistro is up there among the finer ones. It doesn’t take Thai food in adventurous directions – for that, head to Datsun or Sidedoor – and the menu looks like many other Thai menus (long and predictable), but for the comfort of a well-balanced pad Thai, a searing yum and layered curry, this WellingtonWest restaurant delivers in spades, and has done so under the current team of owner Montha McGinnis and head chef Phasara Thong for 20 years come November.
That bit of news blew my head off too: it seemed just the other day that Mrs. McGinnis bought the restaurant from then owner Philip Lai (of the Siam Kitchen on Bank Street).
I learned of the impending anniversary at the launch party for ‘A Taste for Life’ at The Urban Element last month. Siam Bistro was one of four restaurants offering food for the lunch-time well wishers, and it made me hungry for a revisit.
It hasn’t survived the decades without some heartache: 10 years ago, a fire gutted the restaurant. When it reopened many months later, Siam Bistro was a prettier place: the cavern feel of the room had become more intimate, the lighting softer, the long space gilded, stripped down and styled up.
The women who work the room are garbed in traditional silk dress. I feel like I’ve been seeing some of them for 20 years as well. They work hard, these women, mostly ferrying bulging bags of takeaway to waiting customers. As a sit-down diner at Siam Bistro, you compete a bit with those ordering takeout, but once you’ve managed to place an order, the food arrives lickety-split. It is generous in portion (pay heed when you are told a fourth dish will be too much food), particularly if you’ve ordered a few starters.
Those starters will spike the bill. And though they are very good — skewers of marinated chicken arrive still smoking from the grill with a pleasingly nubbly peanut sauce; the vegetable spring rolls are well packed, mushroom-earthy and tightly sealed so the deep fry oil doesn’t penetrate their tasty filling — you can keep costs in check if you head straight for the mains.
From the ‘Vegetables’ section, we like the firm chunks of eggplant that mingle with milky tofu, onions, peppers, and a generous handful of basil leaves in a lightly sweet, soy-fish gravy. The juice that pools around sautéed squid is more pungent, more piquant, with coriander root and garlic and lots of cracked black pepper.
There is pad Thai, of course, and every table around me has ordered it. I prefer the spicier pad kee mao (or ‘drunken noodles’) with tender strips of pork, lime juice, shallots, chillies and basil. If you can handle the heat, it has always given pad Thai a serious run for its money.
If you like your Thai on the sweet and mild side, avoid the beef yum (salad). For those who crave sour, pungent, bitter flavours, and enjoy some chilli-“pow” perked with a fruit bowl’s worth of lime juice, this is for you. A coconut milk-rich sauce that unites seafood with basil, lime leaves and a litter of chillies is good just spooned on its own — even when the last shrimp has been stolen by your “friend’s” fork.
Ice cream is the extent of dessert. Wines by the glass are more restricted than we’d like. Drink beer with this good food and cheers to the next twenty!