My first visit to Anna after a lengthy lack of her was a happy accident. I blame my husband.
There we were, trolling Holland Avenue in sleet, hungry, cross, on the soggy prowl for a light dinner before the show because we had found no room at the Allium inn next door.
“I thought you made the reservation?”
“You said you’d take care of it so I assumed you would â€¦”
“Sorry, Honey, no. Things got crazy at work and I â€¦ I â€¦ ” He was two steps behind me as we trudged single-file through late-February slush. And there was Anna.
Was that a new sign? (It looked new.) When was the last time I’d eaten at Anna? Five years ago? Ten? Was it still red in there? Will they have room? I climbed the stairs and apparently he followed.
Still red, yes, and yes to room.
But now red with gold accents. And somehow more textured, a bit more lush than I remember it. Perhaps the lighting’s improved since my last visit? We are led to a table in the corner, beneath the wall hangings of Buddha figures, radiant with mirrors and beads.
The usual libation was ordered (a Singha beer for the busy man, a glass of sauvignon blanc for me, from a nearly-negligible-list-that-should-be-improved-upon) and then soup, the classic tom yum spiked with lemongrass and red chilies, followed with the sweet heat of a chicken panang curry, and a tasty tangle of noodles tossed with tofu and shrimp. This was not pad Thai (the irresistible westernized comfort food that is ordered more than any other dish on a Thai menu) but the spicier, more pungent, pad ki mow, which threads chilies and basil through the soft and crunchy noodles. It was tasty stuff, served up quickly. I returned for a more leisurely look a week later, armed with a reservation.
Anna is 11 years old. She is not Thai restaurateur Art Akarapanich’s first restaurant in this city (that would be Siam Kitchen, now no longer one of Art’s holdings) and neither is she his oldest (Sweet Basil on Bank Street at Heron Road predates Anna) but she’s no spring chicken, either. And yet she’s looking pretty fresh these days.
I like Anna’s peanut sauce. It has good balance and great crunch. And it elevates everything it touches, including the sate of skewered chicken.
There is an appetizer on many Thai restaurant menus that I tend to order because it’s often fun and tasty and because I’d never do this at home. It involves boning and stuffing chicken wings with vermicelli noodles and fragrant ground pork. (I mean, really, why bother?) Sadly, these weren’t up to scratch. Deep fried, they arrived dry and tasteless.
I’ve learned to keep the appetizers to a minimum in most Thai restaurants, as they tend to spike a bill. But I can’t resist at least one salad (yum). A grilled beef salad with a pungent and spicy lime dressing, or the laab, a Thai minced chicken salad with scallions, cellophane noodles and fresh mint, both good here.
Anna offers up two pad Thais. One they call “international style” that caters to the North American palate that tends to favour sweetness above all, and the other a Ketchup-less pad Thai, called “original style” with a paste of tamarind, dried shrimp and chili peppers, and with bean sprouts and peanuts for chomp.
We feel thoroughly cheated by the paucity of seafood in the seafood special. Plus, what’s tangled in the noodles – three shrimp, a few bay scallops – is nothing special. And we wish the steamed duck was less chewy in its ginger bath. But the curries are deeply aromatic, their heat well balanced, and the meat still tender.
Mango ice cream is studded with dried fruit. It’s good, but it used to come with a mango sauce, which boosted the mango flavour, and a boost it could use. The ginger crÃ¨me brulÃ©e is delicious. And if you like tapioca, you will like these green, chewy pearls. You bob for them in a sweet coconut milk custard studded with ice.
Service is all business. Not unpleasant, but neither much interested in us. And if you show up for lunch at 1:40, your greeting will be “we close in 20 minutes.”
I’m more a fan of “good afternoon.”