Saturday, March 8, 2014
It’s getting so that the local boundaries of fine dining are borderless. While we expect striving chefs to populate Portland, one doesn’t necessarily have high expectations—generally speaking--beyond the city limits. That is until Orchid Thai opened in Falmouth last month, housed within an ignominious strip mall along the Route 1 corridor.
The commodious dining room at Orchid Thai is spacious, comfortable and surprisngly not overly noisy because of good accoustics
Orchid Thai is the fourth member of Rattanaphorn Boobphachati’s (Pom to her friends and followers) dining dynasty. Her other three establishments are familiar names: Pom’s Thai Taste on Congress St. in Portland and two Pom’s Thai Taste at opposite ends of South Portland on Cottage Rd. and Western Ave.
Orchid is her most ambitious dining facility to date and an apparent smash hit for the solid well-heeled denizens of Falmouth, Cumberland and Yarmouth.
As one diner said to me, “It’s the only Asian restaurant around for miles.”
After a dinner at Orchid Thai earlier this week I’m completely won over. While I’ve always looked to Portland’s Boda as the standard for inventive Thai cooking, Pom’s new restaurant under the direction of her long-time chef, Sandy Atthakor, is different from all the rest.
Though we didn't go for any of the house's specialty cocktails our drinks, a vodka gimlet and a Manhattan, were expertly made
The cooking does not rely on those sweet-sauced dishes commonly found at many Thai restaurants but instead has more depth of flavor and texture. It’s also not street food or country cooking but rather displays an authenticity of culinary exotica from the Thai provinces.
The space itself is not the typical warehouse of kitsch and gaudiness either. The large dining room with a partially open kitchen is quietly tasteful. The bar, on the other hand, is right out of an LED maven's perception of cool. It's in a separate room, with a light show built into the bar structure, conjuring up, perhaps, an X-rated lounge installed at a family restaurant. Still it's a fun, attractive place to enjoy cocktails and dinner.
The bar can change colors with the flick of a switch
Back to the G-rated dining room, it was filled with a crush of diners the night we arrived mid-week. Service is still a bit disorganized. But they’re feeling their way and probably didn’t expect to be so busy so soon.
The menu has 83 dishes from appetizers, soups, specials, sides, vegetables and a la carte choices. Every dish is numbered, though the sequence is sometimes confusing. Look in all directions on the menu and you’ll figure it out.
A vegan friend joined me that evening. Vegans and carnivores such as myself don’t’ dine together easily, but Asian food is very magnanimous, with something for all tastes.
We started off with the tofu and vegetable soup. The clear broth was rich and flavorful filled with the standard mix of miniature corn, sliced carrots, broccoli stems, mushrooms and cilantro. There was only one wedge of tofu, however, which was disappointing.
Vegetable soup with tofu
Following that was a beautifully presented platter called steamed butterflies, 8 to a serving. It’s the restaurant’s signature dish. They’re filled with a tantalizing mixture of ground caramelized chicken with herbs, ground roasted peanuts and turnips. It’s drizzled with coconut cream and served with soy sauce and cilantro.
The dumpling "butterflies"
We also had veggie dumplings, which were steamed and filled with Asian chives; it's a very light sort of dumpling.
The steamed veggie dumplings served in a cast-iron skillet; they can be pan fried or steamed
Specifically for me I ordered Sai-Auo. This is an unusual curry sausage from Chiang Mal made with a northern curry paste including turmeric and lime leaves mixed in with ground pork. The flavor was both exotic and rich. Though it came dressed with lettuce, fresh ginger, cashews and cilantro I felt it needed a dipping sauce as well. Still it’s a great and very unusual preparation.
Sai-Auo, Thai-style curry sausage was my favorite dish
For my main course I chose the spicy crispy duck. It’s crisped slices of duck breast topped with mushrooms, onions, red pepper and basil leaves in a spicy chili-garlic sauce called Nam Prik Pao, a special chili relish or paste that is a staple in Thai cooking. This was a great dish with both subtle and strong flavors.
My next favorite dish was the crispy duck
The highlight of the meal was the pumpkin curry because of how it was served. All the presentation platters at Orchid Thai are special. And the curry was served in a big copper urn on top of an open flame.
In its copper urn the pumpkin curry with soy nuggest was beautifully presented
The kabocha pumpkin was in a red curry fortified with pepper, carrots and basil leaves--a sensational, colorful rendition. Other curries included shrimp, chicken, pork and seafood. My vegan friend chose the soy “chicken” nuggets to fill the curry dish.
There’s a complete cocktail list and interesting desserts that change daily. Prices are moderately high ($15 to $23 for the bigger dishes), but the few extra dollars are well worth it at this unique Thai dining hall.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.