Good Afternoon
Good Afternoon

Phayathai Restaurant

Phayathai's tom kha gai -- chicken coconut soup

Phayathai's tom kha gai -- chicken coconut soup -- has a sly electric undercurrent all its own. (Nov. 10, 2012) Credit: Alessandro Vecchi

Phayathai appears to blend into the nondescript Lake Ronkonkoma strip mall it's tucked into. What defines the restaurant turns out to be neither its location nor minimalist decor.

Overheard at the cashier's station: A guy picking up a takeout order says to the waiter behind the counter, "Let me work in your kitchen. No need to pay me; I just want to know how to make food like this."

The reason behind his ardor becomes clear with the first spoonful of chef-owner Veerawat Satsri's tom yum goong, the classic Thai shrimp hot and sour soup that's both ringing hot and rife with subtleties. Tom kha gai -- chicken coconut soup -- has a sly electric undercurrent all its own. Even clear chicken soup with vegetables and cellophane noodles harbors fierce flavor.

While a trio of curry puffs may look dull and brown, the flaky, slightly sweet crusts enfold a hyper-savory mixture of curried chicken, potato and onion. So why, then, are vegetable summer rolls only ordinary, chicken satays dry and overcooked?

Satsri proves himself once more with a quintessentially comforting main course noodle soup called radna. Think of it as the soup version of the noodle dish pad si eew, flat noodles with Chinese broccoli and egg in brown gravy. Drunken noodles with chicken successfully walks the line between palate-soothing and palate-searing. Mild yet appealing is basil fried rice with chicken.

Nuances abound in Satsri's crisp, juicy basil duck. Better still is Penang salmon, a thick, perfectly seared fillet plated over spinach and topped with chopped shrimp and a coconut curry sauce. Red curry chicken turns out to be the zinger hoped for. So, too, Penang shrimp curry. And beef with string beans comes up a scorcher. What impresses here is that the level of spicing indicated on the menu is adhered to while requests to turn up or lower the heat are carefully honored.

Finales are anticlimactic. Mango with sticky rice or house-made pumpkin custard could just as well come from any run-of-the mill Thai restaurant. Phayathai, though, is something else entirely.

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