852 Montauk Hwy., Copiague
SERVICE: Warm, knowledgeable and efficient
AMBIENCE: Simple, elegant
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 9:30 p.m.; beer and wine, plenty of parking, handicap accessible.
Thai restaurants put me into a tizzy.
Are the owners really committed to the rigors of Thai cuisine, or is most of the food Thai in name only? If I don’t order the food spicy, does that mean I’m not getting the authentic Thai experience? Should I be using chopsticks or a fork?
At Simply Thai in Copiague, all my questions were answered while I ate a couple of very satisfying meals.
This is the second Thai restaurant at the western edge of a Copiague strip mall, succeeding the short-lived Thai Red Chillies. Owner Amy Wong, a front-of-the-house alumnus of Kotobuki in Hauppauge, made over the space with comfort and style. The cozy dining room, seating barely 25 patrons, is done up in warm wood, soft grays and odd Far Eastern knickknacks.
When Wong and her partner, chef Nae Wipaporn Sittidej (a native of Thailand), were checking out the competition, they noted the overwhelming sweetness of Thai food on Long Island. Balance is critical to Thai cuisine, and when a traditionally spicy dish is requested mild, the absence of chilies can result in a dish that’s fatally sweet. Wong made it clear to Sittidej that she should “follow her own taste” when spicing the dishes. When tender-palated customers request a mild meal, Wong’s strategy is to direct them to dishes such as pad thai which, with its crowd-pleasing combination of rice noodles, scrambled egg, peanuts, scallions, tamarind paste, fish and soy sauces, go easy on the heat.
In fact, the standouts among starters here were no more incendiary than an egg roll. Beneath the crisp shell of a wedge of chive pancake was a matrix of deep green Chinese chives bound by a springy tapioca batter. Dipped in sweet soy sauce, it can be habit-forming. Mellow pork-shrimp-mushroom dumplings are bundled in tender, pleated wrappers left open on top to accommodate a sprinkling of golden, fried garlic.
Thai restaurants are fertile ground for salad lovers because cool, raw- vegetable dishes actually exist in Thai cuisine and are not fabricated to appeal to Western tastes. (I’m looking at you, over-chilled Japanese iceberg- lettuce salad with carrot-ginger dressing.) A step up the spicy scale from the starters was a winning larb gai, ground chicken made crunchy with toasted rice, lavishly topped with red onion, cilantro and Thai basil. But it was bested by the beef salad, savory grilled slices offset by the frisky flavors of mint, cucumber, tomato and scallion.
We ate our starters and salads with the proffered forks and spoons, which, Wong explained, are the standard Thai utensils. Chopsticks, she said, are used mainly for noodles, so we used them for the pad thai.
As promised, it wasn’t spicy at all, but neither was it candy sweet, and it was topped with six big, tender shrimp.
The highlight of Simply Thai’s noodle dishes is khao soi, which features simmered egg noodles buried beneath a coconut-based, yellow-curry broth, and a crisp tangle of fried egg noodles floating on top. The creamy broth is cut by the sharpness of raw onions and the sour zing of pickled mustard greens. As you eat, submerge the fried noodles in the broth and appreciate their textural transformation from crisp to chewy.
Also stellar was the green curry (we’re back to forks and spoons now), from whose gorgeous, coconut-creamed broth poked bright purple eggplant, squeaky-fresh bamboo shoots, bell pepper and tender slices of chicken.
If you like duck, don’t miss the duck tamarind, a mostly boneless half bird fried super crisp and sauced with sweet (but not cloying) tamarind glaze and showered with fried shallot rings. We much preferred this to the fried, tamarind-sauced whole fish, because duck can stand up to sweet and fried in a way mild red snapper can’t.
When fresh mangoes are available, Simply Thai serves them for dessert with sweet sticky rice. In the non-mango months, such as January, chef Sittidej tints her sticky rice a soft blue with butterfly pea flowers, and tops it with coconut cream and toasted sesame seeds. I’ll go out on a limb and say this was the best blue dessert I ever had.
Disappointments at Simply Thai were few and far between. Curry puffs, a starter, were mushy. The Thai fried rice was flabby. On a frigid night, the dining room was a little too cool for comfort. But service, in the person of Amy Wong, was warm enough to make up for it. Her wise counsel — and Sittidej’s cooking — brought me out of my Thai tizzy.