June 24, 2013 | BITE: My Journal
Family Ways at Uncle Boons
Glad our server urged us to order Northern Thai Golden Curry with crisp egg noodles.
Our gang of five contemplate the five bright green betel leaves we are meant to wrap around an Asian mélange, sitting on top of each green, for a dip into a rust-hued sauce. Pretty indeed, but perhaps a little skimpy for $12, I think. With the first drippy bite, the turnaround is quick. Eyes widen at the brilliant concerto of flavors -- toasted coconut, salty dried shrimp, peanuts and chile heat dancing against the intense, peppery essence of green.
Traditional ginger, lime, coconut snack to wrap with betel leaf is surprising thrill.
Then forks focus on a generous hill of mango salad, scooping up strings of green mango with avocado and shallots, crisp dried squid and crushed peanuts. I tear off a triangle of the warm, flaky roti and fill it with nubbins of chicken liver, leaking thin pineapple curry. I’m enjoying the unusual mix, even though the livers aren’t caramelized or as rare as I hoped they might be.
Crispy dried squid sits in a hill of green mango salad with avocado and crushed peanuts.
Our crew is excited now. We’d been briefly annoyed by no-booze cocktails, disdaining the Tamarind Shandy and a Galangal-lime spritzer for coconut water, beer, rosé in a water glass and Riesling.
That’s always the gamble of the unknown we tirelessly seek. The extended crew of obsessed foodies I count among my more constant pals tends to pick up vibes of dining triumphs when they’re just small peeps. They are like weather-casters trailing a tornado, sniffing out the heat of what could be the next un-gettable table. “Uncle Boons,” they started chorusing some days ago. People were talking it up.
Thai souvenirs on the brick wall, small wooden tasting plates, Buddha on brass forks.
So we’re surprised to see so many empty tables last Friday night. Of course we’re 7:30 early birds. We’ve been parked in the small, dark back room with Thai photos and posters on bare brick walls, a flea market or family attic’s worth of tschokas, assorted chandeliers and the whimsy of antiqued mirror above our heads.
The back room, surprisingly empty when we settle in, draws a late night crowd.
“We could be in Brooklyn,” one says. “I definitely feel I’m not in New York,” says Henry. The sing-song, ticky-tack of the 70’s Thai pop enhances that illusion. That and the small, wooden plates, a deliberate retro touch, with Buddha embossed on the handle of brass forks from the collection of Ann Redding.
All of us favor roasted chicken and banana blossom salad, a chef’s gift with afterkick.
She and Matt Danzer met in the kitchen of Per Se. Now they are husband and wife, chefs in this narrow storefront, cooking the food of her Northern Thai family. Authentic ingredients, childhood memories, dishes both rustic and patrician. I’m not sure whether this Issan Thai food is just new to me, or if what’s exciting me is due to the finesse they bring with them from Thomas Keller’s kitchen.
“Is the place named for the movie ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives’?” one of my friends asks our server.
“No, there really is an Uncle Boon,” she says. “There’s a drawing of him on the menu. He might come from Thailand soon to check us out.”
Our very British server points to the menu category called “Thai Drinking Food and Small Plates,” $10 to $16. “All our plates are good to share,” she begins. No surprise. It’s the anthem of our time. She urges us to each order three small plates, a grill and an entrée. We ignore her pushiness and send her off for four starters while we discuss what else to order. There’s no pad Thai, but so much else sounds vaguely familiar. And yet …different.
Mee krob sweetbreads noodle salad, peanuts, dried shrimp, sawtooth herb, tamarind.
Mee krob with sweetbreads is daring and delicious. The battered nubbins are fried and served with crispy noodles, peanuts, dried shrimp, grassy sawtooth leaf and tamarind sauce. And what is this? “A gift from the chef,” says our waitress. Spicy roasted chicken and banana blossom with crushed cashew, crispy shallots and a serious afterkick. It’s our favorite dish. My tiny camera was the giveaway, I guess.
Charcoal grilled baby octopus, heads-on-prawns in the shell and blowfish tails.
I shy away from ordering the grilled seafood plate for two, priced at $28, knowing we would need two and a half portions. Now it comes, a gift of the chef: Baby octopus grilled to a crunch, smoky giant prawns with their shells on, and tiny blowfish tails. They’re crusty too, and soft within. Eat the sweet flesh and leave the spine.
Mommy Pai’s grilled Issan style pork and rice sour sausage
Uncle Boons is not what we expected. Or shall I say it’s more than we expected? Grilled Issan pork and rice sour sausages, billed as “Mommy Pai’s recipe,” would traditionally be fermented outside back home in Maryland where Redding grew up. Here, they sit three days in the cold box to acquire that intriguing tang.
Seared chicken livers in pineapple curry and holy basil to stuff into flaky roti.
I’m glad we listen when the server urges us to try the northern-style Golden Curry with chicken, homemade egg noodles, pickled mustard greens and coconut milk. “How can we cut the leg into pieces?” I ask, and in seconds five serrated knives arrive. It’s marvelous too. I come back for more. The sticky rice she said we’d want comes packed in plastic in a tricky straw basket. “Otherwise, it would dry out instantly,” Redding tells me over the phone the next day.
Massaman beef cheek curry with potato, red onion, peanuts and green peppercorn.
We’re slowing down now. Too many extra dishes. Too many “Mains,” $20 to $32. We can only taste the massaman curry beef cheeks just as the pork trotter arrives. It’s the special of the night. No way this posse could resist. True, a lot of it is knuckle bones and most of it is fat, but there’s juicy meat to dig out too, soft bones and cartilage clinging to crisp skin, enough for now and dinner tomorrow. It comes with a beautifully oozing soft boiled egg, pickled shallots and orange chili vinegar.
Our quintet barely makes a dent in the evening special, marvelous crusty pig’s foot.
Josephine is game for dessert. There is only one: Coconut ice cream sundae with palm sugar whipped cream, roasted peanuts and toasted coconut, both salty and sweet. Our forks follow her lead. It’s half eaten by the time I focus my camera.
Spoons attacked this coconut ice cream classic with palm sugar whipped cream.
We’ve spent $60 per person, with a little extra tip as a thank you for the freebies. It would have been $80 each if we’d paid for the seafood grill. We all agree we’re coming back. I’m eager to try the “Beer Slushie” we sneered at early in the evening. It’s supposedly a great refresher in the Thai heat. Worth the research.
Buddha and Thai knickknacks in the wall cupboard add to that out of Manhattan feel.
And all of us want to try the mahogany burnished chicken we can see revolving on the rotisserie through the kitchen window in the bar, as we dodge the crowds in the front room to hit the street. And maybe the real Uncle Boon will stop by to check us out.
7 Spring Street between Elizabeth Street and The Bowery. 646 370 6650. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight. Sunday till 10 pm. Closed Monday.
Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.
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