Thursday, May 1, 2008
The key word on the mammoth menu can be found underneath an entrée called Crazy Mad Fish. “Awakening,” it reads, as in “An awakening of fish in Thai spicy salad: golden fish filet, topped with original extremely spicy flavor of fresh Thai chili and lime dressing.”
This particular noun, of course, can mean “a realization”; here, the realization is delicious: that traditional Thai dishes really sing when harmonized skillfully with local seafood. The Crazy Mad Fish was just the first filet of evidence – all the other collisions of seafood and traditional Southeast Asian curries, soups and treatments my collaborators and I tried succeeded, too. Prices for the of-the-sea options aren’t as cheap as the chicken, pork or tofu, of course, but the fish – from Monterey Fish Company and, occasionally, Phil’s Fish Market – is fresh and the flavor is legit, so the value is there. The Crazy Mad Fish ($14.95) is certifiably flavorful, with a very light batter on a tilapia slab, a vibrant homemade lime sauce with subtle shots of apple and cashews, and an edible orchid that offers a nice accent (they pay attention to presentation here). For first-timers like my amiga and me, our sweet server dropped some different fresh chili sauces on the table so we could gauge how much we wanted to activate our sweat glands.
The Crab Fried Rice ($11.95) I tried on a separate visit, however, was even better. Fresh snow crab meat found its way into every stir-fried forkful of nicely spiced Thai jasmine rice, making this one a simple-but-adorable star here.
Not that the curries couldn’t kick it. We tried a panang and a mango curry (from a full range of options to pair with veggies, tofu, mock duck, chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, squid or mixed seafood, $6.95-$7.95; $10.95 for seafood options). Both were spot on – if forced to choose I’d recommend mango for its originality (or get the panang, and have the worthy mango sticky rice, $5.95, for dessert).
An intriguing little something called a Crispy Tofu Salad ($7.95) was also excellent. It’s one of a few dynamic salads, including a diced salmon dish with ground roasted rice, onion, chili, mint and lime juice ($9.95).
A pair of more standard plates – the Thai fresh rolls ($5.95 with quality peanut and plum sauces) and Tom Kha coconut soup ($8.95-$11.95/pot) – were both sizable, sturdy and satisfying.
Despite three visits, though, we were barely able to dent the menu: These dishes make up a fraction of the action at the six-month-old Moss Landing haunt. Counting the drink menu, there are eight panels pimping everything from Pearl Lobster ($27.95) and Crispy Flake Fish Salad ($12.95) to Drunken Noodles (with hot basil leaves, $6.95-$7.95) and Masaman Lamb (South Thailand-style braised lamb, $20.95). It guarantees a dish fitting each diner’s tastes no matter his or her Thai-food tendencies.
The ambiance at the converted house where Highway 1 meets Moss Landing Road is nothing to blog home about, but the energy is friendly and relaxed. A small bar sits in the front room, one of three medium-size spaces; there are around 20 tables all told.
In fact, the only fish bone I could pick was the service, which tended toward the adventuresome. We had to remind our server that we’d love those Lemongrass beers (a custom-labeled version of English Ales’ Big Sur Golden, with a little lemon) we ordered, and the sequencing was a little out of whack, with the entrees hitting the table before the soup.
A call-in for pick up was similarly strained; fortunately a clarification from the kind people on duty saved an over-order (“You really want five orders of panang?”).
The fortunate flip side of the language barrier is that leadership behind this joint brings first-generation-immigrant expertise to the flavor equation.
Nina Udomsri, a longtime chef at John Pisto’s Abalonetti’s on Fisherman’s Wharf, had wanted to open the place for a long time, and draws support from her husband, Nate, a restaurant man himself, and other family.
“My sister, my uncle, my cousin all help,” says her son Nathan, who works there as a server. “They’re from Thailand; I was born here in Monterey.”
Nathan recommends the Silverboat ($15.95) and the Seafood Combination ($16.95). He agrees they could be called eye-opening – even downright awakening.
LEMONGRASS SEAFOOD BAR AND GRILL 413 Moss Landing Rd., Moss Landing. • 11am-9pm Tue-Sun. • 633-0700.