Ottawa's first Thai restaurant still serves good good

[Restaurant Review by Anne DesBrisay(Ottawa Citizen -Feb 23/2002]

People have asked me how I determine which restaurant to review.

Does the Citizen tell me where to go? (No) Do people write with suggestions? (Yes, thank you.) Do I have a roster of restaurants I re-review from time to time? (Yes.)

Then there are chefs who move around, making an established restaurant fell new again. Restaurants close and restaurants open. And then, sometimes, I lock my keys in the car at lunchtime right beside a restaurant that had its last review in 1994 and was clearly due for a visit. That's how this restaurant critic determined the Siam Kitchen was next on the list.

At 22 years old, the Siam Kitchen has the distinction of being Ottawa's first Thai restaurant. Opened in 1980 by Art Akarapanich, the Kitchen introduced Ottawa to what lemon grass, lime leaves, galangal and chilies could do to a chicken stock.

It has changed owners a few times. The Siam Kitchen is now in the hands of Philip Lai and his family (and Art now owns Sweet Basil, the Green Papaya and Anna).

The old place looks as if it's been around a while. Dark with teak-stained panelling, worn-in low-pile carpet, the Siam Kitchen occupies two rooms, each about the same size, with seating for 50 or so on hard wooden chairs. The tables are bare. The service is kind.

The place smells good.

"I'll have the gang keow warn goong, please," said the women to the waiter.

"But could you add some spice? I don't want it too bland," she continued. "Mind you, I don'w want it to burn me either - just a tingle on the lips, nothing too much down the throat. I mean, if its spicy aleady, you can leave it as it is, but don't burn me, OK? If its burns me, I'll have to send it back."

Ahhh, the perils of reading between those spicy-stars on a Thai restaurant menu. (Not to mention the perils of being a waiter!)

This scene (I'm not making it up) was played at my neighbour's table as I waited fro my soup to arrive. I don't know if she was pleased with the quotient in her Thai green curry, because my knight in shining armour, riding his CAA tow truck, arrived to restore me to my van. When I returned to order more lunch, the spice-sensitive diner was paying her bill.

Having finished my soup (hot, sour and sweet, with mushrooms, lemon grass, scallions, lime leaves, galangal and chilies - quite rustic, hightly flavourful), I then ordered the gang keow warn goong myself. I liked the eggplant in this dish, which shared the platter with shrimp, red peppers, snow peas and bambo shoots, in a fired up coconut milk curry broth, the heat considerable but not uncomfortable.

When I returned for dinner (my husband drove), we began with the fish cakes, served with sweet and sour sauce of chopped cucumber and peanuts mixed with chilies and green onions.

The eggplant with tofu was fragrant with basil, hot with chilies and pretty with red and green peppers, succhini and onions complementing the chunks of purple-skinned eggplant and beancurd. The shrimp with cashews but long on flavour, with the shrimp mostly good (one mealy one). I found the pad Thai too sweet for my liking, although its various elements - noodles, shrimp, egg, peanut, bean sprouts - were all fine.

The ginger flavour was strong in the pad Kind with pork and the chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves were moist, favourful nuggest spiked with a spicy, sweet sesame dip.

We drank beer and tea with this and paid a bill of about $70 for a dinner for two, with lefovers for lunch.

I haven't decided where I'll eat next week. But I have decided to make sure I bring my CAA card - or an extra set of car keys.

1050 Bank St. Ottawa ON K1S 3X2