Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Restaurant Review: Noodle Boat Thai

I’ll admit it, I haven’t had many happy experiences with Thai cuisine. Several times I have followed an excited friend to a restaurant that supposedly had ‘great thai food’ only to find myself staring down at the same tropically sweet coconut curry swimming with the usual assortment of coarsely chopped mixed veggies. Somehow I always got the impression that the chefs were simply cleaning out the back of their fridge and mixing the lot with canned sauce. True, coconut milk covers a multitude of sins, but it cant turn leftovers into a gourmet dish on its own. Still, in spite of such experiences, I have remained hopeful, so when a friend of a friend who works for the Seattle Times invited Jeff and I on a culinary expedition to a Thai restaurant that has been garnering amazing reviews, I couldn’t help but feel excited.

At first sight, Noodle Boat Thai doesn’t appear very promising. Its name isn’t particularily evocative (not that this is ever much of an indicator of a restaurant’s quality) and it is squeezed into an out of the way strip-mall in Issiquah, next to a nail salon. Even with the GPS in tow we had a hard time spotting it at first. But trust the reviews, inside this place is a jewel box , its tiny space crammed with richly colored statues and tapestries that the owners have collected over the years. Walk through the restaurant to the right and you will find yourself surrounded by umbrella shaded tables, lush foliage, and gilded shrines in the surprising oasis of the outdoor patio.

We set up camp outside and were promptly presented with copies of the restaurant's menu; a heavy hand-made tome that looked like a veritable necronomicon of Thai cuisine. Our attentive waitress gave us advice on what to order and which dishes were best served hot or mild. We started with Thai Iced tea which arrived in charming terra cotta pots. I’ve always had mixed feelings about Thai Iced tea; on its own it can be overwhelmingly sweet, but if consumed with a spicy meal it has the same soothing effect as Indian raita. In this case, I was wise to order it for just such a reason.

For our appetizer we chose Mieng Kum; an incredible array of condiments ( chopped ginger, dried shrimp, minced red onions, dried chilis, toasted coconut, limes, and sugar palm sauce) in separate small blue and white saucers, surrounded by edible leaves called Cha Plu. The leaves were mostly bland on their own, but one is meant to fold them into cup shapes and then fill them with the items of one’s choosing. The effect is an explosive mouthful that runs the gamut of salty, sweet, sour and spicy all in one bite. Because of the dish’s small size and potency, it is truly an appetizer in the original sense of the word- not filling but very effective at stimulating the appetite for things to come.

Next up, the oddly named Queen of Banana: Steamed banana blossom with chicken, shrimp, lime leaves, mint, onion, and cilantro, tossed with coconut milk and chili paste. This was an amazingly tart and fresh dish, pleasantly dominated by the mint and lime. The steamed banana blossom had a tender and juicy texture not unlike artichoke hearts, which the chewier notes of the chicken and shrimp, and the crunch of the other vegetables balanced out nicely.

Our second entree of Lard Nha was the only one we ordered with a medium level of spice (Im ashamed to say that I have always been rather a light-weight when it comes to hot dishes). Wide, silky noodles were stir fried with brocoli and beef in a rich and spicy black bean sauce. This was one of the more savory dishes that we ordered but it still contained a subtle hint of sweetness.

For our third dish we chose the Halloween Curry (so named because it contains Thai pumpkin). This one was the big one for me, would this be just the sort of curry dish that I had been dreading? Judging by the previous dishes, all signs already pointed to no. The curry arrived in a ceramic pumpkin dish (they do not skimp on presentation at Noodle Boat) and was so delicious that I was literally shocked. I have never been a big fan of the squash family, but each golden nugget of pumpkin was so perfectly cooked-soft but not mushy, and had just the right balance of salty and sweet that I may become a convert. We ordered the curry with pork but the meat was rather lost next to the pumpkin so I would keep it vegetarian next time.

Our last dish of Volcano Gem Hen was something we ordered simply because the description on the menu contained the admonition 'Volcano not lit for customers under 21'. How could re resist finding out what that was all about? A tiny roasted hen (about the size of a cornish hen) was drenched in alcohol, briefly set alight by the waitress, and then doused in a sticky sauce. Since we were out on the patio in full daylight, the intended visual effect was somewhat lost, but the resulting extra crispy skin was delightful. The salty hen was the perfect foil to the preceding sweet and semi-sweet dishes, it almost acted as a sort of palatte cleanser in that regard. Not the most complex thing we ordered but definitely flavorful and tender.

All three of us regretted ordering so many dishes (or at least our stomachs did) but when you are trying out a new restaurant you want to sample as many offerings as possible, there is simply no avoiding it. I would most definitely return to Noodle Boat despite it being a half hour drive from Seattle (Jeff and I have driven much further in pursuit of a good meal), as far as my limited knowledge of the cuisine goes, the menu was authentic, surprising, and delicious. I encourage those who are more familiar with traditional Thai dishes to make the effort of visiting Noodle Boat, as I would love to hear your opinion! Dont be daunted by the drive or the location, critics praise the hidden gems of the restaurant world time and again, and this is definitely one of them.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

True Grit

I was out walking today, as I am every day, rain or shine, and found my originally purposeful stroll transforming into more of a wander. Wandering, that is walking with no purpose or destination in mind, is one of the best ways to get to know a city in my opinion. Its plan is allowed to unfold in an organic fashion, rather than in geometric fits and starts, and one can see some of the spirit that lies beneath the familiar constellations of shops and galleries.

Artifact from the pre-internet porn days; the soon to close Lusty Lady peep show sits shoulder to shoulder with its high class neighbors.

On this occasion I was struck by how visible the myriad historic layers of seattle are, each stratum layered one on top of the other in a jumble of eras and textures. Boston is like this, but even Boston's crazed streets appear reasonable when compared to the exuberant mess of hills and buildings that is downtown Seattle. Victorian edifices of genteel brick are sandwiched between brash new apartment buildings with mirrored sides, streets carry on more or less straight and then plunge alarmingly to sea level, past tipsy earthquake cracked warehouses, and under the giantess legs of the viaduct. Rusting iron and corroded stone slump beneath the glowing tubes of neon signs, and the rain forest encroaches wherever it can; slimy moss on sidewalks, ferns clinging tenaciously to alley walls like terrestrial mollusks. And then there are the encircling mountains, the lares and penates of the city, who only show their timeworn faces to us mortals when they choose, but whose mercurial weather moods shape the pattern of our days. So many tiers of time and place, it can be dizzying

The hidden world beneath the viaduct.

I would like to compare all this to the concentric rings of a tree; a legible timeline reaching back to the city's beginnings, but that is far too orderly of a metaphor for this great gritty place. Seattle is an eroded cliffside, where the young soil has been washed away haphazardly to expose layer upon layer of ancient rock. It is transparent new skin stretched over old bones, it is a tide wrought wharf where many colored woods shine beneath clusters of armored sea creatures. It is beautiful. The eye is never made weary, but is always intrigued anew by the mysteries each bit of architecture and landscape promises.

A post apocalyptic scene; the sun sets behind a crumbling wall near the wharf.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Modern Pilgrimage

As you can surmise from my last posting, Jeff and I have left Boston. After years of procrastination, worry, and dreaming, we are finally taking our relationship with the city of Seattle to a new level. We dare to believe, you see, that this lovely, quirky city ruled by mountains and sea will eventually become a place that we can call 'home' in all senses of the word. This is the first time that either of us has chosen a place to live- not for school, not for work, not for family, but simply for pleasure. Its an exciting choice to make but it carries many burdens. We are both further away from friends and family than we have ever been-even phone calls require more thought because of the three hour difference from the East Coast. And we have to start our lives over again in may ways, which is terrifying....but also liberating.

We have been here for about two weeks now, having left Boston on May 21st, and what a long and strange trip it was to get here. (Please excuse the haphazard nature of this post....its not an easy thing to tidy the experiences of several weeks into a few neat paragraphs.) We somehow condensed all of our possessions into two 5x7x8 crates (its frightening to see your entire household fit into two flimsy wooden boxes and equally disturbing to see just how much random stuff two people can accumulate in 8 plus years) and had them shipped on ahead of us to Seattle. We put our very angry cat into another crate (dont worry, this one was designed for animals) and waved goodbye to him at the airport. It was strange to think of so many details of our lives arriving before us, but I guess the thought was that our new world could start to take shape ahead of us and all we would have to do was show up.

We then embarked on what I can only call a modern pilgrimage. Ten days of driving, from coast to coast, across a portion of the United States that was entirely a blank for me before this. We decided to drive instead of flying for practical reasons (we needed some way to get our car to Seattle) but also because we had never done the fabled 'cross country road trip' before and we felt that a more gradual transition from one city to the next would make the change less painful. It is true that the lengthy trip made adjustment easier on some level...after just a few long days on the road we began to feel like gypsys, with no past, no future, just an endless present, and with no goals except to drive, always keep driving, mile after mile. Our usual comforts were stripped away and all of our desires regressed (or evolved?) to basics: sleep, food, gas, beer, coffee. And strangely, we were never lonely. Our trip was an instant conversation starter and we found ourselves chatting with locals all across the country. Our city aversion to conversation with strangers was soon eradicated and we found friends in the most unexpected places.

And the land....oh the land. I hate to sound so tritely patriotic, but somewhere along the way I fell in love with America. Such rugged beauty, such timelessness and all there, right under my nose. In the mornings I witnessed the gentle mating of earth and sky as clouds embraced the mountain tops, and at night the sky became our theater; a bowl of stars upended over the road. I watched the colors of the land change from the vibrant spring greens and yellows of New England to the watercolor tints of the Midwest: subdued ocher and russet cliffs, pale gold and sage green fields, and milky aquamarine rivers. In cattle country where the soil was rocky and dry and the hills were wild, I saw the importance of the overstated ranch gates, how they stood like symbolic shinto thresholds, keeping out the chaos of the wilderness and demarcating the human cosmos within. In the mountains I saw burn zones, where incinerated pine trees stood like strokes of charcoal against rocks coated in brilliant orange lichen. Later, I watched as those jagged peaks transformed into gentler hills; bunched folds of green velvet along lazy rivers. I saw endless fields of glistening obsidian, where a 2000 year old volcano had erupted, and I faced my own fear to explore the caves that lava flows had carved.

Most importantly, I saw a bit of the essential difference between the East and the West. In the East, everywhere you see the mark of man's hand and the passage of human time: how cities were birthed and evolved, how industry subdued the land, how paths became roads. The countryside is familiar, gentle, and nonthreatening. In the West, the cities are fewer and farther between and everywhere you see the mark of Nature's hand and nature's history; how ancient rivers carved valleys, how the earth heaved up and became mountains. The West has a terrible beauty; it makes you feel small and powerless, but somehow it also makes you feel whole, makes you realize that you cannot exist independently of the natural world that birthed you.

So I guess this trip was not an ordeal, it was a learning experience. And all poetic appreciation aside, here are some of the concrete lessons that I learned:

1. Coastal cities are not the only depositories of culture in the United States.
2. People are the same everywhere...but they seem to get friendlier that farther you travel from the East Coast.
3. Coffee in the morning makes everything okay
4. Laptops and GPSs are not examples of evil technology, on the road, they are your best friends.
5. The purest things I have ever seen are the roadside signs that read simply: Beer Gas Food. Thats the holy trinity on a road trip man, thats all you need to feel human.
6. No matter how intellectual you think you are, after six straight hours or driving, all conversation will regress to baby talk and belligerent babbling.
7. A bull Bison can and will fuck you up if you mess with him
8. Chicago has the best Mexican food
9. Beer can be used as a bartering tool
10. Home is not a fancy house with a picket fence, it is wherever you can put down your bags and lay your head at night next to the person you love.

We're here Seattle, are you ready for us? Are we ready for you?....