DINING OUT; Near Wesleyan University, a Spot for Thai
By PATRICIA BROOKS
THAI cuisine debuted and had its 15 minutes of fame in Connecticut a few years ago, but Thai Gardens in Middletown is proof that you can't keep an intriguing cuisine down.
What makes this small place so appealing is the authenticity of its food. But that's not all. Add to that an airy, spic-and-span restaurant and a staff willing and eager to serve. Still another bonus is the dining set-up. In addition to tables and a few booths are four curtained-off areas in the second, inner room. Each of these quasi-private tables is surrounded by a bench instead of chairs. The curtains are cafe-style, so you aren't totally separated from the regular dining room, but have considerable privacy.
The Thai menu is sizable with many delightful, freshly prepared choices. Among a handful of starters, we liked especially mee krob, an old favorite, a delicious jumble of crispy rice noodles, shrimp, egg threads, scallions and bean sprouts in a sweet-spicy sauce.
Yum goong, intriguingly identified in English as ''jumping shrimp,'' consisted of boiled shrimp mixed with onion, ground chili and lime, achieving that traditional Thai balance of spicy and tart. Satay (thin beef squares marinated in coconut milk and curry sauce, skewered and charcoal-broiled) and spring rolls (fresh chopped veggies in crisply browned wontons, with a plum sauce dip) were more predictable, but fresh-tasting and appetite-tweaking nonetheless.
Thai soups are usually rewarding and tom yum goong was no exception, with its shrimp and mushrooms in a deceptively clear broth boasting of chili, lemongrass and lime, all in proper balance, none dominating.
There are eight curries on the Thai Gardens menu, made with differently-seasoned sauces. We found the red curry with chicken a delectable marriage of sweet and hot, with small slices of chicken breast, snow peas, broccoli, mushrooms and thin bamboo shoot slats in a subtle coconut milk bath.
The stalwart pad Thai, a substantial noodle specialty, combined sweet chantaboon noodles with shrimp, scallions and bean sprouts, topped with a sprinkling of ground peanuts. At Thai Gardens this old standby was tender and in top form.
Crispy duck, a house specialty, arrived as a plate of crisp-skinned fowl, cut into segments, tossed with tomato, carrots and pineapple cubes.
We subsequently ordered this, among other dishes, as take-out, but concluded it should be eaten stove-to-plate-fresh to preserve its crispness. Popular as take-out has become, it rarely does justice to steaming direct-from-the-wok Asian cooking.
We reveled in the sizzling presentation of pla lad prig and also the bounce of the chilli-garlic sauce that enveloped the sweet-flavored, deep-fried whole red snapper.
Basil beef, another Thai classic, was a medley of stir-fried beef slices, red peppers, onions, sculpted carrot slices and mushrooms, tossed with fresh sweet basil and red-hot chillis. Our only real quibble with Thai Gardens was the repetition of vegetables used in various dishes. How about excursions beyond carrots, onions, broccoli, mushrooms and red pepper strips in almost every dish? As so many dishes are shared by a couple or among a group, greater vegetable variety would be appreciated.
Desserts, as at many Asian restaurants, are minimal here, though we did enjoy Thai custard, a thick, rich coconut milk confection with a shredded butternut squash topping. Refreshing alternatives are lychees in syrup or ice cream.
A three-course dinner for two, before tax, tip or drinks, came to a surprisingly modest $37. The wine list is minuscule, but Thailand's Singha beer is available and makes a refreshing accompaniment for the complex seasonings of Thai cooking.
Thai Gardens has so much going for it -- fresh food, low prices, simple but agreeable surroundings and genial stewardship -- that for fans of Thai food, it deserves to be starred, in the parlance of travel guides, as ''worth a detour.'' For visitors to Wesleyan University, it's just a short stroll from campus.
300 Plaza Middlesex, Middletown CT
ATMOSPHERE -- A two-room, starchy-clean, white-tablecloth storefront, attractively done up with Thai artifacts: gilded statues, peacock feather fans, baskets and gold-thread embroidered wall hangings.
NOISE LEVEL -- Conversational.
SERVICE -- Friendly, quick and accommodating.
RECOMMENDED DISHES -- Satay, mee krob, yum goong, tom yum goong soup, pad Thai, crispy duck, red curry, basil beef, ginger chicken, kao pad, pla lad prig, Thai custard, lychees in syrup.
CREDIT CARDS -- All major cards.
RESERVATIONS -- Accepted, recommended on weekends.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBILITY -- Ground level.