By Frank Sabatini Jr.
When restaurateur Patty Thongchua opened Chi Extraordinary Kitchen two months ago, she vowed, “I don’t want to be another Thai restaurant.”
As a way of standing out from the pack, she devised a menu tailored to pescatarians. The result is a repertoire of exotically spiced king crab legs, jumbo scallops, meaty white shrimp and other seafood gems that perform as equally well with curries and lemongrass as beef and chicken, if not better.
Thongchua also owns Asian Bistro in Hillcrest and Plumeria in University Heights. The latter caterers exclusively to vegans and does a swell job of it by using a variety of convincing mock meats. At Chi, several vegan dishes are available as well, but they incorporate soft or crispy tofu as the proteins along with plant-based sauces and curries.
The restaurant’s L-shaped interior is quaint and arty. It mixes reclaimed wood with stylish iron chairs, swirled-metal light fixtures and a wall of faux succulents, all conceived by Normal Heights interior designer, Mark Stary.
White coconut crème and mango iced teas served in tall glasses provided the quench for our meal that began with Miang Kham — traditional Thai lettuce wraps folding in toasted coconut, minced ginger, peanuts, lime and shrimp — or tofu if you prefer. Served generously on a round plate with zesty tamarind sauce, each leafy parcel afforded about two bites of fresh, cool flavor.
The teas, by the way, come with sugar cane water on the side, allowing you to adjust the sweetness quickly and effectively with only a gentle whisk of the straw.
Triple mushroom rolls, served four to an order, were plump and crispy. They’re filled with enoki, beech and king oyster mushrooms. But we wished they were as finely chopped the veggies inside, given their rubbery texture. The pineapple dipping sauce, however, won us over with its fruity, semi-spicy brightness.
For the plah shrimp salad, Thongchua blends together many of the key components to create the dressing rather than placing them traditionally on the plate as garnishes — the mint, cilantro, kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass. Few will object to this cohesive, big-flavored outcome.
My companion ordered curry noodles as his main entrée, requesting it at level two on a heat scale of one to 10. For those of us with tougher tongues, it basically amounts to a zero. But the dish was highly captivating nonetheless with its super-thin vermicelli noodles entangling perfectly cooked crab legs, sweet shrimp, crunchy bean sprouts and bits of green onions.
I opted for mixed seafood in green curry (level five), which captured an entire ocean of squid, mussels, shrimp, crab legs, scallops and sole. The entire medley was fork tender, including the young, soft bamboo shoots that make the mature varieties seem like tree bark in comparison. In terms of heat, it offered the right amount of sting.
The seafood combination is available also in red curry. Thongchua makes both in-house, although the familiar yellow variety is missing from the lineup “because the taste doesn’t go at all with seafood,” she says, pointing out that yellow curry relies only on curry powder opposed to the depth of flavors achieved from galangal, ginger and chili paste comprising their fish-friendly green and red cousins.
The menu’s priciest selections ($18.95) include whole pompano with soy ginger sauce; wild Atlantic salmon braised in panang sauce; and catfish fillet with red curry and crispy basil, a dish that started as a special when Chi first opened, and which has now become permanent due to popular demand.
Despite several modern dishes that form the foundation of Chi’s menu, Thongchua doesn’t throw out to sea the old standbys, such as tom yum (or kah) soups; pad Thai; spicy noodles; and cashew stir fry. The only difference is that they’re prepared without any land-based proteins, except for tofu.
Chi’s short list of craft beer and cocktails using fermented spirits will soon be joined by a wine list still in the making.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.