Thursday, February 5, 2009

Thai Chef & Noodle Fusion

I wasn’t impressed by the name when a friend recommended it to me, and I wasn’t impressed by the storefront when she took me there. It looked and sounded like one of those nondescript, standard stock, ethnically-ambiguous Asian places, the kind you go to when your taste buds are feeling lazy and you have an inexplicable, irresistible craving for chicken fried rice. But just like how you can’t judge a book by its cover—the same concept goes for restaurants, especially in Philly.

singapore noodles with tofu
photo from restaurant's official web album

Thai Chef & Noodle Fusion is a relatively recent addition to Philadelphia, having just opened in November 2008. Located on 20th and Chestnut, the restaurant’s humble exterior and modest furnishing are drastic understatements of its culinary accomplishments.

Their menu is extensive—multiple pages, packed front and back with an overwhelming selection of appetizers, specialty entrees, and variations on traditional Thai and pan-Asian dishes. You’ll get your money’s worth with clichéd favorites like drunken noodle, or if you’re feeling adventurous, you can order “Fantasy Duck,” “Jungle Queen,” or a “Winning Alligator” (which is actually alligator—the menu claims that “Customer vote the meat soft tender, better than chicken”).

The kitchen delivers what the menu promises. My seaweed tofu soup was literally just seaweed and tofu in vegetable broth, exactly as described, but it was perfect. This place doesn’t try to win you over with exotic ingredients, revolutionary seasonings, and pretentious displays of food art. The dishes are fundamentally simple—even the “Winning Alligator” is just alligator meat sautéed with a vegetable mix.

bangkok eggplant with chicken
photo from restaurant's official web album

What’s so compelling about the food is that every flavor is multi-dimensional and wonderfully complete. You won’t be shocked by a taste you’ve never experienced before; instead, you will feel your body react to each dish with a deep sense of comfort. I ordered the Wild Ginger, simply a variety of vegetables sautéed with julienned ginger and served with rice. In my experience, ginger is mostly used in Asian dishes to enhance the taste of the primary ingredients, not so much as the focus of a dish. But it was a good call—it gave the sauce an addictive zest, and its sharp taste awakened my taste buds, making me more sensitive to all the delightful nuances of my entrée.

It’s really admirable, how the chef doesn’t try to drown each dish in rich sauces and potent seasonings. Rather, he uses just the right spices and herbs to bring out the natural taste of each ingredient—it really helps you appreciate the wonderful diversity of food. The dishes pack a subtlety and depth of flavor that will appeal to light and heavy palates alike.

Other Observations

If you focus on the clean linoleum, white tablecloths, and solid wood chairs, it looks like every other decent, mid-range Asian restaurant. But take a look at the walls and the lighting, and you will feel like you are in a twelve-year-old’s bedroom. A vibrant underwater scene—complete with a shark, schools of fish, seahorses, and starfish—covers all four walls, and the lighting fixtures, in various bold colors, look like something you’d find in IKEA. According to the waitress, there is no reasoning behind the choice of wall mural; the manager just thought it would be fun. The overall effect is surprisingly comfortable, and slightly humorous.

Throughout the course of your meal, you might experience some awkward moments or misunderstandings with the service; it kind of felt like they were still figuring out the details of the job--little things, like communicating about special requests, answering questions, getting an ice bucket for wine. That said, however, they were extremely accommodating, helpful, patient, and considerate, and I feel like as far as service goes, in the end it’s the attitude that really makes a difference.

It’s a BYOB, so if you’re going out for a laid-back dinner with friends, you can bring a bottle to enjoy with your meal. Also, while the prices are already very affordable (almost everything is under $20), they have a daily lunch special that’s a total steal—a three-course meal for under $10. Finally, they are always willing to make variations of their menu offerings to suit individual tastes. As a vegetarian, I found their flexibility to be very convenient.

1 comment:

  1. I visited their new location in Penndel, PA and it was just as fantastic as what you described in Philadelphia!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...