Bringing an intensity and flair to traditional Thai dishes as well as to innovative ones
DINE The restaurant formerly known as Conduit was so strikingly designed inside that when, earlier this year, it morphed into a Thai spot, another of those with "monkey" in the name — Another Monkey — I winced, and only in part because the word "monkey" makes me think of ol' Dubya, now in exile in the Dallas suburb of Elba. The indecorous neon beer sign glowing in the front window seemed to be a particularly glum portent. It said: come in and slam a few! And eat pad Thai with your fingers while you watch ESPN.
As fate would have it, Another Monkey does offer pad Thai, and the flat-panel television mounted over the bar probably does show ESPN on occasion, but otherwise, the ruin I inferred from the infernal neon sign is nowhere to be seen. The restaurant's high-style interior is intact, while the food is electrifying. The only physical change I noticed in the space was the screening-off of what had been an exhibition kitchen at the rear of the dining room; the counter and stools are still there, but the view now consists of a long eyeful of frosted glass instead of a tableau of busy chefs.
Conduit had been, in its brief heyday, a scene reminiscent of the early days of Foreign Cinema — limousines double-parked on the street and swarms of hipster-geeks in various shades of black jamming the doorway — so Another Monkey's more relaxed state is easier to live with. When a place becomes over-popular, everything is put at risk, from the quality of the food and service to the ambience itself. Another Monkey shows no signs of becoming a Conduit-style scene, but it is distinctive and gracious enough to draw a steady crowd. It has a neighborly feel, yet for those farther afield it's worth seeking out, both for its distinctive setting and the sharpness of its cooking.
Chef Aom Phanthong's menu is, like a bar stool (!), sturdily balanced on three legs: familiar standards, innovative dishes, and items for hard-core (or, in menu-speak, "experienced") connoisseurs of Thai cuisine. In this last category we find the dip-relishes, whose odors and flavors are "very strong," according to the menu card's minatory phrasing. Suspicious people might flee in the direction of the pad Thai, or the excellent fish cakes ($7.50 for four) with an enlivening sweet-sour sauce on the side, along with threads of red and green cabbage.
In the alternative, they might turn toward the mix-and-match department. You can get tom yum shrimp ($9.95), served in little heaps atop crisped triangles of flour tortilla. The menu calls this "nacho style," and it was quite good, though the frying left the tortillas with an oily aroma, and why flour tortillas instead of the tastier (and healthier, not to mention more authentic) kind made from masa?
The appeal of duck has long eluded me. Like goose, it resembles (for me) slightly gamier, richer chicken — the chicken, interestingly, being native to Southeast Asia. So subbing duck for chicken in a red curry ($15) wasn't a complete Californication, and maybe, in its exponential richness (rich meat amplified by rich sauce) it wasn't California at all. The portion size turned out to be just right, though, and with a pineapple slice for a subfloor and some fresh basil over the top, the dish's richness remained under control.
Richness also briefly threatened the northern Thai hung le curry of pork belly ($13), mostly because of the nature of the meat. Our exquisitely polite server asked if we would be comfortable with "visible fat." As an American, I have lived most of my life amid visible fat, so this prospect did not deter. And the dish itself turned out to be marvelous, a kind of gingery stew served in a handsome little pot, the meat stringy but tender and a scattering of fresh peanuts for textural counterpoint.