Koh Samui and the Monkey
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One of the funniest bits of post-dot-com cultural effluvia was a television ad in which a crestfallen yuppie keeps replaying a video of a CNBC broadcast announcing a NASDAQ of 5,000. (That index, as I write these words, is at about 2,400 a far cry from 5,000, but a decent cry too from the deep crater of 1,100 or so that swallowed the sad yuppie's stock portfolio.) The spot was funny mainly because of the Cinderella effect: clock strikes midnight, glittering carriages turn back into pumpkins, never to glitter again, apparently, since time unlike videocassettes cannot be rewound.
You will not find many pumpkins on the streets these days in the vicinity of Third and Brannan streets, nor for that matter anywhere south of Market. Maybe a few smashed ones around Halloween. What you will find, especially during business hours, is a lot of gleaming, late-model German automotive metal, and I don't mean Volkswagens. If you didn't know better, you might well think the big grandfather clock in the hallway had stopped ticking just short of midnight at the stroke of 1999, say, when all the city was a stage for the profligate spending of venture capital.
When Aom Phanthong and Chris Foley opened their Thai restaurant, Koh Samui and the Monkey, in a warehousey building on Brannan near Third Street in 2003, the venture capital had all been spent. The New Economy's tide had gone out, leaving a desolate beach scattered with flotsam, and there was little or no reason to think it would rise again. A postindustrial hipster Thai restaurant in SoMa was, in this sense, late for the train. But the food was good, the prices moderate, the vast expanse of polished wood floorboards a work of art, and by these and other means the place survived an interval of exhaustion.
But where there was once exhaustion is now ... exhaust. At noontime on a weekday, the area's streets are choked with cars moving and not, and inside Koh Samui it's like a staff meeting for the Industry Standard, with everybody in $300 pairs of jeans. There is something disorienting about the observer's experience here do I wake or sleep? was it all a dream, or is this the dream? yet the food is good and not expensive, and the floorboards are remarkably gorgeous. And a more relaxed tone, for those so inclined, can be found in the evenings, when the menu opens out from its prefab, slam-bam-thank-you-ma'am choices (including a bento box) into a longer and more leisurely list that encourages a degree of musing. The slower heartbeat at dinnertime is a clue that while this neighborhood is more residential than it was a decade ago, it will be more residential still a decade from now.
A signature element of Thai cooking is sweet heat, an artful combination of chili firepower with some kind of sugariness. At Koh Samui, you're more likely to notice the latter than the former; even "spicy" dishes, we were told, are basically medium hot, while sweetness turns up all over the place, sometimes unchaperoned by any heat at all in the cucumber salad ($3), for instance, a petite ramekin filled with cucumber slivers (and a few carrot threads for color counterpoint) and a vinaigrette almost balsamiclike in its honeyed weight.
Far more sweet than hot too is the golden, marmaladelike sauce accompanying the bags of gold ($7.95), a quintet of rice-paper sachets filled with minced chicken and shrimp, lightly deep-fried, and tied off at the top with dark green threads of nori. The bags would not look out of place hanging from a Christmas tree, though the minced meats inside were reticent and I could have done without the deep-frying. Fritters, on the other hand, we expect to be fried in some fashion, and Koh Samui's sweet corn patties ($6.95) are worth the hot-oil tariff: irregular little bundles of juicy corn kernels in tender-crispy envelopes. The menu claims a curry spicing, but this was too faint to be noticed; cucumber reappeared as a condiment, this time cubed and tossed with slivered red onions in a vinaigrette more tart than sweet.
Big dishes feature lots of vegetables, even when the advertised ingredient is some sort of flesh. The firecracker sizzling seafood hot plate ($12.95) fajitas, Thai-style included a wealth of broccoli florets, green beans, and strips of green bell pepper (lots of green!) in addition to shrimp, squid, scallops, and crab claws. Wok-fried chicken breast ($9.95) added red bell peppers to the green, and also basil, with its distinctive peppery perfume. Prawns with cashew nuts ($10.95) offered a pleasant crunchiness along with yet more green beans and bell peppers, this time in a sauce that tasted largely of soy.
Considering the congestion and pace at noon, the food is notably polished. A quick set lunch ($10.95) opened with two skewers of tender-grilled beef, along with mildly spicy peanut sauce to dunk them in, and finished with an excellent red-duck curry. (The poultry appeared in its coconut-milk bath as boneless slices still in morning coats of gold-roasted skin.) And grilled pork ($10.95), presented as strips of meat with sticky rice and mango salad, was juicy enough not to need peanut sauce. But most impressive were the po sod ($7.50), a trio of fresh spring rolls like little bells, filled with shrimp, mint leaves, and rice noodles and no monkey business with the deep fryer! *
KOH SAMUI AND THE MONKEY
Dinner: Sun.Thurs., 510 p.m.; Fri.Sat., 510:30 p.m. Lunch: Mon.Sat., 11 a.m.3 p.m.
415 Brannan, SF
Beer, wine, sake
Noisy if full