June 13, 2008, Thai Garden

Deven Black and Jill Rovitzky Black
For The Journal News

Thai Garden embodies that old saying, "Good things come in small packages." This slender little shoebox of a restaurant, most recently home to Saints & Scholars in Orangeburg, turns out meals with flavors well balanced enough they could pedal a unicycle across a tightrope.

Fans of Thai food know that the cuisine is predicated on an elegant equilibrium among sweet, salty, sour and bitter notes. Toss in the richness of coconut milk, the earthy crunch of peanuts, the right notes of cilantro, and you have a whole lively collaboration of flavors: yin and yang yield yum.

But Thai Garden - and this should come as no surprise to fans of its well-regarded sister restaurant in Sleepy Hollow - stands out not just in the way it mixes and matches those elements, but how it handles ingredients.

Take tofu pad ma keur, essentially a simple eggplant and tofu stir fry, but the chunks of eggplant were expertly sautéed. Outside the slightest bit of char; inside, meltingly soft flesh - some of the best eggplant we've ever eaten. Add a lively chili and garlic-based sauce set off with fresh basil leaves and little matchsticks of ginger, and the dish is a winner.

It's one of a host of meatless dishes that allow Thai Garden to rightfully proclaim that it serves not only Thai but also vegetarian cuisine. Not that meat-eaters don't get a fair shake. Much of the menu is mix and match - pick your preparation, then pick your protein. Choices include chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, salmon, snapper or scallops. Duck is a significant sub-specialty, with more than half a dozen dishes based on boneless roasted duck.

Ped ma moung was one well-constructed example, a melding of sweet-tart pineapple, cashews, onion, carrots and sweet peppers, all in a warmly spicy chili sauce.

Among starters, papaya salad was a refreshing standout. The shredded green papaya was tart and perky in a light, fresh lime-based dressing.

Tomato and carrot gave it color and meaty peanuts gave it substance; shrimp can be added for those who want more of a protein hit. Tom yam, a hot and sour soup, with a fresh-tasting light broth base, featured chunks of chunks of celery, tomato, mushroom and onion, all cooked but still resilient. A coconut milk-based soup offered a richer take on the same lime-and-chili pepper hot and sour riff.

To end the meal, we sampled sticky-rice pudding and Thai custard. Don't expect the standard silky-smooth variety; this version of custard, modestly sweet and coconutty, had an eggy quality, a texture that brought scrambled eggs to mind.

Sticky-rice pudding also differs from the dinner-style dessert; it's essentially lightly sweetened and cooked in coconut milk. This sounds like damning with faint praise, but the verdict on both desserts was "interesting," We weren't completely won over, but we were intrigued enough to keep dipping our spoons for another taste.

Service was gracious, but far from swift. Presentation is a high point; plates arrive decked with edible corsages, big posies of colorful sliced vegetables pinned with toothpicks. Thai textiles and art brighten the narrow but gracious dining room. Wine and cocktails are available, but the slightly sweet tones of Singha beer complement the Thai food well.