★★★ out of ★★★★
5221 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. (near Marlowe Ave.)
Open: Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Mon.-Sat. 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Wheelchair access: Yes
Cards: Major cards
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Parking: Difficult in the area. Small lot on site. Vendôme métro across the street.
Price range: Appetizers $5-$6.50; salads $10.25-$15; soups $6.50-$8; rice and noodle dishes $17.95-$21.50; curries and grills $21-$41; dessert $6. Two-course express lunch $15-$16.
There are countless famous restaurants in Las Vegas headed by chefs with names like Gordon Ramsay, Mario Batali, Guy Savoy and Thomas Keller. But as those names come and go, one restaurant remains a go-to for diners visiting this gambling paradise: Lotus of Siam.
Located off the main drag in a nondescript mall, Lotus of Siam is renowned for its Thai cuisine. Along with a detour for an In-N-Out Burger, it has long been a requisite stop for food writers; not only are the dishes some of the best Thai food this side of Bangkok, the wine list is out of this world. Good food abounds in Vegas, but I’m convinced that what makes Lotus such a draw is the appeal of the cuisine itself. With all due respect to French, Italian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Japanese and so many other cuisines, deep down inside, that intricate blend of hot, sour, spicy and sweet in Thai cuisine is hard to beat. Add a plethora of fresh vegetables, vibrant herbs like Thai basil, mint and cilantro, rich flavours of curry and coconut as well as bracing hits of galangal and lime, and you have a cuisine I’m now drooling on my keyboard just thinking about.
Alas, Lotus of Siam is thousands of kilometres away (but take note for your next trip to La La Land), and alas #2, Montreal’s Thai restaurant selection is small, especially since the closing of Red Thai and Thai Grill. But a few months back, noted gourmand and Montreal Gazette columnist Bill Brownstein dropped me a restaurant tip, saying: “I have a great Thai place you might want to try.” Intrigued, and especially eager to indulge in this beloved cuisine, I asked Bill to book a table and we headed over on a Saturday night.
Located on a busy section of de Maisonneuve Blvd. across from the Vendôme métro and the Glen hospital site, Pick Thai is situated on the first floor of the plainest of office buildings, with nothing in the way of swish surroundings to speak of. But the moment you push open the restaurant door, you’re in a stylish and immaculate space decorated in tones of orange and gold framed in dark wood, with beautiful accents including Thai Buddha statues, lanterns and wood carvings. White tablecloths grace each table, and there’s a glassed-in wine cellar by the door. Nice. Everything looks very spiffy, which actually had me a little concerned. As much as I hate the prevailing idea that so-called “ethnic” restaurants must be inexpensive, I sometimes worry that when the surroundings are too posh, the food will be generic, Americanized and dull. Happily, that is hardly the case at Pick Thai.
Before going any further, a word about the restaurant’s chef/owner, Vilay Douangpanya. The daughter of a mother who ran restaurants in Laos, Douangpanya is a self-taught chef who works in the kitchen with two other female chefs. Her original profession was that of a recovery room nurse at the Jewish General Hospital, but she felt she wasn’t busy enough (no kidding!), so when friends asked her to be a partner in a restaurant three years ago, she accepted. A year later, the partners left, leaving Douangpanya in charge of the restaurant solo.
“I changed everything,” she told me in a phone interview a few days after my dinner. “And I never cut corners.”
Upon entering the restaurant on a recent Saturday, Bill and I and our respective mates ran into a well-known anglophone radio personality (whose name begins with an “A” and ends with an “and”) who, like Bill, couldn’t stop raving about the place. Just when I was feeling they were all laying it on a bit thick, the plates started to arrive and I immediately knew they were on to something. I took a few sips of my La Pive rosé (selected from Pick Thai’s short but well-chosen and especially well-priced wine list) and jumped right in.
To begin, two rolls: fresh (cold) rolls and fried (hot) rolls called niem thod. The fresh rolls were just perfect. Filled with rice noodles, herbs, banana flower, cucumber and marinated carrot, they were tightly wrapped in lettuce and rice paper, and served with peanut sauce. The fried rolls were equally irresistible. Stuffed with minced chicken, carrots, cabbage, scallion, black mushrooms, vermicelli, eggs and red onion, they were wrapped in the rice paper, deep fried, sliced and served with plum sauce. The key to rolls like this is the balance of the mix and the frying; excess oiliness adds heaviness, which was hardly the case here.
The satay skewers are not to be missed, as the coconut-marinated white chicken meat was succulent and the peanut sauce, tinged with spice, wasn’t too sweet. Thumbs up. You can’t eat a Thai meal without including a salad. (Unfortunately, we went so heavy on the dishes that I had to pass on a soup.) The one we chose, made with strips of yellow mango dressed with lime juice, chili and peanuts, showed just how well mango can be adapted to star in either a sweet or savoury dish. Another hit from the salad offerings was the yam nuea, featuring thick slices of grilled filet mignon mixed with onion, mint, red pepper and chili paste. I like the way the beef worked as a backdrop for all those hot and cool flavours, paired simply with cherry tomatoes and cucumber. Yum!
Entering main dish territory, we opted for the classic pad Thai, a golden mound of rice noodles glistening in tamarind and fish sauce, enhanced with eggs, radish, shredded carrots and bean sprouts. We had the version with chicken, but I’d ask for extra shrimp and tofu next time to make a meal out of it. And from the rice dishes, I’d recommend the pad nuea tuadin — sautéed filet mignon with vegetables enhanced by galangal, kaffir lime, cilantro and chilies that melded together without any one taste hogging the spotlight.
To me, you can’t have a Thai feast without a curry, and the two we ordered were superb. I’m a big fan of red curry, and Douangpanya’s was rich and sensual in the version made with duck. But the chicken green curry was the dish of the night. Made with a base of coconut milk, green chilies and Thai basil, this mint-coloured curry was filled with vegetables like green beans, carrots and spinach. It all tasted like spring with a nice hit of heat. What a treat, especially with our wine, a Portuguese Cortes de Cima Chaminé sold for a reasonable $35.
There are two desserts on the menu. Though I’m not usually charmed by Thai sweets, these are definitely worth a try. First up, a banana fritter with ice cream that was entirely predictable but still very good. But the kao neo mamuang, a duo featuring sliced mango served with steamed sticky rice mixed with coconut milk, was just terrific — not only because the mango was perfectly ripe, but the coconut rice had a great contrasting texture and deep coconut flavour with none of the overwhelming sweetness I expected.
Add superb service on top of all this great food, and you have a great new option for dining out — especially for those up for sharing, simply because you’ll get to taste more. If I lived a little closer, I’d be dining at Pick Thai once a week, especially because even with all the dishes sampled, there’s still plenty to discover. And if you go, go soon, because before you know it, you, me, Bill and the radio personality whose name starts with an “A” and ends with an “and” will all be battling it out for a table.
You can hear Lesley Chesterman on ICI Radio-Canada Première’s Médium Large (95.1 FM) Tuesdays at 10 a.m., and on CHOM (97.7 FM) Wednesdays at 7:10 a.m.