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Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Hot Bargain

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: When I moved to Schenectady in 1980 to work for WMHT-FM, which at that time was based in that city, the first restaurant I visited – where I was taken for lunch – was the nearby McLane’s Deli. Here’s what I found there recently.


ONE OF THE BRAVEST ACTS I can think of took place in Schenectady last April. Nittaya Raksa, who had run an Albany sewing shop, opened a Thai restaurant there. Specifically, in Rotterdam, at the site of what had been, for many years, McLane’s Deli. Asking Rotterdam to go from meatloaf to Massaman curry is a challenge. So far, it seems, so good.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
While Thai food may seem to offer a daunting array of unfamiliar menu items that threaten to be soul-crushingly spicy, I’d like to think that you need only a single encounter with good tom kha, a coconut soup, or pad Thai, a sautée of noodles, eggs and peanuts, to embrace the satisfying flavors. Certainly the menu at Jasmine Thai offers some of the more economical choices for this cuisine. Pricing for most entrées is based upon what you choose as a central ingredient. Thus, chicken, pork, beef, tofu or vegetables is $8 for lunch, $13 for dinner; shrimp or scallops run $12 and $15, mixed seafood is $15 or $18 and duck is always $15.

This applies to rice-based items like ga pow, a sautée of onion, bell peppers, garlic and basil; noodle dishes like pad see eww (rice noodles with eggs, broccoli, and carrots) and pad poy sean (glass noodles with celery, carrots, mushrooms and eggs); six different curries, including the three traffic-light colors, and eight items grouped under “entrée,” including a sautéed eggplant feature, a sweet and sour cucumber and pineapple mix, stir-fried mushrooms with garlic and black pepper sauce and a cashew and mushrooms mix with pineapple, peas, onions and peppers.

Many different influences come together in the variety of this cuisine, not least the flavors and techniques of Burma, China, Laos and Vietnam. Coconut milk adds a characteristic flavor to soups and curries; kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and the ginger-like galangal also are typical components. At the heart of each dish is a quest for harmony, a harmony intended to spread into the person enjoying the dish. Thai food isn’t bashful about getting spicy, but this restaurant isn’t out to assault the unwitting. You’ll have to ask to have it ramped up, as I did.

The dining room is large and unobtrusively attractive, dominated by glass-topped tables and booths. On the walls are framed pictures of what might as well be Thai motel art. The ambiance is about right for $15 entrées. A friend and I visited late one recent afternoon for an early dinner. This meant that the place was relatively empty, although a few more parties had taken tables by the time we left, among them customers regular enough to be greeted by name. I’d love to be able to report on the experience of dining in a place thronged with patrons and servers alike as the perfumes of so many aromatic dishes spiced the air—but we’re not there yet. The single server who worked the floor was wonderfully attentive.

A Thai dish of which I’m way too fond is called khao soi, often listed among the soups, here included among the noodle dishes. It’s a sturdy yellow curry with pasta-like noodles within and crisped noodles on top, sometimes served with a side of lime slices, basil and cilantro. In this case, those ingredients already were incorporated, which probably cuts down on confusion. The soup itself was smooth and rich, a nice meeting of coconut milk and curry. I requested chicken as the add-in component, although next time I’m going to give the shrimp a try. The fresh cilantro is a must-have component, and I was given a side-container of spices with which to add more heat to the brew. Like any good noodle soup, it requires both spoon and fork (or chopsticks). Its flavor hits first in the sweet spot, then gradually unrolls to fill the palate, the heat of it a reminder that persists all the way down.

Red curry, which is actually orange, derives its flavors from shrimp paste, red chili peppers, galangal, cumin, among many other components, and the mango curry offered here adds mango and pineapple for a truly hot and sweet experience. We tasted it with the addition of beef, a strong flavor, for sure, but one that got soothed by these other contenders—an excellent example of how that flavor harmony is achieved. And, of course, there’s coconut milk to round out the sweetness.

Malcolm, my dining companion, was worried about spiciness. Although there was a slight amount of pop to the mouth, he was delighted enough to promise to try more such items. Other entrées include Jasmine basil duck ($19), “Golden Fish,” which is crispy tilapia with sweet chili sauce ($15), grilled salmon ($22), Andaman seafood, adding zucchini, mushrooms and basil leaves to salmon and other fish ($20), Thai steak, served with crispy noodles ($19) and steamed mussels ($15).

Among the starters are chicken ($6) or shrimp ($7) satay, spring roll ($6), edamame ($5) and Jasmine Thai chicken wings ($6). I chose the papaya salad to start ($6), and it was a refreshing mix of the fruit with carrots, tomatoes, bean sprouts and peanuts in a lime juice-flavored dressing that packed a good spice punch, a decoratively carved carrot to one side, reminding us that Thai cuisine probably gave us that art, too.

Again: this is one of the best bargains in the area, but take it easy. I don’t want to return to find you’ve mobbed the place to death.

Jasmine Thai Restaurant, 2717 Broadway, Schenectady, 346-9990, Serving lunch Mon-Fri 11-3, Sat 11:30-3, dinner Mon-Sat 4-10. AE, D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 6 March 2014

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