With our routine of weekly dining out, we've been to lots of restaurants, and we usually find something to like no matter where we go. Transcendent food is, of course, marvelous to experience, but sometimes it's the service, the decor or an idiosyncratic spin to the menu that grabs us. All are integral to the dining experience, and excellence in one area can help to compensate for shortcomings in others.
And sometimes an ordinary-seeming restaurant puts it all together: decor, atmosphere, service and, of course, ingredients and preparation, adding up to a dining experience of extraordinary pleasure. Here's how Thai Cottage in Regent Square won our hearts.
Thai Cottage is, in fact, a storefront, but its recent interior renovation combines rustic and sophisticated elements to create an intimately textured ambience. Leaving behind the usual temptation toward saturated spice tones, the owners have opted instead for an understated, flax-and-black color scheme that unifies the interior and creates a feeling of urbanity. Rattan mats cushion wooden banquettes, and candles in cut-metal holders create complex shadows on the walls, adding to the feeling of intimacy and contrast.
The menu presents a manageable variety of appetizers, rice and noodle dishes, curries and "Cottage Specialties." If you've gone out for Thai food before, there's very little here to challenge your notions of what this cuisine is, or could be. Yet nearly everything we tried tasted like the perfect embodiment of the best of Thai: complexly textured, with flavors balanced gloriously among sweet, salty and brightly tangy notes.
The grilled-eggplant salad was a case in point. Pliant sliced eggplant, fresh from the grill, was hot against cold, crisp greens, and set off by a scoop of browned, ground chicken and whole shrimp, more tender than meaty-firm. Tomatoes — surprisingly palatable for the dead of winter — added countering astringency to this equation; red onion and scallion brought different levels of pungency and zing; cilantro provided aromatic top notes; and an utterly addictive chili-lime dressing brightened every bite.
A "Cottage combo" of crispy spring rolls, chicken satay and pork dumpling showcased the kitchen's prowess with these most stereotypical of Asian-restaurant appetizers. The spring rolls were ultra-crispy outside with savory chicken filling, accentuated by crunchy julienned vegetables within; the chicken in the satay was exceptionally tender; and the shumai style dumplings were plump, juicy and studded with crunchy water chestnuts.
We also got an order of fresh rolls, tightly packed cylinders of vermicelli, vegetables, herbs and shrimp. Sliced sushi-style, these were well-balanced and delicious, although we felt that heavier emphasis on the herbs would have created a more lasting impression.
A cup of spicy-sour tom yum soup was exceptional, with plenty of whole ingredients left in the broth for unusual substance. We also ordered an entrée sized bowl of tom kha soup; its coconut-milk base made it mild and creamy, while generous portions of minced pork, bok choy, aromatic herbs and noodles made it a meal. A stir-fried noodle dish, see ew, featured a well-balanced combination of broccoli, scrambled egg and meat (we chose chicken) in a sweet black-soy sauce.
Undecided about which curry to order, Angelique took our server's advice and went with the pumpkin. It was good advice: The thick curry, packed with layers of flavor, was ladled over tender-firm chunks of Asian pumpkin, slices of white chicken meat and accentuated by peppery basil.
Crab fried rice, a Cottage specialty, was touted on the sandwich board out front, so we were a bit surprised it appeared pretty much a standard stir-fry with peas, carrots and onions. But the depth of flavor was far from standard. It was also spicier than a typical stir-fry, and the plenteous lumps of crab improved every bite. Only a wedge of lime would have vastly improved this wonderful dish.
Our experience of such delightful food was made even lovelier by the friendly, even service. Our server, the only one on duty, was as attentive at the end of our meal, when the restaurant was almost full, as she was at the beginning, when ours was her only table. Plates were brought and removed with a smile and impeccable timing.
While the menu consists of dishes available at almost any Thai establishment, Thai Cottage distinguishes itself with its appealing ambience, excellent service and superb renditions of classic Thai cuisine.