Monday, February 27, 2006

Appreciating Citizen Thai in Context

1268 Grant Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
Lunch Monday through Saturday
Dinner nightly

Last tried: March 2006

I will admit my bias right off the bat-- I have never been a huge fan of Thai food, which always tasted to me like Chinese food with coconut and/or fish sauce added. I thought that Citizen Thai and the Monkey might change my opinion, given that it was selected among the San Francisco Chronicle's 2005's Top Ten. (Although I do not always agree with the Chronicle restaurant ratings, I respect Michael Bauer's palate, and his reviews have generally provided a good gauge for me with respect to restaurant selections and expectations.) While I cannot go so far as to say my recent dining experiences at Citizen Thai have changed my view entirely, it has made me more receptive to trying more Thai cuisine and restaurants.

Both the "Bag of Gold" and Thai fish cakes were solid appetizers with interesting flavors. The rice paper sacks containing a mixture of minced chicken and prawns seemed to have been left in the deep fryer slightly too long such that the "Bag" was brown and hard and the "Gold" inside a little rubbery. But the chili-flaked sweet and sour sauce that accompanied the Bags of Gold was a delightful accompaniment to wake up the flavors of the chicken and prawn mixture. The same sauce also worked well on the deep-fried tofu triangles, taking away some of the dryness that resulted from the frying. Another condiment that worked well was the tangy cucumber-onion relish with fish sauce and crushed peanuts that accompanied the Thai fish cakes. The fish cakes themselves, however, were somewhat soggy, probably from sitting too long in the kitchen after preparation before being brought to the table. Had the kitchen and servers not been slammed, I assumed these dishes would have been much better.

There was a long pause after we finished the appetizers, during which we finished off nearly half of the bottle of 2003 Studert-Prum Riesling Spatlese from Mosel-Saar-Ruwer we had ordered. I was pleased with the selections on Citizen Thai's wine list, all of which were very reasonably priced (most bottles in the $30 price range or less) and comprised of an array of wines well-matched with the spices and strong flavors of the food, including at least four different Rieslings, several sauvignon blancs, Gruner Veltliner, and gewurtztraminer, among others. There is also a full bar on the first level of the restaurant, next to the Monkey noodle bar (the other half of Citizen Thai and the Monkey).

The spicy mixed seafood soup with fresh lemongrass and kaffir lime arrived in a clay hot pot on top of a flame. The fragrant clear broth, containing chunks of mushrooms, prawns, squid, and clams, would have been soothing, despite the sourness from too much lime, if it had been hot when it arrived. Instead it slowly reheated over the large flame, resulting in further overcooking of the seafood inside. The Sonoma duck breast slices with chu chee thick red curry sauce, topped with crispy shreds of Thai basil, was tender, sweet and spicy in a way that was completely different from any other flavor I had tried in either a Chinese or Thai restaurant. The duck, despite being a little chewy and slightly too salty, harmonized well with the aromatic jasmine rice and the sweet Riesling. The broccoli that accompanied the duck, however, was undercooked to the point of being basically raw. Again, I attributed this to the kitchen being overwhelmed.

The spotlight dish of the evening was the pumpkin curry, served inside a carved Kabocha pumpkin (which also went perfectly with the jasmine rice and the Riesling). The thick and creamy spicy curry interspersed with slices of chicken and chunks of soft, sweet, chestnutty pumpkin, accented by pieces of slightly al dente red and green bell peppers, was hearty and satisfying. In contrast, the spicy tofu with basil in chili garlic sauce was rather sour and contained too much Thai basil, rendering the dish reminiscent of Doublemint gum. The same spicing glitch afflicted the egg fried rice.

Like the rest of North Beach where Citizen Thai is located, the restaurant was packed, and the layout, despite two-levels of dining space, did little to alleviate the feeling of being squeezed tight, with barely enough room for even a single person to pass between the closely set tables. (Neither of the parking garages nearby listed on the restaurant's web site had any spaces left, and although we got lucky, street parking is a nightmare in that area.) This seemed to have affected not only the quality of the food preparation but also the service, resulting in a long wait for us to order after being seated, a long wait for the appetizers to arrive, a long wait after we had finished the appetizers, and then everything else from the soup to the entrees being dumped off at the table all at once, leaving barely enough room for silverware (even though we were given only one fork and spoon each, which we had to save and reuse between dishes). Although I enjoyed the food overall, between the crowded space, the uncontrolled timing of food delivery, and generally harried service, I was not disappointed when our server distractedly brought over the check without ever offering dessert or coffee.

On a subsequent visit, I tried a few additional dishes. The tom ka coconut soup, with large prawns and chunky vegetables, was hot, spicy, and comforting, if a bit on the sweet side. The sauce on the pad thai was also slightly too sweet, although the noodles were pleasantly elastic. The fried appetizers-- soft shell crab and imperial rolls-- were all satisfyingly crispy and spicy, and would make perfect bar food but lacked finesse. The duck curry served in a shelled-out pineapple, while an impressive presentation, was disappointingly indistinguishable from the pumpkin curry I tried on my earlier visit. Also the duck skin, normally one of my favorite things, had the consistency of chewy fat. The crying tiger salad had nice, large pieces of quality grilled beef, but the dressing contained too much fish sauce and vinegar.

On my visits, Citizen Thai seemed to be more hype than substance, but it seems great for large groups, and I appreciate that it has the potential to be very appealing.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post, the pumpkin dish sounds worthwhile. As a fellow lover of good food (which can be either fine dining or out of a truck, so long as it's tasty) and avid reader about food, I was fascinated to see that you've had the chance to dine at Moto in Chicago. Could you please post a review on it?

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Unfortunately with respect to Moto, I only started this blog a couple of months ago so I do not have enough notes from when I dined there to write a full review but will definitely do so after I try it again. To give you a preview in the meantime, among the scientific fad restaurants, I found Moto to be one that actually serves good food, instead of simply relying on the novelty of offering weird food just to be different. Chef Homaro Cantu's creations, such as hot boxes cooking fish at the table and dehydrated grains of peanut butter or caramel flavors, are as tasty as they are intriguing. While it is not elegant perfection like Charlie Trotter's, it is worthwhile and certainly entertaining.

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