Dreams of a Tropical Lagoon

Our server possessed a full measure of Thai charm, and the meal proceeded at a reasonable pace.
  • Our server possessed a full measure of Thai charm, and the meal proceeded at a reasonable pace.

Amarin Thai

3843 Richmond Street, Hillcrest

On any regular Monday, most restaurants in San Diego are closed — on July 4, well, forget about it. That evening, Sam and I planned to see a movie in Hillcrest and wanted to get dinner beforehand. Phoning ahead, I tried a few newer, trendy places, getting voicemail, at best. Asian restaurants (bless ’em all) seemed the best bet, and I was delighted to discover Amarin Thai open and serving. I’ve always wanted to try it.

Amarin is named for the dreamy, verdant Amarin Lagoon in Phitsanulok, a small town a little south of Chiang Mai. The restaurant’s sophisticated owner, Suree, opened a wine bar next to the restaurant, but that has now closed (wine bar competition is getting monstrous!), and the space has been turned into an additional dining room. This is a good thing, since customers were pouring in the entire time we were there. Better yet, the oenological savvy is still evident in the wine list. If you’re feeling flush, it might be worth it to order the braised rack of lamb Massaman curry to have an excuse to choose one of the relatively bargain-priced red Bordeaux on the list (Château de Pez, Château Gloria, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste, et al.), which aren’t cheap but cost less than at chic, high-end restaurants.

Sam and I breezed in around 6:30 p.m., barely beating the gathering crowds. We chose a comfortable vinyl booth in the front dining room. The room isn’t heavy on exotic atmosphere. Dumb bouncy music is piped in but isn’t loud or offensive. Our server possessed a full measure of Thai charm, and the meal proceeded at a reasonable pace, without everything at once hitting the table.

The menu tickled my interest. Okay, the sections labeled Traditional Thai (your standard curries, choice of meats/fake meats) and Noodles and Fried Rice are mainly what every other Thai restaurant serves. But there are fresh choices among the starters, salads, seafoods, and specialties.

We were sorely tempted by Little Mermaid, shrimp marinated in sake and fresh herbs and fried in rice paper, but the weather was so muggy, we began instead with the cold Thai Princess, a wonderful warm-night platter with separate heaps of grilled shrimps, whole peanuts, chopped sweet red onions, diced fresh ginger and jicama, and tiny wedges of Kaffir lime, all arranged around fresh spinach leaves to roll up into healthy wraps. A slot in the platter held a ramekin of dark, irresistible, sweet-sour ginger sauce to daub on. “This is so simple, you could make it at home,” said Sam. “Only if you could make this wonderful sauce,” I replied, “and only if you could grill your shrimp this tender.” To me, this dish is truly Thai — not showy tourist-Thai but pure Thai, with its absolute freshness, tender seafood, and beautiful balance of flavors. I might not want it daily, but once a week throughout the summer would be about right.

The second knockout: a cup of Potak soup, described on the menu as “a classic coastal cuisine soup with ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves, mushrooms, cilantro, and basil.” The waiter asked for our choice of protein, and we had to have mixed seafood, of course, as in Thailand. Amazingly, I found Amarin’s clean, clear rendition better than the versions I tried there. The broth was subtle and insinuating, with up-front flavors of cilantro and Thai basil, and gentle sour notes from the lemongrass, lime, and kaffir lime leaves. The seafood was impeccably cooked: big white scallops, tender striated calamari, one huge green-lipped New Zealand mussel, one large shrimp. The broth also held a wealth succulent little canned Chinese mushrooms. Be warned that this is one of those Thai soups where the bottom of the bowl holds flavoring ingredients not meant to be eaten: lemon-grass stalks, lime leaves, and a fiery gang of julienne-cut ginger slivers.

Som Tum (shredded green papaya salad) was a surprising disappointment after these wonderful starters. Bad enough the apparent impossibility of finding a local restaurant that includes dried shrimp (this version had fresh ones), but this also lacked any perceptible substitute fishy flavor from, say, nam pla, fermented fish sauce — and no chilies, either. It tasted crunchy, tangy, but unfinished.

The spice level perked up exponentially with our Mad Fish, consisting of batter-fried fillet of sole “topped with country-style Thai salsa, generously sprinkled with Thai chili. A must for those who has [sic] a taste for hot,” says the menu. The fish proved remarkably tender, mild, nearly sweet, in an airy batter, topped with an incendiary veggie medley. “Sawadee ka-a-a-a!” (“hello-o-o!”) I gasped in a flaming greeting to the world. If you love the hot stuff, this is a serious way to go. What struck me even more, though, was the skillful cooking of the fish. If you’re conservative on the chilies, there are plenty of other fried sole dishes on the menu to fill your sole-food jones. Wish they’d do Thai fish tacos. They could easily compete with Rubio’s.

Thai Steak (marinated, grilled flatiron slices, served on a sizzling plate with grilled vegetables) was medium-rare but tough, really tough. The meat is sliced thickly, making each bite a heavy-duty chew. Perhaps it’d be better sliced very thin, like flank steak in Chinese stir-fries. Better yet, I wished for a more tender beef cut, such as the sirloin used in other Southeast Asian restaurants or the rib-eye that currently goes into Amarin’s special Massaman Beef Curry.

Amarin offers four tempting desserts, but we had to run to catch what turned out to be a tedious movie. I suspect the crisp-fried bananas with coconut ice cream would have offered more enjoyment than the flick.

This excursion was meant to be a mere scouting expedition. (I kept wishing for another two or four at the table to try more dishes.) But I wanted to share the good news with readers right away — the Potak soup earned it. Incidentally, Amarin has opened a Mira Mesa branch called Siam Nara, which reputedly serves more authentic cooking. But for Hillcrest Thai food, the place is a find. I wish I’d wandered in years sooner. A joyous Sawadee ka! to it. ■

Amarin Thai

★★★ (Very Good)

3843 Richmond Street (between University and Essex), Hillcrest, 619-296-6056; amarinthaisandiego.com

HOURS: Lunch and dinner daily except Thanksgiving; Monday–Thursday 11:00 a.m.–3:00 p.m., 5:00–10:00 p.m.; Fridays until 11:00 p.m.; Saturday noon–11:00 p.m.; Sunday noon–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Starters, soups, salads $3.59–$13; entrées $8–$23; desserts $5–$6. Weekday lunch specials $5–$9.
CUISINE & BEVERAGES: Inventive, elegant Thai cuisine; a wonderful wine list (lots of French bottlings) at merciful prices.
PICK HITS: Thai Princess appetizer; mixed seafood Potak soup; Mad Fish. Good bets: Little Mermaid appetizer; Gangped Ped Yang (duck with red curry and fruits); any dish with fried sole; rack of lamb Massaman curry; desserts.
NEED TO KNOW: Reserve for prime time. For the most interesting entrées, look to Oceanaire and Specialties rather than the Traditional Thai curries or the noodles and rice. Loads of vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free options. Peanuts used. Dishes described on menu as spicy actually are.

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