I wouldnít call the area around Hynes Convention Center and Symphony Hall a Thai neighborhood, but this is where the first and third Thai restaurants in Boston were located, and two to five such establishments have been there ever since. Chilli Duck replaces Delhi Darbar, which replaced a Chinese restaurant called Chrysanthemum. I guess the trend is toward greater quantities of hot pepper. If you want to take a Buddhist or cyclical view, we have a carousel of Asian cuisines that skips Japanese because Gyuhama is next door, and Gyuhama is immortal.
Chilli Duckís kitchen is both highly competent and somewhat lacking in individuality. After two visits, I canít peg it to a region or style, but almost everything we had was excellent. Thai cuisine is already a fusion of Southeast Asian cooking with Indian, Malaysian, and a few European flavorings, and it seems to be exceptionally portable.
One reason for the popularity of Thai restaurants is that they have lots of enticing appetizers. At Chilli Duck, the beef satay ($4.95; chicken satay also available) is especially good, with a lot of galangal (the mustardy-gingery spice) in the marinade, and a sweet peanut dip. " Lady Dancing " ($5.95) is actually five shrimp on skewers, very effectively grilled, and sticking up out of a halved-orange base. Spring rolls ($3.95) are not much thicker than cigars, and crunchier for it, with a nice vegetable filling of cabbage and mushrooms, and the sweet-hot dipping sauce sometimes called squid sauce.
Actual Thai calamari ($5.50) were one of the few disappointments. The dish was visually stunning ó seven large rings on a triangular platter. But the heavy breading (like restaurant onion rings) held too much grease. Siamese shumai ($4.95) are available steamed or fried. The steamed version consisted of eight cylinders the size of bay scallops, but I found them starchy and bland, even with a sweet-soy dip. Get the fried shumai.
The traditional lime-shrimp salad ($8.95) is presented here with the large chunks of lettuce and tomato we use in American salads, but I actually prefer this to the usual shredded presentation because it breaks up the intensity of the excellent dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, and hot pepper. This would be a fine lunch for light eaters, or an appetizer for several people. Tom kha ($3.25), the coconut-chicken soup, has an excellent flavor of fresh coconut milk and a solid hit of galangal. Tom yum ($3.50), the hot-sour clear soup, leans more toward the citronella aroma of lemongrass, and is quite peppery, with floating dots of red oil.
Among the duck dishes, I greatly enjoyed duck choo-chee ($12.95). The duck meat was sliced and mostly lean, and the sweetened-coconut red curry is one of the great, complex Thai sauces. There are at least 12 aromatics in a red curry, but this one has the most obvious flavors of galangal and Asian basil. The regular red curry ($9.95 with beef, chicken, pork, or tofu; $11.95 with shrimp, scallops, or duck) emphasizes the lime-leaf flavor. I took the scallop option and found the portion small, although well distributed, since the scallops were each cut into several slices.
Most entrées at Chilli Duck come with very good jasmine rice and a Japanese-style salad of iceberg and tomato in a light ginger sauce that looks like Russian dressing. Noodle dishes lack these accompaniments, but you still shouldnít miss the " drunken noodles " ($6.95 vegetarian, pork, chicken, beef, or tofu; $7.95 shrimp). The basic noodles are fat, broad rad-na, the Thai equivalent of chow foon. These are done in a sauce with a lot of garlic and onion, some Asian basil, and an effective bouquet of broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas, carrots, summer squash, red and green bell peppers, onions, and baby corn. Western vegetables do quite well in Thai curries, and this restaurant adds them with abandon.
The only dishes I tasted in which the vegetables werenít great were the salmon teriyaki ($13.95) and beef teriyaki ($10.95). They came with an oily pile of bean sprouts and un-sauced vegetables, apparently to reflect the Japanese nature of the teriyaki dishes. I liked the soy sauce and sesame seeds on the broiled beef, but the salmon came in a mere three slices, and it was overdone to the point of stiffness.
Chilli Duck has a confusing table card of wines by the glass, described with all the possible wine adjectives except " red " and " white. " You can figure them out by referring to the longer wine list. But otherwise you would have no way of knowing that Thai Lotus ($5.25 glass/$21 bottle) is a white wine not unlike the old California " Chablis, " with spicy hints of chenin blanc in the nose. You would have to remember that merlot is a red-wine grape, although you would be informed that the Bandieri merlot on the list ($5.50/$22) is " soft, rich, seductive, with hints of black cherry and currant. " Do you drink that, or ask it to marry you? The flavors I detect are soft and possibly rich, but otherwise donít match up. You may be happier with Thai beer. Thai iced tea ($2.25) is a handsome production, a large glass full of slightly vanilla tea with ice cubes and a cloud of condensed milk on top. The milk gradually percolates down into the drink, which you can attack from the bottom with a straw, quaff off the top, or stir.
Chilli Duck has the usual canned lychees and rambutans, strawberry cheesecake (go figure), and the increasingly popular mango and sticky rice ($5.95). Iíve had riper mangoes, but Iíve never had sweeter or more delicious sticky rice, and the contrast of sweet, starchy, and fruity works a little bit the way an apple pie works.
The location, although below street level, is quite posh, with one wall of mirrors to make it appear bigger, and hot-orange-pink paint to keep it warm and tropical. The tables are green faux marble bound with blond wood, and the plates are in bright Fiesta-ware colors and varied shapes. The background music is a puzzle, mingling stupid rap songs with good salsa and excellent jazz. None of this complements the food, but I guess discerning fans of each musical genre will be very pleased and slightly annoyed at least twice an hour.
Service was good on two visits, neither of which was very crowded. Our servers did seem to lose track of us at the beginning and end of each meal, which is better than losing us in the middle, and both problems should vanish with experience. The location is right across from Hynes Convention Center, but Phoenix readers will be more likely to use Chilli Duck before events at the Berklee Performance Center or to get yet another Thai fix around Symphony Hall or Huntington Theatre.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com