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Den’s Café
Ambitious, impressive Thai served with panache
Den’s Café
(617) 254-4335
961 Comm Ave, Boston
Open Mon–Thu, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 3:30–10:30 p.m.; Fri–Sat, 11:30 a.m.–3 p.m. and 3:30–11 p.m.; and Sun, noon–3 p.m. and 3:30–10:30 p.m.
AE, MC, Vi
Full bar
No valet parking
Sidewalk-level access; bathroom up two steps from dining room

Siam Cuisine was one of the first Thai restaurants in Boston, and the first to break out of Asian-restaurant modesty to display some of the decorative treasure of Thai culture. Now it’s been replaced by Den’s Café, which has kept much of the furnishings and décor, and serves a lengthy and diverse menu with panache. While almost all of Boston’s Thai restaurants are rather good, Den’s is clearly striving for a higher level, and many dishes succeed, even if the menu substitutes smiley faces for the usual asterisks or pepper silhouettes indicating degrees of spiciness. In some Asian cultures, people smile when confused or in pain, but most American diners sweat, cry out, or make whooping noises when the pepper mounts up. If the restaurant wants to do a chili pepper with a smile, okay.

Among the appetizers, I was most impressed with todmun ($5.75), four patties of ground shrimp and long beans with a fine mustard-ginger flavor of galangal. One smiley was about the right rating, but even the most spice-shy should try a little of these. " Pheasant wings " ($5.75) are the latest spin on stuffed boneless chicken wings, in which the wings are boned and stuffed with a typical shrimp-vegetable forcemeat, deep fried, and then cut almost into disks. They really look like something you’d serve to the Jetsons, but the flavor is excellent. " Bangkok Dices " ($5.50) are cubes of beef, perhaps flank steak, with an effective teriyaki marinade. Golden bags ($5.75) are cute purses of tofu skin filled with the same stuffing as the pheasant wings, looped shut with a scallion, and fried nicely, about two bites each.

Rather close is the mee grobs ($5.75), the Northern Thai dish of fried rice vermicelli, sweet and crunchy like Cracker Jacks, but with shrimp and bean sprouts instead of peanuts, and cilantro and scallion on top. Satay ($5.40) are nice little skewers, but could be more extensively marinated. Spider tempura ($6.75) is a soft-shell crab fried in a puffy batter, along with some green beans, broccoli, and sweet potato. Tempura isn’t really a Thai dish, but maybe it will become one, since the sweet chili sauce is a livelier dip than the original Japanese soy-vinegar dip.

Seaweed salad ($4.95) is another Japanese dish that fits on the Thai table. This one combines bright green, transparent seaweed and shredded carrots, with a light soy dressing. Som-tom salad ($7.95) is the more typical Thai salad of green papaya (perhaps the kitchen had run out, as ours had jicama instead) and shredded carrot with spicy, lime-juicy dressing and a few shrimp and cashews, topped with chopped peanuts.

All our main dishes were very well made, especially the relatively un-hyped green-curry chicken ($9.50). The sauce has the consistency of light cream, but seems to bring out a buttery richness in both the boneless chicken breast and the " Thai melon, " a translucent green vegetable somewhat like summer squash or chayote. For a little more crunch, the dish includes the Thai cherry eggplants and a lot of bamboo shoots.

I was also very taken with samui seafood ($11.95), both for the one-smiley yellow-curry sauce and for what it did with shrimp, scallops, a Jonah-crab claw, and especially the very finely " scaled " tubes of squid. Grilled salmon choo chee ($12.95) is a good version of the coconut red curry with a lot of lemongrass and lime-leaf flavor, very successful with the salmon, and lavishly dressed with asparagus, yellow squash, string beans, and snow peas. Rama duck ($11.95) is a very good tray of boneless duck slices in a more conventional red curry. Tamarind duck ($11.95) is first fried, which adds unnecessary grease and starch to duck, but then served in a nice, tangy sweet-sour sauce. Both duck platters have separated areas of steamed broccoli and sautéed carrots, but I enjoyed the vegetables with the sauces as well.

Hunglay chicken ($9.50) has a " tamarind-based dry Burmese curry " that contrasts nicely with the rich Thai coconut curries, and pulls out a lot of lemongrass flavor. I thought this dish was an honest one-smiley (I may even have smiled), with red and green bell peppers, sliced onions, and string beans — generally the best Western vegetable in curry sauces.

" Awesome tofu " ($9.95) is pretty close to awesome. The tofu is stuffed with a little shrimp-chicken mixture and deep fried, making it stiff enough to cut. What’s awesome is the medley of vegetables on top, including snow-pea pods and English peas, in a soy-based sauce with a touch of spice. Medallions of pork ($12.95) I found somewhat tough, despite a reported marinade of coriander roots. Our dish had a gingery sauce with pea pods and a lot of ginger, more like Chinese food than Thai. " Wild boar basil " ($9.50), our venture into three smileys, is basically a dish of sliced pork flecked with hot pepper, along with the Thai cherry eggplant and two kinds of mushrooms. It wasn’t the spiciest three-star dish I’ve ordered, nor one where the red pepper brought out secondary flavors well.

Pad Thai ($7.95) is a classic version, and priced within reach. " Crispy pad Thai " ($7.95) doesn’t really have the same flavor. It tastes more like the slightly sweet mee grobs, only with fine yellow noodles (fried crisp), shrimp, and vegetables.

Den’s Café has several desserts. The mango with sweet sticky rice ($4.95) is very good, though not as pretty as the black-rice version at Oubon. The white sticky rice probably tastes better (as it’s cooked in coconut milk with palm sugar added at the end), and the mango was almost as ripe as I like them. I also like the taro Thai custard ($3.75), a plain square of custard flecked with purple bits of starchy taro. The khao neow sangkaya ($4.75) features the same semisweet custard, minus the taro, as a thin layer on the sweet sticky rice. If all this seems too hearty, Den’s has the familiar canned litchi and rambutan fruits ($2.95 each), as well as " banana in the blanket " ($3.25), which is six rectangular bundles of melting banana in fried egg-roll wrappers, served in sweet syrup with sesame seeds. And there’s a rather good version of fried ice cream ($3.50) that tastes like it was actually fried.

The redecorated restaurant looks quite similar to the splendid old Siam Cuisine, and still features four floor tables, some with knee-saving wells underneath so it only looks like you’re sitting on the floor. Another large table is plexiglass over a carved-wood bas-relief landscape. The only slippage in tone is some " La Vida Loca " background music. I know the mambo and the tango are still popular in Southeast Asia, but there’s no excuse for Ricky Martin with green curry.

Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com

Issue Date: January 9 - 16, 2003
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