If you want to know what it’s like to enjoy a fiery, beer-soaked dinner on a steamy July evening in expat Bangkok, you can do one of two things. Hop on a flight to Thailand, in search of the real thing, or peddle your clunky Citi Bike down to Spring Street and take a seat at the bar of a little restaurant called Uncle Boons. There, you will find a motley assortment of fellow travelers and poseurs — bearded philosophers, drunken poets, sunburned tourists in their porkpie hats — holding court over frosty bottles of Chang beer. You will find worn brown walls cluttered with mementos from old, twentieth-century Thailand—faded photographs of King Bhumibol with his medals, pictures of Siamese dancers, neon watercolors of water buffalo in rice paddies. Ceiling fans whir gently in the cool, dark rooms, and the wooden café tables are set with guttering yellow candles and golden spoons shaped like stalks of bamboo.
This evocative bandbox of a restaurant is the brainchild of Matt Danzer and Ann Redding, two veteran gourmet cooks (both worked at Per Se) who’ve traveled and eaten extensively around Thailand. Redding grew up in Thailand (she actually has an uncle named Boon), and many of the tchotchkes on the walls are curated from various family houses. Several of the recipes on the small, eclectic menu come from her family, too, including Uncle Boon’s excellent green-mango salad (made with slivers of mango and crispy squid), and deliciously tangy grilled sausages, which Mommy Pai stuffs with a loose mixture of rice and Issan pork. A charcoal grill turns out seaside specialties like charred prawns (good) and grilled blowfish tails (less good), and if you call for the house chicken, it will come to you fresh off the rotisserie, like at a Thai-boxing arena, with an array of spicy dipping sauces.
“I think I had this in Chiang Mai once,” said one of my diners as we took fanlike betel leaves and wrapped them around a mix of chiles, peanuts, and dried shrimp (mieng kum, a traditional snack). No one, however, had seen anything quite like the creamy, smooth black-crab dip called lon pu kem (which is made with a leavening of ground pork and coconut cream and garnished with fresh vegetables for dipping), or the fried frogs’ legs (kob tod katiem pik Thai, for the record; see here), which the kitchen serves over lemongrass and herbs. These delicacies were followed by a tower of roasted chicken tossed with banana blossoms and shreds of crispy shallots (yum kai hua pli), and spicy, lime-soaked laab salad, made here with lamb instead of the usual pork, which we washed down with bottles of frozen Chang beer.
The cooking at Uncle Boons lacks the scholarly intensity of Andy Ricker’s northern-accented Thai menu at Pok Pok Ny, near Red Hook, and if you’re searching for properly spicy regional curries and the endless, rainbow variety of fish dishes and hot-sour soups that characterize great Thai cooking, Queens is still the borough for you. But for a quick tourist’s fix of this great Southeast Asian cuisine, you could do worse than a platter of home-cooked-style crab fried rice, topped with sprigs of fresh coriander, or the classic massaman curry, which Danzer and Redding prepare with softly braised beef ribs (order with a fresh, buttery roti pancake on the side). The lone house dessert is a decorative and cooling cococut-ice-cream sundae, which is big enough for three and crowned on its frothy whipped-cream top with candied peanuts, drifts of toasted coconut, and a single sugary tea cracker, just like in the old ice-cream parlors of Bangkok.
You could be forgiven for thinking, as one of my guests did, that Michael White’s formulaic new Soho steakhouse, Costata, looks unsettlingly like the dining room of a lobbyists’ restaurant in Washington, D.C. The walls in the beige-toned space are covered with the kind of generic wood paneling that you see in corporate meeting rooms and on the first-class “business” floors of airport hotels. The tables are set with rumpled linen, and the lighting, which emanates from circular, Ikea-style lampshades dangling overhead, is weirdly flat, like in the showroom of a shoe store at your local mall. The chairs in the half-filled room look like they’ve been rummaged from a suburban hotel somewhere far out beyond the Beltway, and many were occupied, on the evenings I dropped in, with great, walrus-size gentlemen dressed in gray business suits, all yelling at each other at the tops of their lungs.
Costata (“rib eye” in Italian) is the eighth new venture Michael White has opened with the financier Ahmass Fakahany in the past six years, and it’s clear from the menu here that his repertoire is beginning to wear thin. The meagerly portioned pasta “side dishes” are prosaic by White’s lofty standards, and, in the case of a watery serving of squid-ink casarecci, borderline inedible. The raw-fish crudi are decent enough (try the sardines and the tuna), although you’ll find a much better selection uptown at White’s flagship restaurant, Marea. The Colorado lamb chops I sampled were devoid of proper lamby taste, so stick to the steaks, in particular the porterhouse-style Fiorentina cut, which is almost worth the extravagant $58-per-person sticker price. The desserts, by former Corton pastry chef Robert Truitt, are a step up from the usual steakhouse grind, and if you’re in a festive mood, the one to get is the gelato alla meringa, constructed with a soft block of vanilla sponge cake, spoonfuls of poached rhubarb, and a twirling meringue top.
7 Spring St., nr. Elizabeth St.; 646-370-6650; uncleboons.com
Hours: Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight, Sunday to 10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $16; entrées, $20 to $26.
Ideal Meal: Green-mango salad, chopped lamb salad with mint, massaman curry with beef ribs, ice-cream sundae.
Note: If you’re seeking relative calm and quiet, ask for a table in the small back dining room.
Scratchpad: One star for the ambience, and another for the faithfully executed Thai cooking.
206 Spring St., nr. Sixth Ave.; 212-334-3320; costatanyc.com
Hours: Sunday and Monday 5 to 10 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, $14 to $24; entrées, $33 to $59.
Ideal Meal: Seafood “mare” salad, steak Fiorentina for two, gelato with meringue.
Note: The 25-page wine list contains a nice selection of beefy, big-money Italian reds, provided you have the resources.
Scratchpad: One star for the crudi and the steaks. Minus a star for the décor and the prices.
*This article originally appears in the July 29, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.