As a food writer, I have a rule about not eating in newly-opened restaurants. Countless bloggers compete with each other in trumpeting the arrival of a new eating place and rendering their verdicts. I, on the other hand, am more interested in how a place is doing three to six months after opening. Sustainability is key.
But rules are meant to be broken, and so it is that I find myself at AzuThai with my sister, Tricia, and her husband, Jude, barely three weeks after it’s opened. The restaurant is another place that attempts to satisfy the Filipinos’ never-ending love affair with Thai food. Run by the Gamboas of Milky Way, Cirkulo, and Tsukiji fame, it was only a matter of time before the family turned their attention to Asia’s most famous (perhaps after Chinese) cuisine.
Packed to the gills because of a recent feature in a broadsheet, I’m only able to nab a 9 pm reservation. But what more than makes up for it is that co-owner Malu Gamboa will be joining us. At that hour, the crowds have thinned out, and those that have stayed are joyously raucous, perhaps from happy ingestions of Singha beer, which AzuThai offers. The place is sparsely decorated with accents “… all [of it] on loan from friends,” Malu says. Earth tones, paneled wood, the occasional set of gongs, and the requisite buddhas, the most eye-catching of which is the red head situated by the entrance. The dining room itself isn’t very large; it’s one open area. More private dining is afforded by the function rooms off to the side.
Opening the menu, Tricia and I zero in on our favorites. “SÃ´m Tam!” (papaya salad) we chorus but her choice of the popular Tom Yum Goong wins over my Tom Ka Gai (chicken soup with coconut milk, kaffir lime, and galangal). “You’re the only one who seems to like that, Lor,” she says, as if to assure me. Hmph. Meantime, Malu is scribbling on an order pad. “Shall we order the bagoong rice?” she asks us, in mid-scribble. We nod eagerly. It seems like a lot of food, and it is.
The Fresh Thai spring rolls in rice paper with special sauce (Poh Pia Paksot; P195) are Malu’s current favorite. “Had it for lunch today, gotta have it again tonight!” she singsongs, her eyes relaying her fondness for the dish. Reminiscent of the Vietnamese cha gio (spring rolls), it’s similar in taste and texture, but it’s the sauce that marks this dish as truly Thai. What looks like a peanut sauce is really that, except once on the tongue, it reveals its dominant citrus notes, sparking the appetite.
As for the Tom Yum Goong (hot and sour prawn soup; P345) and the Bagoong fried rice (P325), I’ve tasted better in Manila. AzuThai’s version (of the former) however, has more substance in it ”“ meat, mushrooms, herbs, and more of that back-of-the-throat tingle as well.
The blessed SÃ´m Tam, (spicy papaya salad with long beans, peanuts, tomatoes, chili, lime dressing; P275) delivers with its medley of veggies plus a plate of cabbage to alternate the dish’s layers of sour and salty with crunchy. Depending on where it’s made, sÃ´m tam is generally (slightly) soupy while the unripe papaya remains crispy. I feel that the salad could use more dressing, but that’s more of a personal preference. The dressing is so enervating in itself that I could probably drink whole bowlfuls of the stuff.
Stir-fried kale with crispy pork (Pak Kahna Moo Krop; P465) and another duck dish shown here (its name forgotten) are almost identical in flavor and texture that for me, they could be the same dish. The concept is a bed of vegetables on which meat rests, doused with a brown sauce that oozes out when the crispy meat is bitten into, the vegetables a background of just-picked freshness, and through its crevices seep out more of the sauce. This is where the pleasantly fragrant jasmine rice comes in nicely. Chase the dish down with large spoonfuls of this.
Malu’s brother, J, drops in on us occasionally. The pride that the siblings have in their new baby is evident, it’s their paean to Thai home cooking. Working away at the back are the two mÃ¢e khruas (female chefs) from Thailand, whom J has invited to cook at the restaurant. He recounts how they laughed at him when he came back from the market laden with the ingredients they had asked for. “They’d say, ”˜is no good, is no good.’ They’re very particular with what they cook with,” he says. The restaurant uses what they can find in the local market but the majority of the ingredients are imported from Thailand. The spice levels in AzuThai are managed for the Filipino palate, such as in the stir-fried minced chicken with chili and basil leaves (Gai Ka Prow; P325). J tells us that he once asked one of the Thai chefs to cook it for him “…as she would cook it for herself.” So spicy was it that he almost regretted his request. “But I finished it!” He crows triumphantly.
The Alaskan King Crab with glass noodles (Poo Ob Woon Sen; P1,295) is an ooh! dish. Large claws thoughtfully cracked beforehand to facilitate easier eating are napped in a pungent curry sauce. The claws are meaty, some so large that their girth equals a man’s thumb. I find the sauce a bit bitter, turmeric that wasn’t cooked long enough to blend seamlessly into the sauce. But this is an impressive, indulgent dish.
I want to order all the desserts on the menu, including the fresh fruits with Thai chili salt (Prik Kab Klua; P165), but I “settle” for four. Tricia has appropriated the Water chestnuts with coconut milk (Tap Tim Krob; P125), a holdover craving from our vacation in Vietnam. The Thai halo-halo (Ruamit; P125) is almost as good, but there’s something about those water chestnuts that’s inimitable. I bet they’d make anything taste good, even the much-maligned (by me) ampalaya.
Most interesting is the Bananas in palm sugar syrup and coconut ice cream (Gluay Cham; P165). A certain type of banana variety called honey banana is used here; more starchy and gummy than smooth and sweet like the lacatan, its attributes become a catalyst for the silken syrup ”“ which isn’t too sweet ”“ and the exquisite coconut ice cream. Put a little of each on your spoon and swoon.
Mango with sticky rice (Khao Niao Ma Muang; P165) is one of my sweet comforts. Entwining three of my favorite foods ”“ mango, rice, and coconut (milk) ”“ it soothes me because its three components are ”“ to my mind ”“ tied together by nothing more than the fact that I like each part separately. It’s glee times three. To my mind, eating this improves my life immeasurably.
Portions at AzuThai are quite small, meant for 1-2 persons. Expect to spend at least P800/person. The food is tentatively spiced, so if you like Thai food as much as I do, ask to have your food spiced up. I have no doubt this restaurant will shine the way it’s meant to once it finds its groove.
G/F Milkyway Bldg.,
900 A. Arnaiz Ave. (Pasay Road) and Paseo de Roxas, Makati.
Open for lunch and dinner Mondays-Saturdays.