Earlier today, my post on Artichoke Basille’s Pizza went up. In it I mentioned my three meal criteria in New York. This post tackles the second criteria, i.e.:
2) Ask a friend who lived/has lived in New York City for a suggestion of a place that will not break the piggy bank.
Now, I was on a business trip which meant I was under a meal allowance. However, that does not mean I should go for broke either. After all, unhappy customers is not good for business. So, for this purpose, I checked with my friend LB. My story with LB goes way back to high-school, though, due to some wacky circumstances, I was her senior at school despite our age difference was just a couple of months. While we kept in touch once in a blue moon, we eventually disconnected from each other, until about a bit over a year ago, we found out we both moved out of Panama – she moving to New York City (not necessarily to Manhattan, though) and me to Vancouver. And that happened about the same time! After reminiscing old times and common friends (yup, that’s you AY and GA!), later that day, we decided to have an early dinner. At that time, we were near NY Penn Station, specifically, in Koreatown and I asked where she would go for dinner with the criteria above. She suggested as Asian restaurant that a friend of hers suggested. It was a small walk (as if we hadn’t walked the whole day already!) and we arrived to Aura Thai.
In the grand scheme of things, this restaurant can be called small. There were less than a dozen tables (each table was for 2 diners) and it felt somewhat cramped. Also, at times, I heard bits and pieces of the conversation from the neighbouring tables. Normally, I wont’ care about details like this but, in this case, since I was talking to somebody else, that might be distracting. And, oh, feel free to call me paranoid.
One thing that we did note was the push to have us order our meals as soon as possible. Now, I do admit we took our time to look at the menu but, c’mon!, if the menus are down, it means we are ready. Looking back, however, I must keep in mind rent the rent in this area wouldn’t be cheap so it is understandable then wanted fast turnaround of the tables. Past that point, though, everything was good. In fact, after ordering and settling the bill, they did not pressure us to empty the table (at that point, there were several empty tables in the restaurant). I guess it was something in the moment…
We decided to order three dishes to share, starting with…
Mango Salad – Green mango with shrimp, red onions, avocado, cashew nuts and ground peanuts in a sweet lime dressing with a side of sticky rice. At $9 and despite the use of lettuce, I will have to admit this dish was quite a deal. The concept was good but there was one major point of failure, which I won’t blame the restaurant for: the mango was in the dead middle stage. Now, those who haven’t lived in tropical countries might not understand this so let me try to explain – we eat the mango when it is either green, where the flesh of the mango is still somewhat hard (think a pear or apple), or ripe, when the flesh has an almost mushy consistency, not that far from an avocado consistency. These two stages are almost polar opposite, as the green stage is acidic and sour (and, oddly enough, it is eaten with some salt and vinegar!) and the ripe stage is sweet and fragrant. The problem here is that, in the “middle” stage, it does not contain characteristics from both extremes other than some semi-soft texture. BL and I thought that, had it been either extreme, this dish would have been a real winner, as all the flavours mixed together very well and each component contributed a bit to the end result. The onions for some of its unique taste, the softness/creaminess of the avocado, the nuttiness of the peanuts, some sweetness of the carrot and peppers, and the acidity of the dressing, mixed with the almost blank palate of the rice. Again, I do not blame the execution as it is sometimes difficult to judge a mango just by the looks. It is a fruit you have to smell and feel and, given the shortcuts required to be able to ship it from tropical countries, something had to be sacrificed.
Dish number two was Pad Thai, in this case, with beef. I sort of pushed this dish (BL, don’t kill me!) as I wanted to compare it to the Pad Thai found here. Right out from the gate, I liked the visuals: it did not have that oily looking texture, not too much sauce at the bottom of the plate and not orange-y/red! After a squirt of the lime and mixed with the legume, once again, it provided an interesting mix of herb-y taste (thanks to the green onions) nuttiness (from the peanuts) and, interesting enough, “beefiness” (think wok-hei but not caramelized to that extent). I wonder how it would have tasted with other meats… One part that I wished had a bit more was fish sauce to make the dish more pungent. That is a “me” preference; again, BL liked it and I am fine with it!
Dish number three was Pad Gna-Prow Scallops (sic?) – Scallops sauteed with fresh basil, chili and garlic with string beans, carrot, bell peppers and hot peppers. If there was something that really disappointed that night it was this dish. In principle, it sounds good, as it had a good combination of vegetables and seafood (OK, only scallops but you get the idea). The problem with the dish is two fold: the scallops weren’t seared and there was that “fishiness” taste to it. I am not sure to what extent having it seared would have affected that “fishiness” but, regardless, the end result wasn’t that appetizing. While we did eat some, in the end, we ate the rest of the vegetables rather than the scallops. On that note, the veggies were nicely cooked and had a spiciness bite in the end.
Aside of the disappointment from the last dish, I will have to say I liked this place (though I must add the company, as usual, “improve” the meal). Sure, it is not 100% authentic (partially in the execution of some dishes plus some shortcuts), but the end results we appetizing. And, if we add the cost factor (total bill was less than $40), I believe this is a really good option. Of course, given there are so many small eateries around, if i am ever back in NYC, I might want to explore those too; otherwise, I might come back.