Rosie will be on vacation until mid-March. Today, a post by guest blogger Danya Henninger.
If you’re looking to do battle with some spicy Thai, chef Alex Boonphaya would seem to be the right ringmaster. Made with ghost peppers (bhut jolokia), his version of the Southern Thailand dry-spice curry known as kua kling is listed on the menu with a warning: “Try if you dare!” The Wagyu beef stir fry dish—which is not for the faint of heart, but does offer spicy nuance if you can handle the burn—gained the 37-year-old Thailand native notice at his three Philadelphia BYOBs. So did his “Thai Tap Out” dinners, at which customers dine on progressively hotter dishes until they “tap out” (if you make it through the whole thing, the meal is free).
The acclaim was enough to encourage a jump across the river last December, where Boonphaya turned a small space just off Collingwood’s main dining strip into his fourth Circles location. With dark wood walls and large windows that look out on a quiet side street, the dining room is cozy. The best of the dozen or so tables are found along the banquette that wraps around the back corner, mostly hidden from the semi-open kitchen that throws out a fluorescent glow in the middle of the room.
Unfortunately, while Circles’ menu is exactly the same at all outposts, the food is not. At least not yet. Boonphaya can’t be in four places at once, and when he’s not in the Collingswood kitchen, as was the case on a recent winter evening, dishes were unbalanced and sloppily executed.
The dense balls inside crab and pork dumplings tasted more like cardboard than either crab or pork. Their flour wrappers were thick and overly greasy from a pan fry. Dipping them in the side of thin soy vinaigrette didn’t much help — like the dumplings themselves, the sauce was missing expected umami. On the other hand, instead of being bland, the coconut milk soup was severely over salted. There were glimmers of sweet nuttiness in each spoonful of the thin liquid, which was filled with crunchy peas and bell pepper and red onion slivers, but the saline burn after each spoonful made it hard to finish.
Entrees arrived quickly, with portions that were large for their price (all well under $20) but carelessly plated. Instead of being roasted, the duck in the “roasted Rohan duck curry” appeared to have been dunked in a Fryolator. Too bad, because Rohan is a heritage poultry breed developed by high-end purveyor D’Artagnan, and the meat beneath the grease-laden skin was succulent and rich. Dragged through the red curry sauce slopped over the piles of steamed vegetables and cashews on the plate, its multi-layered sweet and tangy flavor gave a glimpse into the potential of Boonphaya’s cooking. It might have been even better had the server not discouraged ordering it “medium” spice-level, suggesting “mild” was more suited to a Caucasian palate.
Crab Pad Thai was a total disaster. Instead of the delicate balance of tamarind, chile, peanut and citrus, the noodle dish was overwhelmed by the sour funk of fish sauce. Though chunks of crab were plentiful throughout, there was no way to taste their sweet meat through the briny sauce. At request, servers removed the (still full) dish from the table almost right away—it was just too pungent to let linger.
For dessert, the seasonally available mango sticky rice was suggested. Half a raw mango sliced and dusted with sesame seeds was sweet and soft, with a texture almost like pudding. In contrast, the oval patty of sticky rice beside it broke apart into crumbles, and the small drizzle of coconut cream over top did little to help with the dryness (a photo of the same dish on the restaurant website shows a much more generous portion of the sweet cream dressing).
Boonphaya definitely has the ability to create great Thai dishes—as his eight years as a Philly favorite show—but he apparently hasn’t yet figured out how to translate that skill to his South Jersey kitchen. Though it’s still young and could easily improve, Circles in Collingswood falls disappointingly far below its potential.
8 Powell Lane, Collingswood
OTHER RESTAURANT NEWS
Sofia Restaurant, at 3 Engle St. in Englewood, is now open for lunch and will soon be offering Sunday brunch. Lunch options include a lobster roll, a grilled vegetable sandwich, filet mignon bites and a fish of the day. For information, 201-541-8530.
Brasserie Brandman in Park Ridge has closed.
– Tammy La GorceClick here to leave a comment