Kunya Sugplung, chef-owner of Kunya Siam, a mainstay on the main drag of Atlantic Highlands, couldn’t stop celebrating the Thai New Year if she wanted. Her fans would protest and show up at the storefront restaurant on the now-set-in-stone days and simply demand her special Thai New Year menu.
Kunya, known in the Bayshore by her first name much like Madonna or Cher, doesn’t disappoint those fans. Years ago, she set aside a night a few days after the official Thai New Year date of April 13 to close the restaurant to regular service and offer a special menu devised for the occasion.
The annual party proved so popular that she expanded the special-menu dates to two nights and now offers two seatings a night.
At the jam-packed first seating to toast the year 2561 on Wednesday evening, I found myself wondering if Kunya was going to have to grow her Thai New Year’s party to a full week.
Here’s how it works:
After snacks of little seasoned rice sticks, rolled into the shape of a ball and more addictive than potato chips, and petite, delicate dumplings, each diner is presented with a round tray ringed with bowls that look like they might ordinarily contain French onion soup. Only these bowls hold tasting-size portions of six dishes—with a ramekin in the center of Thai fried rice.
Start with the Thai salad, if only because its peanut dressing is better than any I’ve had in any Asian restaurant, ever. Move onto the “golden bag,” so named because it contains a cunning chop of chicken, crab, shrimp and vegetables; it’s a kind of mini egg roll that’s lighter, brighter and fresher-tasting than the norm. Dunk into its plum sauce and smile. Be grateful you have your own portion of the gu-chai tod, a cleverly packaged number made of rice flour and tapioca that’s laps up its spicy soy sauce.
My favorite dish of the night, the pineapple curry shrimp, is a staple on Kunya’s daily menu. Plush, thanks to a curry fortified with red curry and coconut milk, and given a generous ping from tart-sweet pineapple chunks, there’s also the scent of kaffir lime throughout the dish to add intrigue. I could’ve eaten a cauldron of the stuff.
I think I’ll always want that curry to do a do-si-do with Kunya’s coffee duck, which takes slices of tender breast meat and swaddles it in a sauce that’s equal parts coffee and tart tamarind. The accompanying slivers of eggplant were happy to come along for the ride in that sauce.
Little boneless short ribs were done up in a Penang-style curry, mild and peanut-rich—perfect for the beef. I have to say, I loved eating Kunya’s version of Thai fried rice, with its faint backdrop of fish sauce, snippets of egg, scallion and tomato, in between each dish as a kind of palate cleanser.
And if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, maybe the dancing will, for Kunya and her staff, dressed to the nines in traditional Thai fancy-wear, take a few minutes to bow and twirl around the floor of the restaurant, with grace and elegance.
The celebration menu ends with a dessert plate of sticky rice, a haystack of sweet coconut shards, slices of mango and an eggy custard. Perfect.
Mark Kunya’s Thai New Year fete on your calendar for next year. (She may have to expand it to a monthlong event!) Or you can visit any old evening and create a celebration menu of your own at Kunya Siam.
Kunya Siam, 99 First Avenue in Atlantic Highlands. 732-291-2397; kunyasiam.com. BYO. Open daily, except Mondays, for lunch and dinner.Click here to leave a comment