Restaurant Review

Topaz Thai

Nearly every Thursday since it opened three years ago, about six interns and residents from the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark have driven north to Belleville for lunch or dinner at Topaz Thai.

Courtesy of topazthainj.com.

Their outing is not complete, says Thai-born chef/owner Wanida Piputbundit, unless “I blow their heads off with my suicide sauce.” The sauce fuels its furnace with chopped habañero peppers and hot Thai chilies that the chef grows in her Staten Island greenhouse along with lemongrass, peppermint, Thai basil, ginger, and kaffir limes. When the medical masochists beg for “Thai style”—kitchen code for “super hot,” she says—Piputbundit adds a dash of suicide or serves it on the side.

For those who are not sultans of sweat, this humble storefront serves mild, traditional Thai dishes, made just the way they are in Bangkok. These should prove a revelation to Americans who’ve grown accustomed to bland, oversweetened, crossover Thai cuisine. Topaz Thai’s food, complex in its spiciness (whatever level you choose), is cooked to order with ultra-fresh ingredients, sans non-Thai vegetables such as the broccoli and bell peppers that are ubiquitous in most Thai restaurants.

As a child, Piputbundit received her first lessons in Thai cuisine at the side of her family’s cook, Noi, in the town of Nan, north of Bangkok. In 1964, when she was 15, she came to live with an aunt and uncle who had moved to Philadelphia. “They gave constant dinner parties,” she says. “They cooked in the royal Bangkok style, very elegant and balanced.”

After marrying a Thai chef, Chesada “Jesse” Piputbundit, she moved to Staten Island, “where I say, ‘Hello, lady’ to the Statue of Liberty every day.” She opened and ran a beauty salon that grew into a spa. “But after twenty years, I wanted to do something different. My customers kept telling me that there was no good Thai food in the metro area, and I should open a restaurant. They complained that the Thai places were all the same, with pink tablecloths, ingredients that were powdered, canned, or frozen, chicken with coconut milk, and pad thai noodles with peanut butter in it,” she says. “Someone had to show the metro area what Thai people cook and eat at home. That someone was me.”

When the Belleville space, formerly Bua Thai, came on the market three years ago, Piputbundit leaped at it. “Now I never go home,” she says uncomplainingly. Portions are ample: “I don’t want my diners to leave hungry,” she says. “That is not Thai hospitality.”

Piputbundit makes regular forays into the dining room, introducing herself as “Mama.” Daughter Aliyah serves as manager, son Bo as assistant manager and headwaiter. But, says Piputbundit, “Jesse isn’t allowed in the kitchen. He’s a chef at the Pierre Hotel and only wants to cook French and Italian.”

Almost everything I tasted was painstakingly prepared, vibrant, and balanced. Many customers start with perfectly made, traditional Thai appetizers like chicken satay and spring rolls. I preferred the crispy Empress tofu, a kind of chunky tempura served with a fresh plum sauce dialed up with chilies and Thai nam pla fermented anchovy paste.

It’s hard to choose between her excellent soups, especially the coconut-enriched tom kha soup or lemongrass-fragrant tom yum. Worthy appetizers include seafood salad (a kind of lime-chili ceviche), and crispy duck salad, incorporating deep-fried chunks of meat with tamarind juice, fresh pineapple, cashews, scallions, red onions, chili-lime dressing, and Thai palm-sugar paste secured “from Bangkok through a friend at Thai Airways.”

One dish I’d pass over is the pad thai. Piputbundit coats hers in a thick brown tamarind sauce that she assured me is proper Thai. But I felt it muted the dish’s appeal, and I missed the crunch of scallions, bean sprouts, and peanuts. After all, peanutty pad Thai was the Thai dish that seduced America, and first loves are hard to get over. And I could skip the pan-seared dumplings, which were on the tough side.

Terrific spicy basil noodles, leafy with fresh Thai basil leaves, are stir-fried with onions, egg, peppers, ginger, and the chef’s special sauce. Equally good are the fried-rice dishes, curried and basil, with a sweet-onion smoothness that differentiates them from the more peppery spicy basil noodles. Each of the well-made curries comes with the diner’s choice of chicken, beef, pork, vegetable, tofu, or shrimp. The seafood basil is spiked with a touch of palm sugar, an Asian condiment made from the sap of palmyra (not coconut) palm trees. “Palm sugar is only a little sweet,” Piputbundit says. “Thai chefs use it to smooth out the salt edge and to act like MSG, bringing out the flavors, but with no headache after.”

A casserole you won’t find in most Thai restaurants is the clay-pot shrimp entrée, “a royal recipe from the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok,” Piputbundit says. It’s served in a ceramic pot with cellophane noodles in a memorable broth of coconut milk, ginger, garlic, cilantro, and Chinese celery.

Much of Topaz Thai’s fine seafood is caught by Jesse, who goes deep-sea fishing on weekends. Other good entrées include Volcano duck and chicken. The fowl are marinated overnight in coconut milk, curry, and garlic, then roasted (the duck is deep-fried). The half-bird is coated with a delectable tamarind paste that Piputbundit caramelizes over a low flame with chilies.

Desserts are familiar but lip-smackingly done. My table devoured the coconut-flavored tapioca pudding, the tiny tapioca pearls tinted green from mild pandan leaves often used for tea.

A party of pepperheads at the next table cried, “Us, too,” when we ordered Thai iced tea and coffee thick with sweetened condensed milk. Milk banks the fires of capsaicin, the spicy substance in hot peppers. “We’re addicted to Topaz Thai,” they added. Whether or not you beg for suicide sauce, Topaz Thai is clearly habit-forming.

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Restaurant Details

  • Cuisine Type:
    Asian - Thai
  • Price Range:
    Moderate

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