Mai Thai has recently dipped its toes into the inventive waters of molecular gastronomy.
It’s making a mere ripple, though, compared to the cutting-edge modernist fare being dished up at State & Lemp. But elements of this big-city cuisine are popping up all over the Asian fusion menu at the longtime downtown Boise eatery.
Compressed watermelon? Coconut foam?
This doesn’t sound like the Mai Thai of yesteryear.
Of course, owner Billy Pothikamjorn has not been afraid to make changes to his concept since debuting the restaurant and bar in 2003.
Even though Mai Thai is a Thai restaurant at heart, he has bolstered the menu with Nipponese offerings over the years. Nigiri, sashimi and fusion rolls were added to the repertoire. An izakaya bar menu (Japanese small plates served all night long, Monday-Saturday) debuted in 2011 — about the same time the cocktail program received an overhaul.
Most recently, Pothikamjorn built a small kitchen lab in the basement so his chefs can play around with modern culinary techniques.
But what’s going on in the lab downstairs could hardly be considered full-blown molecular gastronomy. It’s not like they are turning applesauce into caviar with liquid nitrogen or making crumbly coconut soil.
Even with all the changes, the menu seems to be plagued with inconsistencies. I noted many broken promises during two recent visits.
One evening, I slipped into the sleek bar area for a bottle of Japanese rice lager ($5/Kirin Ichiban) and some izakaya offerings — a concept of small plates that’s popular in the trendy bars of Tokyo. Think of it as Japanese-style tapas.
Our barrage started with beef tataki ($7) and mame yaki ($5), a neat stack of slightly spicy grilled green beans flecked with toasted sesame seeds. But I didn’t notice any lemon confit, as the menu stated.
The charred, sliced beef boasted all those familiar teriyaki flavors, yet it was remiss of the promised marinated orange. The steak, however, was tender and tasty — thanks to a sake-shoyu marinade.
Next came the Mai Thai Viche ($9), a fun riff on the Latin raw-fish classic. Sashimi-thin slices of fresh-tasting hamachi, salmon and tuna were ornately adorned with micro greens, edible flowers, bright cilantro oil, chili oil and granules of wasabi powder.
Not quite full, we tagged on an order of tori robata yaki ($5), another way of saying two grilled chicken skewers (notably tender save a few globs of chewy fat) with a pronounced marinated flavor. The expected cinnamon-watermelon compote was nowhere to be found, though we did enjoy the two cubes of citrusy compressed watermelon that came in its place.
During another visit, we sat in the elongated dining room, separated into two hemispheres by the restaurant’s signature rectangular-shaped pond.
Many of the dishes on the regular menu employ modern Asian concepts, while others stay the traditional Thai course.
An order of tuna tartare ($12) played well with a Pretty Panda ($9), a house-concocted vodka drink mixed with mandarin orange, lemon juice and ribbons of kaffir leaf.
Mai Thai’s tuna tartare is a standout dish. A bold stroke of beet puree punctuated a formed cube of raw ahi tuna and chopped avocado, lubed with seasoned sesame oil. A lightly poached quail egg sat on top, just begging to have its yolk popped. Nasturtium petals, chopped mango and micro greens brightened up the plate.
The Bangkok-style papaya salad ($10) stayed true to its southern Thai roots, with shreds of crunchy green papaya and carrot tossed with cherry tomatoes, raw garlic and dried shrimp in a fiery lime dressing.
I was excited to taste the kai-lan and asparagus sauté with crispy onions and coconut foam. But instead, our server got the order wrong and brought us the asparagus and mushroom stir-fry ($14), a medley of wok-seared wood mushrooms, asparagus spears and garlic in a zesty yellow bean sauce.
The honey duck is always a safe bet at Mai Thai, yet I decided to try the peach tea duck breast ($17). I should have stuck with the honey duck. While the two duck breasts had a good peachy flavor and were mostly tender, the flabby skin was a turnoff. It would be best to crisp up the skin before serving this duck, which comes with sweet potato puree, sautéed Brussels sprouts and a drizzle of dark pan sauce.
It’s apparent that Mai Thai needs to iron out some consistency kinks if they plan on taking the cuisine to the next level.
Reviewers pay for their meals and attempt to dine anonymously. Email James Patrick Kelly: firstname.lastname@example.org.