Sivika “Pon” Hunter will be the first to tell you that owning a restaurant is completely different than making dinner for friends. “It’s not just cooking,” she says. “It’s everything. It’s managing lots of details.” When a dishwasher didn’t show up for work, for example, she herself jumped in to clean plates.
Four months have passed since the entrepreneur took the leap from catering parties to launching Pon Thai Bistro, a 32-seat eatery and bar in Brookline Village that bears her nickname. Hunter trained at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts and provides the creative vision for the dishes, cooked up by head chef Kannarisa “Nian” Phohirun, who most recently worked in Thai restaurants in Washington, D.C.
Step inside and you’ll see that lime green and taupe have replaced the red color palette of the former establishment, Stoli Bar & Restaurant. Pendant lighting casts a soft glow on a sweet four-seat bar.
On a weekday there is just a scattering of customers having lunch. Where is everyone? The dishes we try are some of the very best we’ve had. Papaya salad ($10 at lunch, $12 at dinner), topped with two grilled whole shrimp, features elegant threads of the crunchy green fruit, tossed with shreds of carrot, halved grape tomatoes, toasted whole cashews, and green beans that retain their snap. Tamarind, a pod-like fruit popular in Hunter’s home province of Phetchabun, in northern Thailand, lends smoky sweetness to a piquant lime dressing. Don’t let the bland beige looks of tom kha soup ($6, $8) deceive you. This beautifully tart bowl is intensely flavored with kaffir lime leaf, galangal, and lemongrass. Silky oyster mushrooms float in a coconut milk-enriched broth that arrives piping hot.
On a busy weekend evening, every seat is filled and servers struggle to keep up. A cold draft blows in every time the door swings open. Appetizers, not all Thai, show Hunter’s desire to draw from different Asian cuisines. Unfortunately, items like shumai dumplings ($9) arrive lukewarm, as does a plate of duck confit rolls ($10), Chinese-style scallion pancakes wrapped around mild shreds of poultry with a kiss of hoisin sauce. It’s clear that these dishes cooled as they languished, waiting for pick-up from the kitchen.
Fortunately, the Pon gimlet ($10), a gin-and-citrus-based cocktail made with muddled basil, serves as a high point, as does a wine list that features some of our favorite Austrian whites and reds. Libations pair nicely with dishes like a grilled Cornish hen ($16), subtly spiced with turmeric and soy, and pan-seared salmon ($18), a fillet with a mere whisper of the spicy lime sauce advertised on the menu. Sticky rice comes with the hen, jasmine rice with the fish, and both platters sport a simple cabbage slaw.
Standout dishes reach for the zippy, pungent heights we experienced at lunch. Larb duck salad ($16) showcases grilled minced meat, full of umami from Thai fermented fish sauce, infused with lemongrass, cilantro, mint, and diced fresh chiles. Drunken noodles with pork ($14), wide ribbons of rice noodles stir-fried with snow peas, also offers a delectable buzz of heat. Hunter later explains that “drunken” refers not to alcohol but to how the dish (traditionally served fiery) renders one dizzy.
The classic pad Thai (we get ours with chicken, $14), is not too sweet, unlike most other Thai places in town. The night we visit, the delicate rice noodles have cooked minutes too long, resulting in a mushier-than-usual texture.
Two servers wait on us, and often seem to work at cross-purposes. Extra cocktails end up on our bill, and while it is later corrected, one vigilant server would have been better.
Pon Thai Bistro has a few growing pains. Think of the spot as an emerging gem.