Montien, a Thai restaurant in the Theatre District, is celebrating its 30th year in business — a milestone that reflects both the quality of its kitchen and the enduring popularity of Thai food in Boston.
Why have Thai restaurants proliferated all over the city? Is it because Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge (his father was studying at Harvard) and there is an almost mystical bond between Thais and Bostonians? Or is it because we just plain love the bold flavors and bright colors of a cuisine that encourages a diner to customize every dish according to his or her palate?
At Montien, you can enjoy the satay, pad Thai noodles, and Massaman curry available at any local Thai kitchen and be well fed and content. But the restaurant also offers a separate, “authentic” Thai menu that features dishes more representative of what’s actually eaten in Thailand. For Thai patrons, that means a taste of home; for non-Thais, it’s an opportunity to sample Thai fare often difficult to find outside the Kingdom. If you’re searching for a true Thai culinary experience, put together a meal at Montien ordering off the “authentic” menu.
That’s where we discover salted crab papaya salad, whose primary ingredient is a boxy, 2-inch-long crustacean fermented in saltwater that is dentist-defiantly crunchy and unapologetically salty. The crabs are chopped into chunks that garnish a salad of slivered green papaya, green beans, cherry tomatoes, and iceberg lettuce tossed in a sweet, spicy, and tart dressing of fish sauce, sugar, chiles, and lime juice.
It’s eaten with steamed, glutinous sticky rice. Carefully pick up the (hot from the steamer) rice with your fingertips, roll into a small ball, and use as an edible scoop. You don’t actually consume most of the crab — you bite through the shell and slurp out the insides. The intense, acrid salinity will knock you back in your seat and remind you how much fun dining out can be.
Montien’s “authentic” Thai menu has many such moments. Portions are generous and meant to be shared. Dishes labeled “appetizers” really aren’t — there are no courses, per se, and dishes arrive when they’re ready. (Figure one dish per person plus one more for variety’s sake.) You’ll also want sticky rice — to accompany salads — and steamed jasmine rice. Dishes are seasoned for Thai taste buds, which means many are uncompromisingly, exuberantly spicy hot.
Crumbly, grilled pork sausage is typical of the skewered sausages sold on Thai street corners. Here it’s presented, sans skewers, with sliced ginger, peanuts, and fresh Thai bird’s eye chiles, so that you might appreciate the mix of myriad tastes and textures. Crispy sliced pork is another street-style snack. A cross between jerky and well-done bacon, these strips of sweet, deep-fried pork are dangerously, delectably addicting.
You’ll want to devour every last drop of fragrant lemongrass broth in a pot of steamed mussels. Unfortunately the plump mussels on the half shell are overcooked and more tough than tender. Use sticky rice as an edible spoon with larb beef, a salad of minced beef, onions, iceberg lettuce, lemongrass, and ground, roasted rice, dressed in chile lime sauce. The roasted rice powder adds a pleasant, gritty nuttiness.
Deep-frying an entire fish is a challenging proposition for any chef. Montien chef-owner Tony Suktheva prepares a perfect larb-pla-tod-krob (deep-fried, whole red snapper) with crackling, crispy skin and moist, juicy meat. It’s delicious strewn with red onions, scallions, lemongrass, and cilantro and doused in spicy and citrusy lime-chile sauce. Imagine a New England-style fisherman’s platter of fried shrimp, scallops, mussels, and squid smothered in jammy, sweet-and-smoky Thai basil-chile sauce. Call it seafood rad-prik. It’s Southeast Asian shellfish heaven.
Ask for the caddy of condiments to spice up dinner to your own liking — a fundamental principle/pleasure of Thai dining. Montien’s condiment caddy consists of sriracha; crushed, dried red chiles; and sliced bird’s eye chiles in fish sauce, then again in vinegar. Sometimes, chunky chile sauce is included.
The satisfying simplicity of minced pork omelet — eggs, pork, and fish sauce fried into golden puffiness in oil — is especially good with a slathering of sriracha. There’s nothing spicy at all about squid kra-tiam-prik-Thai, a homey stir-fry of calamari, mushrooms, snap peas, baby corn, and pineapple (also available in chicken, pork, beef, seafood, and shrimp), seasoned with garlic, soy, and black pepper.
A shared fire pot — flames dramatically shooting out of its chimney — is common in large Thai meals. Try spicy-sweet tom-kha-mor-fai (coconut milk soup) fire pot. Velvety rich, it’s dappled with mushrooms and your choice of chicken, shrimp, seafood, or vegetables (we have chicken).
Unlike the coconut milk-based curries on the “regular” menu, a “jungle” curry fire pot of incendiary, chile-based stock is soupy, not creamy. It overflows with Ping-Pong-ball-shaped Thai eggplant, green beans, bell pepper, squash, bamboo shoots, and peppercorn pods and your selection of pork, chicken, beef, veggies, or (our vote) shrimp. Both fire pots are excellent with jasmine rice.
Desserts are listed on the “regular” menu. We pass on strawberry cheesecake in favor of iced, canned rambutan (a not-as-sweet lychee look-alike) and sweet, coconut-milky sticky rice with fresh mango.
Montien has a full bar boasting a deceptively high-test Belvedere lychee martini. The wine list includes several bottles frequently paired with Thai cuisine, including a nectarine-fruity 2012 Trimbach Pinot Gris. Thai beers Singha and Chang remain the best complements for this gutsy fare.
Service is better from the veteran members of the wait staff. Newer hires can be forgetful about dipping sauces, ladles, spoons, and checking in with customers during the meal.
For its 30th birthday, the restaurant received a new coat of red paint throughout. The old sushi counter has been replaced by additional seating. Flowers on the tables (and some plates) and decorative pots of ferns come from owner Pam Suktheva’s florist shop next door.
Montien, which means “royal residence” in Thai, is home to two kings. A framed photo of King Bhumibol and Elvis Presley together on the set of the 1960 film “G.I. Blues” hangs in the dining room.
63 Stuart St., Theatre District, Boston, 617-338-5600, www.montien-boston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $5.95-$17.95. Entrees $11.95-$28.95. Desserts $5.95-$9.50.
Hours Mon 11:15 a.m.-9:45 p.m., Tue-Thur 11:15 a.m.-10:15 p.m., Fri-Sat 11:15 a.m.-10:45 p.m., Sun 3:45 p.m.-9:45 p.m.
Noise level Moderate
What to order Crispy sliced pork, salted crab papaya salad, squid kra-tiam-prik-Thai, tom-kha-mor-fai (coconut milk soup) fire pot, larb-pla-tod-krob (deep-fried whole fish), mango sticky rice.
Mat Schaffer can be reached at email@example.com.