IN THE KITCHEN Sivika "Pon" Hunter, the owner and head chef at Pon Thai Bistro in Brookline, hails from Phetchabun in northern Thailand, and moved to the United States more than 20 years ago. She hadn't cooked much back home. "Usually, the oldest in your family would cook for your parents, and I was the youngest," she said. But she was always interested in food, so she enrolled in a Cambridge School of Culinary Arts course dedicated to French and Italian cooking, and worked as a personal chef and shared her creations with friends. Pon Thai Bistro is her first restaurant.
THE LOCALE The restaurant opened in mid-November on Washington Street in Brookline Village, just around the corner from the neighborhood's
MBTA station. A dozen or so tables and four seats at the bar constitute the simple, inviting space. On the snowy evening we visited, service was eager, and Hunter visited the table to answer questions about a particular dish, and then again to gauge our satisfaction after the meal.
ON THE MENU Hunter keeps her menu short so as not to overwhelm diners. She focuses on fresh ingredients and makes nearly everything from scratch. "The food has this freshness to it so that you don't feel heavy," she said.
The restaurant is "a little more upscale" than some of the outstanding, mainly takeout Thai places in the area, Hunter said, which one sees both in the prices and the drink menu, featuring such tipples as the Pon Gimlet ($11), with gin, ginger-flavored liqueur, lime juice, and muddled basil and ginger. There are also wines and beers selected specifically to pair with Thai food.
Hunter hints at her French-cooking background in the name of the restaurant, and it also surfaces on the menu, most notably in the duck dishes. Duck confit rolls ($10), filled with cucumber, scallions and chili-garlic sauce, are quite popular, Hunter said. Duck appears again in red curry ($24), with a duo of seared duck breast and a confit leg, as well as laab duck ($16), where it's minced and tossed with mint, cilantro, lemongrass, and fried shallots.
For appetizers, we chose the chicken eggrolls ($9), drawn by shiitake and wood-ear mushrooms, leeks, shredded carrot, and cellophane noodles stuffed into crispy, golden wrappers. They're well-seasoned and, dunked in chili-lime sauce, sublime. The tom yum shrimp soup ($9) maintains a nice, balanced broth of lime juice and tamarind, suffused with galangal and lemongrass, and speckled with mushrooms and cilantro. The three shrimp we got were nice; we would have liked more.
Hunter says the wok-fried spicy basil eggplant ($13) is popular with vegetarians, and even the nonvegetarians in our group concurred that it might have been the dish of the night. Flash-fried alongside firm tofu triangles, oblong slices of purple Chinese eggplant absorb the spicy soy- and garlic-based sauce, and are brightened by pungent Thai basil.
Seafood curry ($20) comes replete with shrimp, squid, and bay scallops. We ordered the red (as opposed to green) version; the color is more muted than some, but the chili flavor is unmistakable. The accompanying vegetable mélange, including crisp peapods, green beans, red peppers and cauliflower, is perfect, and a big scoop of jasmine rice cuts the mild heat of the dish nicely.
That spicy heat ratchets up with the drunken noodles; in our order, large gulf shrimp ($16) nestle with shiitake mushrooms, onions, peapods, Thai basil, and chili between swaths of broad, flat rice noodles cooked to chewy perfection.
Portion sizes are ample: In our group, two appetizers and three entrees fed four with some leftovers to spare. We were full after the meal, but vanilla-bean coconut rice with mango ($7) sounded like a dessert to return for.
Pon Thai Bistro is at 213 Washington St. in Brookline; 617-608-3593, www.ponthaibistro.com.