216 E State St., Ithaca, NY 14850
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Ithaca Steak Thai
"Exacerbating the high entree prices was the restaurant's approach to side dishes; the entrees are served without accompaniment, but for a basket of dry bread."
As hinted at the end of Part 1 of Ithaca Chow, we ate a lot during our weekend trip to Ithaca - probably too much, and not always at the right places. The only surprise was that we chose restaurants we had visited and loved before; in this Part 2, we look at Ithaca's Taste of Thai (unrelated to the same-named Buffalo restaurant), which we previously felt was one of the best Thai restaurants in New York State, and John Thomas Steakhouse, which was widely regarded as superb in meats. We discuss our weekend dining experiences at both of these places below.
Taste of Thai: Until this weekend, we held Taste of Thai on somewhat of a pedestal; it is the place that, soon after its 2001 opening, managed to trump what was arguably New York State's most famous Thai restaurant - Ithaca's Thai Cuisine. Tastefully decorated with dark wood, light orange walls, and judicious touches of gold, Taste of Thai was pretty close to spectacular when we last visited in 2002; back then, this was said to be the Thai restaurant favored by Thailand's Princess Bajrakitiyabha Mahidol during her days at Cornell Law School, and the reasons were fairly obvious. Meals were generally either authentic or a step beyond, as the chef for instance would add a small swirl of white coconut milk to the top of a colored curry dish, enhancing both the look and taste of the dish in a memorably classy way. This was Thai food as both art and utterly satisfying meal.
Since the last time we visited Taste of Thai, we've been to Thailand a couple of times, trying hard to find meals that were definitively better than our favorite three or four places in the United States, and frankly we haven't succeeded: it's our firm belief that some of the Thai restaurants here are the equals or superiors of the best ones we experienced over there. And in our memories, at least, Taste of Thai was one of the superstars, particularly for its curries.
Unfortunately, when we tried a few of our reference favorites on this visit - starting with the appetizer Mee Krob ($8) - we found that none of them was quite right. Typically consisting of ultra-thin vermicelli rice noodles that have been deep-fried and coated with a sweet syrup to approximate the texture and flavor of citrus candy, the Mee Krob arrived here instead with thicker, chewier noodles that changed the dish's mouth feel, making chewing tougher and less enjoyable. On the flip side, Taste of Thai's syrup - traditionally made with lime, chili, palm sugar, fish sauce and tamarind juice - was outstandingly strong, exactly as we've had and enjoyed it at the best Thai restaurants elsewhere in the world.
Left with a mostly good taste in our mouths, we thought the Mee Krob's slight issues would be an exception, but they weren't. Another dish, the Yum Nua spicy beef salad ($9.50), a mix of beef slices, cucumber, cilantro, lime juice, lettuce, onions, tomato slices and carrots, suffered from mediocre beef quality; it would have been forgettable except at a restaurant like this.
We also ordered the Gaeng Karee Yellow Curry with Chicken ($10), hoping that it might arrive with the formerly signature coconut milk flourish, but it didn't. While it offered a decent quantity for the price, and was filled with onions, carrots, and potatoes, there was no chicken; some other meat, which looked to have been beef, was substituted instead - a mistake by the kitchen, our server told us without offering to replace it. Another dish, the Gaeng Kiew Pad Hang Dried Emerald Curry ($10), was ordered with beef, and arrived basically indistinguishable from the Gaeng Keaw Wan, a typically wet, coconut milk-infused cousin.
Our verdict on this meal was "good, but not great." While the dishes tasted fine, they weren't better in any way than the versions we can find in Western New York, and the little screw-ups took them down a notch or two from what we had recalled of this place. Still, Taste of Thai's decor and pricing struck us as wonderful by Ithaca standards - a great date restaurant and a fine example of Thai cooking, better than much of what we've had while in Thailand. We just don't think we'd go out of the way to visit again when we come back to town.
John Thomas Steakhouse, 1152 Danby Rd. (Route 96B): We'd made a reservation at John Thomas several days in advance, knowing that this locally famous restaurant used to fill up on certain nights, and Saturday was one of them. And briefly - too briefly - we'd considered canceling the reservation in favor of a more extended meal at the Tapas bar Just a Taste, where we were thoroughly enjoying the appetizer-sized portions of Spanish shrimp, Brie, spiced nuts and mushrooms. We easily could have continued with the Tapas, and larger portions.
But we didn't. One of us was really in the mood for a great Filet. And with Just a Taste's menu limited to a mere Tapa portion of flank steak, there wasn't any chance of finding a true substitute there. We finished our Spanish snacks, took a two-and-a-half-hour break, and went for some big chops over at John Thomas.
We won't go into a lot of detail on the meal that followed; it suffices mostly to say that, as with Taste of Thai, we would have considered it forgettable but not for our previous experiences there - and the price. Our meal started with a 14-ounce Filet Mignon ($39), ordered medium rare, which arrived cooked appropriately to order on the inside, and without any complaints as to the meat quality; it was as tender and soft as a proper Filet should be. But the beef was overly burnt on one side, with pieces of pure char falling off, an issue that can happen when pan searing and oven cooking are used imperfectly to cook a steak. More significantly, the meat had little distinctive flavor; it was served neutrally, requiring self-seasoning, which some may like but we tend to see these days as boring.
Our other entree, the Double Loin Lamb Chops ($38.50), consisted of roughly 14-16 ounces of meat distributed across two medium-sized bones; again, the lamb was cooked properly to our order, but there was nothing outstanding about the flavor - one of us found it too gamey, the other just too plain. A lemon on the plate did more for the Chops' taste than salt, pepper, or the included mint sauce; we found the plate expensive and just passable. For a moment, we felt bad that we had passed up the evening's $65 lobster entree or the option to try surf and turf, but reflecting on both the prices and the blandness of the meats, we realized that we'd probably made the right choice.
Exacerbating the high entree prices was the restaurant's approach to side dishes; the entrees are served without accompaniment, but for a basket of dry, seemingly almost stale bread that we left untouched after buttering up a piece. To have something else to try, we also ordered a "half and half," a plate of fried onions and french fries ($7.50), which were fine on the onion side but soggy on the fries side. The total cost of our meal was $108 after tip, and while both of us left full - thanks to the earlier snacking at Just a Taste - neither of us felt satisfied.
Though John Thomas's dessert tray was as packed as ever with interesting options - a bourbon Creme Brulee, a flourless chocolate cake, and slices of Apple Pie, Key Lime Pie, and New York Cheesesake, amongst others - we passed on all the options. That's when we experienced the biggest disappointment of the night: for years, John Thomas had offered a post-meal, poker-style card game, letting patrons have a chance at winning dessert or perhaps an entire free meal if the playing cards they picked from a hat created a winning hand. This game, we were told by our server, was discontinued two years ago; the last straw was when people were trading or selling John Thomas's cards through the Internet, resulting in unusually high payout rates on the formerly rare "four free entrees" promotion. Hearing this story, we realized that a lot has changed in the past seven years, and though we tend to think of most of it as positive, it's not all for the better. This goes equally for the Internet and for John Thomas itself.
Our series concludes with Ithaca's desserts - some of our favorite parts of the entire trip - in Part 3.