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Monkey Business 

Full relaxation is achieved with delicious Thai food in an unusually pleasant and stylish setting

Wednesday, Jul 16 2003
Some names are genius: Koh Samui & The Monkey pleased me from the first time I saw it, for a number of reasons. I had no idea what it meant, but it was fun to say (no matter how you pronounce Koh Samui, and I think it came out differently every time I tried it). It didn't sound like a restaurant, but rather the title of a fable, or a painting, or a magical-realist novel. And it was born to be Googled: The first site I turn up lists monkeys as the leading attraction (under "Animals and Animal Shows") of Koh Samui (which I've already learned, from a previous Google search that turned up a site promoting local hotels, is an island: "The magical Koh Samui lies about 700 kilometers south of Bangkok. Samui Island is famous for its long, sandy white beaches, clean crystalline water, and tranquil atmospheres with coconut palms drag [sic] one's sensation to full relaxation"). "On Samui," explains a Thai travel portal, "the monkey undoubtedly qualifies as man's best friend. This isn't surprising, since for centuries the people here have used monkeys to do the hardest part of the work climbing the trees to pick ripe nuts on their coconut plantations. Until the advent of tourism, coconuts represented the main industry here, so these industrious little animals were greatly prized. The monkey theatre offers shows in which the monkeys display their dexterity, and not just at picking coconuts." (Apparently there are also performing elephants.)

I fall, briefly, into a Google-hole, but pull myself out just before enrolling in SITCA (the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts, "recommended in the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide to Thailand"), remembering the local Samui institute of culinary arts that led me to become entangled in the well-named Web in the first place.

And remembering with pleasure: Indeed, both visits I made to this unusually beautiful restaurant managed to drag my sensation to full relaxation. In a restaurant, the most important thing, by a factor of, oh, maybe 10, is the food: If what's on the plate is really entrancing, I will come back despite a dispiriting or dingy or merely dull setting. And I'm not overly concerned with service, either. I remember dozens -- hundreds -- of meals, both in whole and in part, but what I remember is the food and the conversation. Brilliant service? Bad service? Not so much. (Oh yes, Jeff and I had a fabulous waiter at Gramercy Tavern once, and I regret that we only tipped him 20 percent, hefty though that 20 percent was. For some time I fantasized sending him an extra $20, but I never got around to calling up the restaurant and inquiring his name. "He's blond, with a goatee, married to an actress, and very knowledgeable about wine ...." A sweet idea, unrealized.) Service has to be really rude or clueless before it intrudes on my dining pleasure. I'm there for the food!

Still, even before I've tasted a thing at Koh Samui & The Monkey, I'm happy to be there. I find the décor unexpectedly pleasant: many-paned factory windows, walls painted in fresh tones of creamy yellow and dusty sage green, a cherry-wood bar that runs along one side of the rectangular room. The tables and chairs are of generous size, in a grainy wood, and of clean modern design (the slant of the chairs' backs is reminiscent of the iconic chairs of Gerrit Rietveld). There are touches, but just touches, of Asian exotica -- a huge golden Buddha sitting calmly against the rear wall, highly colored flowers (and candles made to imitate flowers) floating in deep bowls. Even though everybody likes to say that the Thai don't use chopsticks, despite the resemblance of many of their dishes to the cuisines Americans have learned to use chopsticks for, there are chic bright-green plastic ones waiting on the table.

I just realized that both of my visits to Koh Samui were made with people whose kitchens were in the process of being renovated, hence unusable. No wonder they were available on short notice! No wonder they were pleased rather than chilly when I called them in the a.m. to invite them to dinner in the very same p.m.! No wonder they were happy to join me! They were pleased and happy just to be fed.

Little did they know just how well fed they'd be. The familiar ingredients of Thai food are all over the menu: limes, peanuts, coconut, ginger, onion, chili, lemongrass, kaffir leaf, mint, galangal (a spicy root you've tasted if you've ever eaten Thai food). We can still be surprised, though. Peter and I order a couple of starters while waiting for Anita, who's driving over straight from work. The Thai fish cakes are spongy little discs, spicier than my favorite shrimp cakes at Sanamluang in Hollywood, but equally addictive (and prettily served, as everything is here, with lettuce leaves and garnishes chosen for color as well as a bit of added crunch and flavor, on green ceramic dishes, some ringed with elephants). The Golden Triangle crispy tofu are beautifully fried, their fragile shells enclosing a creamy, custardy interior.

The mieng kum, described as a favorite Thai snack, sounds like the Cambodian dish we had at Angkor Borei in Bernal Heights: portions of chopped peanuts, roasted coconut, chunks of lime, ginger, and onion that you heap on fresh spinach leaves, anoint with a sweet chutney, roll, and eat like tiny tacos. Even though the menu instructs you in their construction, they come ready-made; we try the chicken satay version, and the little hunks of dryish chicken are rescued from dullness by the sharp, clean flavors of their accompaniments. Fun food.

We are tempted away from the inevitable green papaya salad by the sunburst pomelo and fruit salad: a satisfying assortment of textures of the cubed pomelo, apple, grapes, jicama, and shredded coconut, tossed in spicy lime juice. We try asparagus prawns in soy sauce and garlic; I like the asparagus more than the prawns. We order the grilled Bangkok barbecue chicken, and enjoy it as much for its excellent sticky rice and papaya salad as for its moist meat and smoky skin. Perhaps my favorite dish is the suave pumpkin curry chicken in a bath of lush, oily coconut milk, more for the pumpkin than the chicken. We also have a plate of pea shoots stir-fried with garlic -- rather mature and chewy pea shoots, alas, that are almost the only disappointing dish.

I'm OK with the fairly bland pad thai, rice noodles with shrimp, chicken, tofu, bean sprouts, and lime, but it annoys Peter, who ordered it as a kind of control dish. Odd that we've had better pad thai in much less ambitious and exciting restaurants, but there it is. (He shows his disdain by refusing to take it home with the other leftovers.)

A subsequent dinner, with the three kitchenless S's -- Suzanne, Stanley, and their charming son Sam -- is entirely successful. We begin with skewers of calamari, big tender slices painted yellow with chili sauce and tasting strongly of the grill, and tofu mieng kum, delightful to eat, with little bursts of lemon, peanuts, and coconut mingling sweetly and crunchily in the mouth.

We then move on to crying tiger salad, a sort of unchopped larb-by-any-other-name: soft, thickish pieces of grilled beef bathed in a lime dressing sharpened with chili flakes and chopped red onion; the green papaya salad, a classic version of the dish, with pretty cherry tomatoes and more shrimp than usual mingled with the resilient strands of fruit; and the pad thai again, to see if it's more interesting this time around. It isn't, particularly, but we like the contrast of its toothy long noodles with the delicate little nests of Thai somen noodles, like frail spaghetti, that we also have. They come with the red curry chicken I order by accident (there's yellow curry chicken! there's green curry chicken! there's lemongrass chicken wok-fried with onions! what was I thinking?) when I forget that we are also having honey-roasted duck with pineapple in a very similar red curry sauce. The duck wins out, due to its tasty skin and the lovely duck fat that flavors the sauce ("Ah, duck fat," Suzanne sighs, "one of the four food groups").

I love the baby bok choy that comes with the big sesame-crusted scallops in a mild yellow curry. (More than the stir-fried celery, which comes with nice fat slices of mushroom, but which needs more ginger, more garlic.) And I am proud that I sneak in a dish of grilled pork at the last minute, merely because I think we need something simple and chewy among all the rich, oily curries. As it turns out, it's not particularly simple, with its elegant sides of sticky rice and ripe mango salad, but it's divine: pure pig with the smoky smack of true barbecue.

We finish with the two desserts on offer, and they are simple, but still perfect: half a ripe mango, sliced, with a pile of sticky rice anointed with coconut cream, plus a lovely fat banana encased in a thin batter and lightly fried in fresh oil, with two scoops of good vanilla ice cream. I'm happily replete, but still wondering if I'm missing something about the restaurant's name. So on the way out I say to the hostess, "I know that Koh Samui is an island. But what is 'The Monkey'?"

"The monkey," she says carefully, "is an animal."

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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