Our Gourmet: Thai one on at Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai looks like a little restaurant along busy Route 101A just south of Nashua, but what it lacks in commercial appearance and size is dwarfed by a bountiful offering of quality Thai cuisine at its finest.

We are no strangers to Asian restaurants, and why we’d never been to this one is a mystery. We’ve heard it’s good, and we’ve seen it driving by countless times. Now, we can count it at the top of any list of similar bistros.

Chiang Mai, named after the large Thailand city and cultural attraction, opens into a small lounge and waiting area. Patrons are led into a cozy dining area with 16 or so tables nestled on thick carpets and surrounded by Buddha decorations and other Thai and Asian artwork.

Outside, a new dining and lounging patio is graced by a stone waterfall and a small firepit, with a few tables and good strong walls to shield customers nicely from the traffic and noise of the busy street.

Inside, the aroma of Thai herbs and spices from the kitchen beckons diners to the tastes and delight of really, really good Thai food.

We had a lot of reading to do before settling on our dinner orders — the menu is long, and very well written, clearly describing the dishes, preparation, spices and sauces available. So we ordered two appetizers and a small bowl of soup to get us started before choosing dinner entrees.

Shumai ($5.95) is an appetizer we’ve had before, and Chiang Mai’s version is as good as, perhaps better than, any we have had. It is a steamed version of Asian dumplings, but far more delicate and tasteworthy than normal. With shrimp, ground chicken and crabmeat mixed with unmistakable Thai herbs and spices, four large dumplings are well-steamed in a wonton skin and served with a light soy sauce. Delicious and well made (which is sometimes not the case with a thin wonton wrapping), the shumai is a substantial taste and a great beginning to a fine dinner.

Another value-priced standout on the appetizer menu are the Fresh Rolls ($5.95), which are like a salad-type finger food. Served cold, the rolls ensconce shrimp, vermicelli rice noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce and basil leaves inside a thin sheet of flour wrapping, served with a sweet-spicy chili/peanut sauce for dipping. An outstanding dish of four very tasty rolls of fresh veggies and seafood.

Not to be outdone, the soup menu also spoke to us, and Chiang Mai’s Lobster Supreme Soup ($4.75) was perhaps the best of all the food we tried. It is medium-high on the spice scale, and not at all thick (the menu says creamy, but it’s a thin soup), loaded with vegetables and chunks of lobster meat, with a taste that is pure Thai spiciness and warmth.

Thick-sliced onions and chunks of tomatoes and small slices of broccoli are bountiful, the lobster is plenty, and the broth of the soup carries that distinctive strength of a quality taste. It is a soup we would come back for, singularly, and we cannot recommend it more highly.

The menu at Chiang Mai is pure Thai — no crossover into Chinese dishes, and with just a few shades of influence of Korean (kim-chee, choo-chee), Japanese (udon noodles, soft-shell crab) and Indian (tamarind). We were pleased to note that, because there are just too many Asian restaurants that try to offer all of the above (and more) and do not seem to settle into a central, dominating theme. There is no mistaking Chiang Mai’s direction.

For entrees, we were overwhelmed with the seafood offerings, and ordered similar dishes. We rarely do that, but we overlooked our normal favorites of curry dishes, sizzling beef or pork chops, or noodle (Pad Thai) and rice dishes in favor of a medley of seafood from the dozen or more individual seafood entrees on the menu.

Gourmet Madness ($13.95) caught our attention, and not because of the name of this column. The variety of seafood prepared in “very hot chili and Thai spicy herbs” did not deter us a bit, and in fact my dining companion asked for additional hot chili sauce.

As it turned out, the spicy kim-chee side order ($1.25) and steamed rice that accompanied the entrée were all we needed to kick up the spice, then cool it off with the starch properties of the rice. Sliced sea scallops, whole shrimp, mussels and squid rolls were nestled among all manner of vegetables in this delectable stir-fry, where the seafood was accented with the chili spice — and we were two happily sharing diners.

For those who are wary of spice, all of the dishes can be tamed to an individual’s taste, but the menu also offers tips on what to drink to cool the fire. Surprisingly, lemonade is most recommended, or iced tea. We know that milk, of all things, also cools the heat, but we never knew that water is not recommended, tending to “spread the fire rather than quench it.” It’s a wonderful thing when a menu can entertain and inform, rather than offer just a list of orders. There is a similarly informative section on all the various sauces used.

The Seafood Hot Pot ($14.95) was a similar mixture of seafood and vegetables as the Gourmet dish, but steamed in a hot clay pot after a quick stir-fry. The shrimp, scallops and a sliced fish filet were beneath a canopy of stir-fried vegetables — all graced by a ginger spice that was over-the-top enjoyable.

Ginger is a tricky spice with which to flavor an entire dish — trying to be generous but not overpowering — and that is a challenge well met by Chiang Mai’s chef. In a word, the ginger flavor was just-right, and the Seafood Hot Pot gets our second highest recommendation from this fine dining experience.

Chiang Mai offers a wealth of strongly distinctive cuisine and flavorful southeast Asian dishes that rate far above the average. This smallish bistro was a big hit with us on a recent weekend night, and the lunch buffet is on our list for a daytime encounter.