This week, The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells reviews the East Village’s three-month old Thai restaurant Somtum Der, where he says the chef “can set your mouth on fire with the flavors of northeastern Thailand.”
“Wearing a T-shirt and a straw hat, he stands behind the bar, surrounded by glass candy-shop jars filled with shallots; heads of garlic; peanuts and cashews; granules of white sugar and little cakes of palm sugar; blistered sticks of fried pork skin; and, crucially, dried bird’s-eye chiles. When an order comes in, he grabs a wooden bat that would come in handy if he were caught in a riot and pounds it against the bottom of a deep wooden mortar. He looks as if he is churning butter. What he is doing is making tart, salty, crisp and exhilaratingly spicy papaya salad.”
At Somtum Der, papaya salad, which is called som tum in Thailand and of which the restaurant is named, is the star attraction and is made to order in eight variations, according to Wells, who describes some of them: “One has brined, boiled eggs, which are fluffy and creamy and soothe the burn of the chiles. Another is seasoned with slivers of grilled pork neck, sweet and pink. The one called som tum poo-plara is darker than the rest in color and in flavor because it’s mixed with intensely funky fermented fish sauce and rock-hard miniature crabs scooped up in Thai rice paddies. It was the most complexly rewarding on the roster; the least was the one with rice noodles and sweet chile sauce, which seems to lull the noodles into a shallow, sugary daze.”
Wells explains that Somtum Der is “a New York replica of a Bangkok restaurant that interprets that city’s street-food renditions of traditional Isan cooking,” and calls the food “vibrant, fresh and delicious.” This is a restaurant where you should order as many dishes as the table will hold, says Wells. “The food launches out of the kitchen quickly and relentlessly, and I felt lost in an avalanche until I learned to order about half of what I meant to eat, and then, when it was gone, put in a second order.”
But above all other dishes, Wells says, “you want papaya salad, absolutely, and you want it as spicy as you can stand.” And be aware that it will cause “five minutes during which you are incapable of doing anything but sweating, squirming, trying to blot your tongue with rice and gulping mouthfuls of Beer Lao,” he says. “Somtum Der measures heat on a chile-pepper scale, with four chiles denoting a psychotropic level of spice.”
For Wells' full review, click here.