- Walter Novak
- Mint goes easy on the heat -- unless you ask for it.
"Okay, class, who can tell me about Mint Café, that charming little Thai spot on Coventry? How about you, sir? Yes, you with the chopsticks up your nose."
I'm pretty sure I've seen the collegian in question. If I'm right, he and his buds were at the table next to ours on a recent Saturday night, belching out their appreciation of Mint's flavorful curries before raising their plates to lick up every drop. Naturally, I said a little prayer that my own unruly offspring would never do such things in public, but truthfully, I could hardly fault the boys' sincere if slightly demented expressions of approval.
Not that Mint's chef-owner, Matt Kanegkasikorn, endorses plate-licking. A well-seasoned restaurateur who got his start in Boston, the Thai native and his staff are models of civilized behavior, having gone so far as to hang lace curtains in the windows, switch on a soundtrack of soft jazz, and ban smoking throughout the cozy space. By far most of his clientele are mannerly sorts too. On the other hand, even a well-socialized guest might be excused for a lapse of manners after succumbing to some of the kitchen's made-from-scratch delights.
If there's ever been a plate worth licking, for example, it has to be the delicate white porcelain one holding Mint's version of massaman curry, a lilting concerto of coconut milk and sweet-hot spices, piqued with slices of barely al dente carrot, sweet potato, onion, and red and green pepper. Like any of the "design-your-own" curries on the menu, the massaman comes with choices of brown or jasmine rice and meats, seafood, or tofu. We went with tofu -- and it was cause for rejoicing, the golden triangles of fried bean curd absorbing the exotic essences like tasty little sponges.
Mango curry with chicken and shrimp was equally slurpworthy, distinguished by a persistent interplay of tropical fruit flavors in a base of yellow curry. Much the same can be said of the Tamarind duck, a tender, boneless breast, fanned into toothsome slices and served with stir-fried broccoli, snow peas, baby corn, and straw mushrooms; here, the judiciously applied sauce combined the earthy tang of tamarind (the sweet-tart fruit of a tropical evergreen) with hints of ginger, scallion, and garlic.
True, purists may grumble that Mint's seasonings tend toward the tame side, often lacking the pungency and pop associated with authentic Thai cuisine; according to staffers, this is entirely by design, so as not to chafe softer American palates. As a result, though, even timid tabletop adventurers can find something to love here -- and fire-eaters need only give the word, and the kitchen will happily bring the heat.
But while we appreciate the need to control the burn, a few of the offerings were just plain bland. Worst was the Golden Bag, a sort of deep-fried twist on potstickers. While we liked the crunchy crispness of the tofu wrappers, the filling -- a paste of ground shrimp, water chestnuts, and mushrooms -- seemed forgettably dull. And the bite-sized dumplings left behind a puddle of grease on the plate and a slick on our lips.
Happily, no such problems plagued the beef satay: five broad ruffles of sirloin marinated in curry and coconut milk, then threaded onto skewers and grilled to a smoky turn. Whisked through the accompanying sauces -- creamy peanut and piquant cucumber -- this was a starter with flavor to spare. Likewise, a deep bowl brimming with tom yum goong (traditional hot and sour shrimp soup, seasoned with lemongrass, chiles, and lime) tangoed with our taste buds.
While the menu isn't encyclopedic, it does contain plenty of variety. Like most Asian restaurants, Mint caters to vegetarians, offering an assortment of meat-free specialties such as stir-fried string beans with tofu, cashews, and peanuts, and tamarind-sauced tofu with pineapple. For omnivores, there are grilled steak, fish, and seafood options; nearly a dozen variations on your basic stir-fry; and 10 dishes featuring noodles or fried rice, including pad thai, mango fried rice, and our pick, the spicy "crazy noodles," a pan-fried jumble of pliable rice noodles, tossed with chicken, shrimp, egg, basil, and assorted veggies.
Although Mint hasn't yet snagged a liquor license, the beverage menu is filled with interesting libations, including homemade limeade, hot peppermint tea, and Thai-style iced coffee, layered in a hurricane glass with sugar syrup and half-and-half. And as a final taste of something sweet, consider a strawberry or mango fruit smoothie, or a tall pour of bubble tea, that Taiwanese creation marked by fat black pearls of tapioca and an equally plump straw to sip them through. The bubble tea makes a refreshing alternative to the kitchen's odd take on fried ice cream (a ball of vanilla, wrapped in a slice of white bread, then tossed in the deep fryer) -- particularly the papaya version, with an exceptional creaminess almost worthy of a milkshake.
But whatever you pick, remember: You are not a walrus. And I'd better not catch you putting straws up your nose.