Thai Tree’s som tum Korat with grilled shrimp, shredded green papaya, tomatoes, green beans, palm sugar and lime, served with sticky rice. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Timing has never been my strongest suit. I’ll never be a stand-up comic, elite tennis player, ballroom dancer or airline pilot. But this week, I caught a break.

As I took my first sip of an alluring, Thai-spiced old-fashioned named the Vogue ($14), I glanced at my phone to see the news that Madonna had taken the stage on Rio de Janeiro’s Copacabana Beach. Her record-breaking concert looked like a blast. But if I’d had a ticket to be among the 1.6 million attendees in Brazil that night, I wouldn’t have used it. I’d have given it to the man behind Portland’s Thai Tree restaurant.

When Nonsee Oumkasem opened Thai Tree in early February, he slipped in, hermit-crab-like, to a familiar restaurant space. “My parents have worked here for (the space’s former tenant) Pom (Boobphachati) since 2007,” he said. “So we were ready to go when the chance came up to take over. And we didn’t have to do very much, apart from changing the bulbs to give warmer light, swapping out the covers for the sconces, and lots of painting.” The color? A paint shade called “Thai Basil,” just released this year. Apparently not everyone shares my poor timing.

“Overall, this restaurant, it’s an eclectic mix of traditional Thai and also … pop stars,” Oumkasem said. “I wanted to make the place a reminder of my growing up in Korat, in the Isan part of Thailand. At all the gatherings, or when you have people over, friends and family would eat and have beers or cocktails to go with them. But I used to be shy, and I built up my confidence going to concerts, seeing tours and listening to Madonna’s music. She’s very outspoken and gave me confidence.”

Nonsee Oumkasem, owner of Thai Tree, delivers cocktails to the dining room, walking past wall art that includes many pop icons. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Homages to the Material Girl are confined to the cocktail menu and are ideally consumed in the “Hut Bar,” an out-of-sight, neon-illuminated zone that Oumkasem has tucked into the path leading to the bathroom. The aforementioned Vogue cocktail, with its star-anise and cilantro-stem high-notes, is an excellent pick. So too, the Lucky Star ($16), a floral take on a vodka martini sweetened by lychee-infused vermouth and Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur.

Generally, drinks are designed to sync up with Thai Tree’s menu of national classics and Isan specialties, dishes selected by chefs Tunya and Sompoj Oumkasem, as well as their son. And for the most part, they’ve chosen well.

Let’s get the hard part out of the way. Compromise has wrecked Thai Tree’s som tum ($12), a traditional mortar-pounded green papaya salad with cherry tomatoes and chilies. Where tang, crunch, heat and funk should team up, there’s just scaled-back blandness. No dried shrimp, no shrimp paste and very little fish sauce – a Pat Boone cover version of a classic barnstormer of a dish.

“It has been a challenge for us. Right at the beginning, we had an angry email from a person who complained that she thought the som tum smelled very bad. So we took out the nam pla (seasoned fish sauce) and created another dish that has cooked shrimp instead (som tum Korat ($12) to come kind of close to the same flavor,” Nonsee Oumkasem told me. “But of course it’s not the same. We had to give that customer a refund because ‘the customer is always right.’”

I don’t know which of you neutered Thai Tree’s som tum, but you owe an apology to the Oumkasems, as well as to every Portlander who enjoys umami.

Thai Tree’s red curry with duck, peppers, green beans, basil, bamboo shoots and served with rice. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Fortunately, the family hasn’t caved on other recipes. The senior Oumkasems blend a bespoke combo of red onion, galangal, lemongrass and palm sugar to create the base for their harmonious red curries. Among these, the duck ($23) and the tofu ($16) are wonderful picks. If you’re able to take it, aim for at least three stars on the heat scale; a chili-fueled slow burn coaxes out round, sweet flavors from bamboo shoots and green beans.

Likewise, the chefs prepare their own garlic-and-spice paste and Golden Mountain-sauce-thickened gravy to build a lovely, traditional wide-noodle pad kee mao ($16), strewn with sliced chiles and hand-torn holy basil leaves. Think of this dish as a fragrant, spicy take on drunken noodles (or pad see ew, which Thai Tree also serves).

Thai Tree’s vegetable tempura with sweet potato, onion, broccoli, pumpkin, mushrooms and carrots, served with sweet-chili mayonnaise. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

I’m a big fan of the couple’s vegetable tempura appetizer ($8). A bountiful selection of brittle-crusted broccoli, onion, sweet potato and mushroom deep-fried with precision and served with a “volcano sauce” of sweet chili, green onion and mayo. I didn’t expect to love this dish as much as I did, and I was even more surprised when our speedy, all-business server told me that it was created as a vegetarian rejoinder to the similarly sauced volcano shrimp ($10). I never would have guessed. This is a showpiece of a dish on its own. Tempura is a high-wire act, and frying four vegetables, each with different moisture contents and densities, requires expertise. The Oumkasems have it.

They’re not so shabby when it comes to desserts, either. Mango sticky rice ($12), prepared at Thai Tree with pandan-steeped coconut milk and palm sugar, is among the area’s best. Pair this aromatic, not-too-sweet treat with a creamy, rose-gold hued Thai iced coffee ($5) for an exceptionally indulgent finish to your dinner.

Or, if you haven’t quite finished imbibing, there’s a related cocktail on offer at Thai Tree. Starting with a few jiggers of Thai tea, Nonsee Oumkasem layers on Branca menta, coconut milk and cognac to recall the experience of postprandial “after dinner mints and tea.” The “Open Your Heart” ($14) is more than another reference to an upbeat Madonna track, however. Indeed, this is a refined, peculiarly compelling cocktail that, according to our server, really works best without any food at all or as a nightcap, after a meal. She’s right. In Thai-inspired cocktails, as in life, timing really does matter.

Thai Tree’s Old-Fashioned. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ***1/2

WHERE: 571 Congress St., Portland, 207-772-7999, thaitreemaine.com

SERVING: Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-9 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 4-10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m.

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers & soups: $6-14, entrees: $16-23

NOISE LEVEL: Adult contemporary radio

VEGETARIAN: Some dishes

RESERVATIONS: No

BAR: Beer, wine and cocktails

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Thai Tree is named for its owner, Nonsee Oumkasem, whose first name means “tree of life” in Thai. Yet that’s probably the first and last time you’ll see a Garden of Eden reference at this Portland newcomer, open since early February. Instead, Nonsee Oumkasem and chefs Tunya and Sampoj Oumkasem (his parents, both of whom also cooked here at Thai Taste for 16 years) have created the area’s first mashup of traditional Thai cuisine and pop music. Amid wall-mounted posters and concert programs from Beyonce and Lizzo, you’ll find references to the restaurant’s true-blue inspiration: Madonna. Cocktails like the bourbon-and-galangal Vogue and Thai-tea-based Open Your Heart are nods to the iconic pop star (as are all the boozy drinks on the cocktail menu). But you don’t need to be a Madonna fan to eat here. The food menu features some impressive cooking, most of which is prepared from scratch, like fragrant, well-spiced red curries; pad kee mao with wide, supple rice noodles, homemade brown sauce and torn holy basil; and delightful pandan-infused mango sticky rice.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of seven recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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