Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Round-up of Thai New Year Dinners at Circles

Rather than throw water on passersby, which is customary during the Thai New Year celebration known as Songkran, chef Alex Boonphaya of Circles (BYOB) is throwing weekly collaboration dinners with local chefs. Held on Thursdays at the Northern Liberties location during late March and April, Boonphaya and his kitchen cohorts create 6-course tasting menus ($50pp) highlighting the fragrant and flavor-driven foods of Southeast Asia. Following the "Chef Collab Series," Boonphaya will orchestrate his own three-day affair reminiscent of (and coinciding with) Thailand's Water Festival heralding the beginning of the solar year. He will cook three consecutive 8-course New Year dinners ($60pp) from April 12th to the 14th, each of which will showcase dishes from the joint feasts. 

March 21st - Jeffrey Power of Dettera
March 28th - John Taus of the The Corner and George Sabatino
April 4th - Jennifer Choplin of SoWe
April 11th - Sean Magee of Time

With a few Belgian beers in tow, which are a wonderful complement to the spicy and Asian flavor profiles of Thai cuisine, I attended the March 28th celebration that brought heavy hitting talents John Taus and George Sabatino, the former top toque of Stateside. It was my first visit to Circles on North 2nd Street, whose unassuming exterior belies the charming and warm atmosphere inside. Earth tones and candlelight added to a cozy setting, one that matched the comforting nature of the very balanced dishes touting Thailand. The menu delivered an array of textures and color along with the requisite heat and aromatics. Service was refreshingly familial, well-paced and welcoming---never intrusive. 

The first course- Marinated Green Papaya with house beef jerky, peanuts and mint- was a palate pleaser that teased the eyes and taste buds with vibrancy from the nutrient-rich papaya and fresh mint. Peanuts added textural contrast and crunch, while the brilliant house-made jerky provided protein as well as a salty note. Lime brought the dish alive. This dish hit the four fundamental taste senses so prevalent in Thai cuisine: sweet, salty, sour, bitter.  

The second course- Beef Tartar with bone marrow vinaigrette, crispy shallots, scallion and taro chips- continued the refreshment with tender beef both enlivened by a marrow-rich vinegar dressing and enriched by herbs. Chips made with taro, a starchy root vegetable native to Southeast Asia, played the part of edible spoon, cradling the tartare in each bite and adding an instrumental crisp. An Ommegang Hennepin- a hearty, effervescent, full-bodied, hoppy and crisp farmhouse saison with ginger, orange and coriander notes- paired perfectly with this and the opening dish.

The third course- Crispy Duck Wings with lemongrass and honey glaze, cilantro, scallion and sesame- delivered a sensational sticky plate of finger food that took its basic cues from the American chicken wing but exploded with complexity. The citrusy lemongrass and sweet honey coated every bit of the dark-meat duck. While not as plump as the Buffalo variety, the atypical, ingenious preparation of these traditional barroom bites outsized any stateside dish. The Belgian Rodenbach, a mild red sour brewed in the Flemish tradition with subtle tartness and a cherry finish, drank nicely alongside these addictive Sabatino snacks.

The fourth course- Steamed Clam "hot pot" with house-fermented sausage, bean sprouts, coconut and chili broth - brought forth a broth boasting a Sweet Heat deserving of salute. While the concept itself is more East Asian and Chinese in nature (a hot pot filled with simmering stock is usually at the center of the table and ingredients are placed into it for cooking by diners), this version was a balanced bowl of bursting flavor bombs. The sweetness of the coconut was the most predominant profile, yet the heat from the chili combined with the saltiness of the cured pork and the briny nature of the clams elevated this clever take on a "stew." The optimum beverage pairing proved to be the crisp, slightly sweet 2010 Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett that showed great acidity and elegance.

The fifth course- Thai Scrapple atop congee, with ginger, scallion and egg yolk- was an Asian take on a Philly classic, exposing the versatility of pig as well as the "whole being greater than the sum of its parts." The congee, a type of rice porridge popular in Asia, wore a ginger perfume whose aroma was pleasantly hypnotic. Drizzled with the rich yolk, it gently accepted the tender, toothsome pork pancake like a pillow happily yielding to a weary traveler. Bright herbs and scallion provided a cool contrast to the warm yet surprisingly mild scrapple. Despite lacking the expectant spicy finish, the dish charmed with its comfort and visual beauty, and was perked up by the Duchesse de Bourgogne. An incredibly intoxicating Flemish red brew blending 8 and 18-month old oak barrel-aged beer, this exquisite ale was characteristically sour and fruity, with the effervescence and texture reminiscent of an Italian Lambrusco, pleasingly sweet and tart and mysterious with a slight (welcome) funk from its fermentation.

The final course- Banana Spring Rolls with nutella, marshmallow, and kaffir lime crème Anglaise- put a creative sweet spin on a savory classic. Crispy fried egg dough encased the decadent filling of hazelnut, cocoa and whipped sugar, displaying the textural interplay that prevailed in every preceding dish. The custardy sauce was bright and redolent of a citrus garden in Spring. 

NOTE: The next collaboration dinner with Jennifer Choplin of SoWe is Thursday, April 4th. The 6-course menu will be offered for only $35 per person instead of the originally-priced $50 due to Choplin’s deft sourcing of ingredients:

Spicy Minced Shrimp, cucumber, lotus chip, mint

Duck Confit Dumpling, plum sauce, micro herb salad, pickled baby carrot

Thai Pork "Pot au Feu," cilantro

White Curry Rabbit "Blanquette"

Thai Barbecued Quail, crispy noodle cake, chive oil, frisée

Pineapple Mango Upside Down Cake, coconut ice cream

**Circles is located at 812 N. 2nd Street in Northern Liberties. Call 276.687.1309 or visit for reservations.