Thai Pan responds to ‘Feed Me’ challenge

by Brian Clarey

In New Orleans we used to call it the “Feed Me,” a dining scenario in which we don’t bother with formalities like menus and specials boards or even wine lists. We just hunker down at the table and inform our server (or the chef or the owner) that we have come to eat. We outline the parameters of our dining preferences – my wife will not eat red meat, pork or organ meats, though I have no such rules – and say something along the lines of, “We’re hungry. Feed us.”

And then a steady parade of food comes out from the kitchen, usually the highest expression of that chef’s art.

You think you can get this kind of treatment at the Olive Garden, my friends? Think again.

So when we found ourselves one Saturday night with a babysitter, a few loose dollars and a couple hours on our hands, we raced down to one of our favorite chow-downeries, Thai Pan on South Elm Street, and graciously accepted the invitation for a “Feed Me” special from owner Pan Chatley.

Wine was poured in that elegant little dining room with something of a sordid history – it was once the preferred spot in downtown Greensboro for packaged erotica, though now it looks like your classy aunt’s greatroom, with ivory-colored walls and flourishes of art, raw brick on one side and wooden columns in relief on the other, a tiled ceiling that dates back to the ’20s.

Yes, wine was poured and salads materialized with peanut dressing and then came soup, gyow loaded with wontons stuffed with ground shrimp and pork, tom kha chicken with coconut broth and galanga (which looks like ginger but is reputed to have more serious healing and stimulative properties – seriously, the Arabs give it to their horses before races).

An appetizer sampler held satay chicken (no beef for us) on skewers and in a rich peanut dressing, delicate steamed dumplings, fried spring rolls and sautéed pot stickers with a trio of sauces: house-made sweet and sour, soy with balsamic vinegar and another light, clear vinegar sauce with cucumbers, simple syrup and red chiles.

And then things got serious. Our entrees took up the entire two-top table next to us.

The Fisherman’s Delight elicited noises of approval, with an arc of New Zealand mussels, calamari tendrils cooked to tender perfection, sizzled shrimp and an array of scallops that looked to be 10 to the pound styled on a platter with a savory brown sauce and a ring of broccoli spears.

Plaa priew waan is built around redfish. A whole redfish, eyeballs and all, scored and dropped into the fryer, and a quick word on that: Pan will have your fish fileted for you if you want, but you don’t want to do that. Flavor comes from fat, and with redfish (as in just about any other animal, edible or not) all the fat is in the head. Leave it on, and know that anytime you see a whole fish on a menu, it is probably a safe bet. Warning: There will be bones. Deal with it. But you don’t have to eat the head, though you will gain some serious foodie cred if you do.

The plaa priew waan comes in a puddle of thin sweet and sour sauce and is adorned with chunks of onions, peppers and pineapple. We ate it sunny-side up and then flipped it over to devour the half of the fish that had been soaking in the sauce.

“Thai food doesn’t necessarily need to be spicy,” Pan told us. Indeed, the cuisine is based on balance: rice and sauce, grease and vinegar, spicy chiles with creamy coconut milk. You get the idea.

So we sat back in our chairs in the elegant dining room on South Elm Street and let the spices work through our systems. It was the perfect time for dessert, but there was no way we could take down the fried bananas or mango sweet sticky rice or lychee ice without first changing into sweatpants.

And we didn’t have any sweatpants.

So we sipped on iced Thai tea, brewed strong in the bottom of the glass and topped with lots of ice and rich cream, a perfect final stroke to a meal well played.

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