To completely grasp the relevance of Thai Diner — and the lack of Uncle Boons — one should think about the town’s COVID-19 laws, which perform as a rebuke to one of many prevailing restaurant fashions of the previous 15 years: the stripped-down connoisseur spot. Pandemic guidelines have tightened the vice on these venues, indefinitely placing an finish to bar seating, high-density eating rooms, and the communal desk as we all know it. Some would possibly have a good time the closure of those cramped, reservations-free hangouts, however the actuality is that they served as a corrective to the luxury big-box affairs of pre-Nice Recession Manhattan, letting a technology of younger cooks serve formidable meals at semi-accessible costs to patrons who had been there as a result of that’s what they had been craving that exact evening, not as a result of they booked a desk two months out.
The doomed Uncle Boons, by cooks Ann Redding and Matt Danzer, was a marquee member of that posse, serving pretty priced Thai fare in an area that, I’ll argue, would’ve been powerful to translate to a COVID-19 world. The semi-subterranean Nolita spot didn’t have the kind of prolonged enterprise frontage or floor-to-ceiling window air flow that enable bigger brasseries to construct sprawling outside patios and good indoor setups. It lacked the kind of commodious interiors or tony wine lists that give deep-pocketed operators extra wiggle room amid the pandemic, and it boasted an intimate eating room with a perpetually thronged bar, the place wait occasions might simply hit two hours. Ready the literal size of a function movie for a desk is all the time a tricky promote, however that’s particularly the case when state laws make killing time at a close-by bar a barely extra sophisticated affair than meets the eye. Uncle Boons, alas, closed in August after the homeowners couldn’t come to settlement with the owner.
That is the place the Thai Diner pivot comes into play. Danzer and Redding opened the all-day house in late February, serving a few of Uncle Boons’s biggest hits — the crab fried rice nonetheless accommodates a lobster’s value of crab — with a group of inventive Thai-American dishes that also handle to fall underneath the rubric of consolation fare, like a shocking Southeast Asian tackle Ukrainian stuffed cabbage and an eggy breakfast sandwich laced with heady Isan sausage.
What’s extra hanging, nonetheless, is how the restaurant’s ample outside seating and techo-diner mannequin — patrons order through QR codes — convey the accessibility of aughts-style eating in a COVID-19 period. Extra unique a la carte venues have tailored to the brand new regular by going reservations-only, however Redding and Danzer’s setup counsel there are other ways to maintain staffers protected whereas accommodating anybody who desires to eat nice Thai meals.
Right here’s the way it all works: Patrons wait in line for an outside desk. After being seated, they goal their cellphone at a QR code to carry up an internet menu. Then, they choose dishes and pay on the spot. Runners carry out the meals, then go away when accomplished. There aren’t any waiters pontificating on specials, repeating again lengthy orders to verify they’re correct, or pushing extra drinks or dessert. Staffers would possibly exchange silverware or say “tell us should you want something,” however they stunning a lot simply carry out your meals and go away.
The format is a greater match for the second, even when this Nolita newcomer is handily pricier than utilitarian Midtown diners. QR setups, popular in China and spurting up round New York, cut back the friction of ordering and paying all through the restaurant, a course of that usually includes flagging down hurried servers. The system additionally will increase the friction of buying on a person stage, and that’s a very good factor. To wit: It’s a lot simpler to whirl your finger round and ask a waiter for an additional spherical of drinks than it’s to take out your smartphone each half-hour, open up your browser, discover the cocktail tab on the menu, re-enter your bank card information, and address the psychological anguish over how a lot two drinks will value you. At Thai Diner, the QR system successfully conveys the message that this isn’t a spot to linger; this can be a place to eat.
Eat nicely you’ll, generally to the purpose of being stuffed. Phat see eiw virtually spills over the plate with piles of squishy scrambled eggs and soy-stained broad noodles. Duck noodle soup arrives with a leg of slow-cooked fowl hefty sufficient that I wouldn’t fault the kitchen for eradicating it and promoting it as a separate most important. If Uncle Boons was a research in shared plates, Thai Diner is an ode to the one-dish meal, a mode of gastronomy that jibes extra intently with the prevailing socio-cultural-epidemiological zeitgeist. Simply as a traditional tasting menu feels wildly misplaced throughout COVID — with infinite server interactions and sommelier chats — so does a 90-minute meal of successive small plates.
The QR system, along with the menu format, performs a key position in lowering workers contact with outside patrons — mask-free prospects who can’t, under state law, be required to depart contact-tracing information or endure obligatory screenings. Simply the identical, these ordering takeout — or who don’t have smartphones — accomplish that exterior the restaurant from behind a plexiglass-lined window; there’s no must go inside besides to make use of the restrooms.
Ought to patrons be required choose up their orders quick-service fashion, with out counting on runners? It’s temping to counsel as a lot, however the counterargument is that it’s probably safer for, say, 5 waiters to carry meals to 53 socially distanced diners than to have these 53 diners line as much as fetch their meals at a window. Whether or not any of this can be a honest deal for staffers tending to leisure-seeking patrons throughout a lethal pandemic, nonetheless, is a special ethical equation to unravel, particularly as an infection charges surge exterior of the town. Indoor eating will start right here within the coming weeks, the homeowners say.
For many who stick to takeout, it’s value conserving in thoughts that in contrast to sibling spot Uncle Boons Sister, which had a extra dressed-down invoice of fare than the flagship, Thai Diner maintains an identically formidable menu for everybody.
Uncle Boons, in fact, wasn’t the one Thai restaurant to shut throughout the pandemic. The heralded Pam Real Thai and Taladwat in Hell’s Kitchen shuttered this yr, as did Bennie’s, a staple for stable Isan meals within the Monetary District. Certainly, my colleague Robert Sietsema writes that of the 20 Thai establishments he advisable final yr, a 3rd have ended their run, largely as a result of COVID-19. And whereas there have been a group of huge Thai openings over the previous decade — one thinks of Ugly Child in Carroll Gardens, Fish Cheeks in Noho, or Tong in Bushwick — among the better of that bunch have shuttered as nicely, together with Pok Pok and Larb Ubol. Absent a authorities bailout, the record of restaurant casualties will solely develop. For now, although, it’s comforting to know that a few of Uncle Boons lives on in Thai Diner.
Right here’s a fast overview of what to order and what to skip
Mieng kum ($13): The suitable snack to begin any meal. A chalice of peanuts, coconut flakes, dried shrimp, and chiles — basically a chic snack combine — comes with a tiny stack of betel leaves. With these elements, and a wedge of lime, one makes little wraps to jolt the palate with hits of salt, acid, sugar, savoriness, and bitterness.
Egg sandwich ($11): Scrambled eggs with cheese and Chiang Mai pork sausage wrapped in heat roti. All of it tastes prefer it sounds; you get a mix of tacky, jiggly, stretchy creaminess and a modest slab of floor meat that smells like a citrus tree. A facet of amped up fish sauce accompanies the small platter for anybody who’d prefer to amp up the umami issue by a couple of notches.
Cheeseburger ($13): A traditional beef mix with lettuce, American cheese, and pickles. It’s a distinctly common burger.
Fried hen laab ($17): Crispy boneless nuggets over a salad of cucumbers, onions, and herbs. The preparation features as a KFC-style riff on the signature meat salads of Thailand’s northeastern Isan area. Every chew, when fastidiously constructed, flaunts the salty juiciness of fine fried hen, the electrifying punch of sufficient lime to make eight daiquiris, and the grassy uppercut of contemporary mint. A facet of sticky rice lets diners take in all of the aromatic juices that acquire on the backside. Excellent.
Kuaytiew pet ($23): Duck soup with braised duck leg and rice noodles. The recent broth showcases a restrained broth that smacks extra of warming cinnamon than of concentrated poultry. A tangle of agency noodles sit beneath the mushy, meaty leg meat; each are meant for dunking in an orange vinegar sauce that gives a touch of fruitiness and a stable dose of duck a l’orange nostalgia.
Massaman neuh ($21): A light curry mixing cumin, nutmeg, lemongrass, and cinnamon. The spiced flavors and luscious fat of the coconut milk enrichen beneficiant squares of quick rib so tender they appear to flake themselves into the curry.
Kao phat puu ($25): Uncle Boons crab fried rice. This isn’t actually an effort in celebrating the meaty extra of a very good crustacean, as with a steakhouse crabcake — although there’s no scarcity of agency flesh to get pleasure from. That is in regards to the delicate sweetness of the shellfish and the smoky-oceanic approach it appears to fragrance the buttery rice grains. The dish works fantastic with none condiments, however a ramekin of nam prik dipping sauce, spiked with fish sauce and lime, comes as a facet for individuals who need extra acidic tang and high-tide funk.
Thai disco fries ($10): Crinkle-cut frites doused in massaman coconut curry sauce with peanuts and cilantro. That is starchy, crispy, crunchy, but generally brilliantly soggy ingesting meals that pairs expertly with a chilly pilsner. The spice begins at a low stage, however rapidly builds to a stomach-glowing warmth.
Phat tai ($16): The traditional sweet-sour stir-fry, executed with preternatural precision. A puckery dose of lime and tamarind sauce clings to the agency rice noodles, counteracting the dish’s pronounced sugars, whereas occasional bites of dried shrimp amp up the umami kick.
Cabbage tom khaa ($20): A Thai tackle holubtsi, these well-known Ukrainian meat-filled cabbage rolls slathered in gravy. Cooks stuff the brassica with a free combination of floor turkey, rice, and mushrooms, then encompass the little inexperienced packages in a shallow moat of coconut milk. Preliminary bites yield a rough and leafy texture at first, however then flip silky from the nut milk, which the kitchen infuses with the candy musk of makrut. That is pure consolation — till you add too many chiles.
Banana pudding ($9): A 3-layered parfait with pudding on the underside, whipped cream within the center, and a lotus root-shaped sesame tuile on high. Servers advise patrons to crack by the cookie with a spoon — a fantastic second for slo-mo Instagram fiends — after which eat accordingly. The pudding itself is an ode to the non-artificial taste of fine, slow-cooked bananas; the whipped dairy takes down the sweetness to much more subdued ranges; and the cookie imparts a buttery crunch. For anybody feeling the warmth from dinner right here, this cooling dessert quells the fireplace rapidly.