Ike, the zen master/sushi chef at the much vaunted Shumi in Somerville was right. In Japan, he tells us, when fanatic foodies try a new sushi restaurant, the first thing they order is the egg slice (or eggblock as some call it), a relatively simple and straightforward dish. If the restaurant can't get that one right, the prospective eaters bow politely and walk out. Some months ago, we'd heard that Chao Phaya in Somerville served the best Thai in New Jersey. But when we tasted their Pad Thai (equivalent to an egg slice in its simplicity) we were appalled: Luke-warm limp noodles, stale peanuts, overcooked shrimp and snapless, mushy bean sprouts. Still, since so many people continued to swear by the place, today, we gave it another try, ordering Thai dumplings, mussels, and the special of the day: duck and vegetables in a curry sauce.
The dumpling innards weren't half bad but getting to them was a Herculean task that nearly tore my teeth from their gums. The gooey, too chewy dumpling wrapping tasted like warm Play-Doh, and would have stuck to the wall if I hurled one of the little buggers against it, a feat of athleticism I was sorely tempted to try. The over spiced dipping sauce for the dumplings was as thick as cold maple syrup, and might easily have doubled as model airplane glue. Too, five of the six mussels were far too fishy, and left a bad aftertaste.
Alas, just when we thought that things couldn't get worse, the main course offered a new form of tongue torture ought be outlawed by the Geneva Conventions. The duck itself was unimpeachable but the unsubtle curry sauce slathered over it was an overwhelming amalgam of every Thai spice in the kitchen, an over-the-top attempt to convince the diner that this was indeed Asian food, and he'd best not forget it. It was the Thai equivalent of dumping a full ounce of oregano on a single slice of pizza so you'll remember that it's authentic Italian. Too, the broccoli in the sauce was more like broccoli surprise: While the outside was warm, the surprise was the icy cold inside..
We should have listened to Ike, and continued to steer clear of Chao Phaya. If an Asian restaurant can't get the simple things right--and Chao Phaya could not--you must bow politely and get your occidental butt the hell out of there as fast as you can.
PS: Still hungry, we drove a mile or up the road, and had some remarkably good pizza at De Lucia's in Raritan. Given that I grew up only a short walk from the renowned Di Fara's pizza on Ave. J in Brooklyn, you can trust me when I tell you that Di Lucia's is worth the trip.