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Restaurants & Bars 7

As promised, Arun's v. Spoon Thai: the final round

Lill | Mar 8, 200403:50 PM

I had dinner on Saturday night at Spoon Thai. It was lovely to meet Vital Information and his wife, and I was glad to finally try some of the dishes I’ve read so much about. I can now make my own comparison between Arun’s and Spoon, though, as many here have noted, these are two very different restaurants with different goals and resources, and there were very few dishes in common, so the comparison can only go so far. Incidentally, I hit Siam Noodle & Rice last night, so it was quite a Thai-a-rama of a weekend.

We had an array of dishes at Spoon, chosen with care by VI with input from the rest of the table. First up was the catfish custard (hoe muk?) in banana leaf. It was delicious! Gingery and smooth. I did have this dish at Arun’s: his rendition was more delicate, creamy and mousselike, and, of course, presented in a more elaborate fashion.

Next up at Spoon was my favorite – the homemade Thai sausage. It was hot, savory and flavorful. It was very dark in color and very “meaty” in the manner of European sausages (for lack of a more precise term) compared to Siam’s the next night (which was lighter in both color and density, and served with peanuts, cubed ginger, and chilis – also a stellar dish, but very different).

Another winner at Spoon was the snakehead fish served whole in a sour curry sauce (with a root vegetable that never got definitively ID’ed). The sauce was great – perfect for dipping sticky rice over and over again. The fish itself was sure one ugly guy. No comparable dish at Arun’s or Siam.

We tried two versions of papaya salad (I’ve got to start calling it by its proper name ... som tum?), both with crab and without. The “with crab” was the hottest dish at the table, but not as hot as the fiery version of som tum the next night at Siam. Spoon’s was nice, but it lacked the thin Chinese long beans and had regular green beans instead (at least this was my impression). The “without crab” version lacked fire, but it was limey and very good. I did have this dish at Arun’s and recall it being very good too. But the best rendition of the three was at Siam, where it was super-hot (I cried) and filled with big pulpy bits of lime, and everything was shredded to the same consistency. Mmmm.

Next up at Spoon was duck larb. I believe we ordered chicken larb, so I am not sure whether this was a mixup in the kitchen. The duck was sliced rather than ground, and I did not perceive much of the roasted ground rice. As a result, that grainy, chewy texture I associate with larb was absent. The chili/lime/cilantro sauce was very good and was the second-best candidate for rice dipping. No comparable dish at Arun’s. Siam’s chicken larb the next night was a little dry, but still good.

We also ordered the one-bite salad: toasted coconut and dried shrimp on lettuce leaves (I’m told that it is better with betel leaves, but they were not offered). It sat at the table untouched and tempting for quite some time while we waited for the bird’s eye chilis, but finally I couldn’t wait anymore and started without them. I liked the concept very much, but my main criticism is that the salad ingredients were dry overall, without anything to bind them together. I didn’t enjoy the viscous, sweet dipping sauce, though I wanted to. No comparable dishes at Arun’s or Siam.

Fried chicken with spicy sauce was good. I’m not much into fried chicken, so this dish didn’t stand out, and I regret that I missed trying the sauce completely. No comparable dish at Arun’s; I sampled the fried chicken at Siam and had about the same reaction. Both good. Siam’s is all wings; Spoon was chopped big chunks from various parts of the chicken, I believe.

Then came a soup of pork, cucumbers, shrimp paste, and enoki mushrooms. This was my least favorite dish – I found it too salty and dull, though I'm told it has been outstanding on other nights. No comparables at Arun’s or Siam.

Lastly was the preserved egg salad. The eggs were pure black – very dramatic! They had a fermented tangy taste.

Dessert was warm coconut milk with large tapioca marbles. Sweet, fragrant and tasty! We should have ordered more. Arun’s desserts are not traditional Thai desserts, so no real comparison can be made. And, sadly, Siam’s had just sold the last serving of dessert to someone else, so I didn’t get to check theirs. The waitress did say that they’re adding new desserts to the menu on Tuesday.

Service at Spoon was a bit distracted. It was very crowded and busy, and the waitress seemed taken aback by our request for 8 glasses. Luckily we brought extras. Certain things took a long time to appear (like the chilis for the one-bite salad) and water glasses went unfilled. This may just be a function of a busy Saturday night, but I did not feel welcomed the way I do at Siam (where last night the waitress paid the ultimate compliment, by telling us we ordered like Thai people), and the service, of course, could not compare with the relentlessly precise service at Arun’s. But it doesn’t have to – it’s not the same kind of restaurant. So that’s not a complaint.

As per the agreement, STP provided the wine for the Spoon extravaganza. I will reproduce his list here, with my own unschooled commentary in parentheses:

La Gitana Manzanillo sherry (bitter and dry – amazingly good with many of the dishes! This was a hit with everyone at the table, even those who usually don’t like sherry)
Schoffit 2001 Pinot Blanc (went with everything well)
Pine Ridge 2003 Chenin Blanc-Viognier (this did too)
Selbach-Oster Auslese Riesling 2001 (sweet, liked it with the duck larb and sausage)
Pike’s “Clare Valley” 2003 Riesling (astringent and citrusy, good with sour curry and sam tom)
Givry 1999 Pinot Noir from Burgundy (I only tasted this after I finished eating)

VI brought bourbon, which we enjoyed sipping after the meal, and STP also brought a bottle (A.R. Hirsch 16 year).

My charge, originally, was to eat at both Arun’s and Spoon, then compare the two. The presumption was that I would not find Arun's to be worth the money and would realize that the dishes at Spoon are actually better. But I can't really make a meaningful comparison between the two. Arun’s served some of the same dishes available at other Chicago Thai places, but with a twist (although not enough of a twist), and with elaborate presentation, a beautiful setting, extreme service, and a large wine list. Spoon served some excellent dishes, and I think Siam does some dishes better than Spoon. Arun’s was a great DINING experience, though I was disappointed that the food did not change my life. Spoon and Siam are great Thai-food experiences that I can enjoy any night of the week. I appreciate living in a city where food-based joy is always at our fingertips.


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