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Medley of hits

There are always trends at play on the dining scene, and of late, it seems to be Thai restaurants that are popping up around town. An otherwise unassuming new entry in Winter Park, the neat and low-key Siam Garden jumps out from the competition with its distinctive fusion cuisine, which successfully combines Indian, Burmese, Laotian, Malaysian and Chinese influences.

Siam Gardenís proprietors are of the same family that runs the longstanding Thai House on East Colonial Drive. Their new venture is tucked away in a storefront on Webster Avenue, opposite Dillardís, the lone survivor in the rapidly redeveloping new Winter Park Mall.

As former vegetable farmers, the owners know the importance of fresh ingredients, and they strive for balance. Too much garlic overwhelms the ginger, they explained. And they donít use Italian basil, preferring the traditional purple Thai basil.

We stopped by on a Friday night and were impressed with most of the food. Although they do a first-rate job with simple spring rolls, fried and diagonally sliced, there is another appetizer thatís a must. Itís called mee krob (pronounced "me crab," $5.95). Clear noodles are fried into crunchy little matchsticks and tossed with a gluey, sweet tamarind-tomato sauce. The plump shrimp, bean sprouts and green onions make it mouth-watering.

Steamed dumplings ($4.95) are presented like mushroom caps, with the filling on top. We loved the full-bodied flavors in the stuffing of ground shrimp, pork and water chestnuts.

After such smashing appetizers, it was harder to get excited about the "combo seafood platter" ($14.95). Plenty of shrimp, squid, mussels and crab in a garlic sauce were ladled over steamed white rice. Although it didnít do much to perk up the palate, the flavors were lightly fragrant and soothing.

"Chili jam" ($8.95), however, had all the heat and punch of Thai cooking at its best. This was a stir-fried blend of pork, peppers and onions in a spicy-sweet chili sauce with tamarind traces. For dessert, we had baby banana pastries ($2.50) served warm, drizzled with honey and dusted with sesame seeds.

Throughout our dinner we were tended by watchful waiters who kept things running smoothly. The setting is quiet and restful, with soft touches such as low-volume music and dim lighting.

Siam Garden adds flavorful dimension to an area dominated by chain restaurants.

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