18 May 2018 Posted By : Peter Hum

Social Thai, a small, classy eatery in Centretown, doles out intense flavours

Social Thai
399 Bank St., 613-230-0084, ottawasocialthai.ca
Open: Monday to Wednesday 5 to 10 p.m., Thursday and Friday 5 to 11 p.m., Saturday 4 to 11 p.m., Sunday 4 to 9 p.m.
Prices: sharable main dishes $16 to $22
Access: step to front door, washrooms downstairs

The last time I had dinner at Social Thai, the wintry wind whooshed from Bank Street into the dining room with every delivery man that entered to stock up, quite possibly on pad Thai meant for someone in Centretown.

The two-year-old restaurant dispatches its food via SkipTheDishes and Uber Eats. When the latter service did a tally about a year ago, it found that Social Thai’s pad Thai was one of its Top 5 dishes ordered by Ottawa residents.

That’s all well and good. But there are other dishes, which are both attractively plated and simply better, that make dining in at Social Thai appealing, especially once the weather and wind eventually warm up.

For almost a decade until April 2016, the restaurant at Social Thai’s address had been Miga, a Korean restaurant. But its owner decided to switch to Thai cuisine, thinking it was more popular, I was told this week.

The new restaurant does employ Thai cooks in the kitchen, I’m told, and there have been major changes to the once no-frills dining room too. Social Thai seats almost 40 in darkened, classy surroundings. At this brown-walled place of glass-topped tables and lightly cushioned metal seats plus some picnic-table seating, diners are surrounded by low-key art on the wall, groovy music and contemporary pop from the sound system and sometimes the smell of lemongrass.

For the most part, the kitchen offers its versions of the usual curries, stir-fries and noodle- and rice-based dishes that in North America, if not in Thailand, have seemingly been elevated to must-orders. They’re made all the more accessible because Social Thai’s diners typically choose the protein — chicken, beef, sometimes tofu, or shrimp, which can come with an extra charge — that goes into the dish. Spice levels are also adjusted on demand, from mild to medium to spicy to “Thai spicy,” and we’ve found medium and spicy dishes were sufficiently potent. Need more heat? There are also shakers of ground Thai chillies on each table. 

Here, there are also some less expected dishes here that you might try, and not just for novelty’s sake. While shredded vegetable fritters (khang pong) are common street food in Northern Thailand, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them in Ottawa’s Thai restaurants, and maybe even at North American Thai restaurants. Social Thai does serve these deep-fried treats ($10) as starters. I’ve had versions made with squash and sweet potato, crisp and piled high in a snarled mess in an ornamental bowl, with tangy dipping sauce on the side.

Squash fritters at Social Thai Postmedia

They were well-made, direct of flavour and enjoyed at our table, and I would pretty much pay the same compliments to most other dishes we were served at Social Thai, whether it was obscure or a greatest hit of Thai cuisine.

I’m also not used to seeing crispy chicken salad (yum gai tod, $16) at Ottawa’s Thai restaurants as much as minced chicken salad (larb, $16) or mango salad (yum ma maung, $16). All of them were punchily flavoured and pleasantly received. The first dish featured deep-fried chicken meat with bracingly dressed vegetables, the larb was more minimalist but on the money with its heat and sourness, and the mango salad — upsold so that it teemed with seafood — was fresh and bright. 

Crispy Chicken salad at Social Thai Postmedia

Larb chopped chicken salad at Social Thai Postmedia

Mango salad with seafood at Social Thai Postmedia

Savoury Social Thai spring rolls ($10) were impeccably fried and generously stuffed with chicken and vegetables. Our table’s resident hot and sour chicken soup (tom kha gai) aficionado pronounced Social Thai’s rendition ($8) among the very best that she’s had.

Social Thai spring rolls at Social Thai Postmedia

Tom Kha Gai soup at Social Thai Postmedia

Larger dishes impressed with their balance of flavours and attention to texture and contrast. 

Crisply coated sole with Thai herbs (pla sai moonprai, $22) demonstrated again the kitchen’s frying skills, although the dish’s biggest pop of flavour came from its sauce. An expertly cooked stir-fry (pad med ma meung) made with shrimp, vegetables and cashew nuts ($20) was toothsome and well-sauced.

Crispy sole at Social Thai Postmedia

Shrimp stir-fry at Social Thai Postmedia

Two curries here leaned to the runnier side but were still flavourful. We preferred the Social Thai seafood curry ($20.50) to a panang curry ($19) that was made with beef and seemed more perfunctory.

Social Thai seafood curry at Social Thai Postmedia

Panang curry with beef at Social Thai Postmedia

The much-ordered pad Thai ($14.50) was alright, registering as a little sweet but with a lingering tanginess. I liked even more the fried rice made with vegetables, pineapple and cashews ($17).

Pad Thai at Social Thai Postmedia

Substantial portions and intense flavours left us too full and sated to try either the ice cream or spring rolls made with bananas for dessert.

As for beverages, in addition to some interesting cocktails and beers that included some locally brewed choices, the restaurant also serves tamarind juice and Thai coffee.

Servers here have been well-informed and helpful. But at one of two dinners, water refills to soothe our jangled palates were slow in coming, and an extra soup had been added to our bill.  

My biggest gripe has to do with Social Thai’s prices. Of course, rising prices at restaurants are as certain as death and taxes, and I wonder if prices here did rise to offset costs associated with the delivery services or the new provincial minimum wage. Whatever the explanation, the prices here do strike me as on the high side for Thai dishes in Ottawa, and I have had, elsewhere in the city, comparable or better plates for a few dollars less.

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