Dining Review: Nicky's represents Thai at its best

Attention to details helps Verona restaurant stand out

Pad Thai, green curry and steamed vegetables with peanut sauce are staples of Thai restaurants everywhere. Some versions are certainly better than others, but in general, these dishes are remarkably consistent, as are the restaurants that produce them. Thai food is almost always a good bet -- unless of course you're allergic to peanuts.

Nicky's Thai Kitchen in Verona has all of the traditional staples, and those that we tried were, on the whole, delicious. The menu also offers a number of more unusual dishes, as do a handful of other Thai establishments around the city. But Nicky's Thai Kitchen stands out for an impressive attention to detail that demonstrates how a little extra care can elevate a restaurant above its peers, without a massive expenditure of capital or a half-dozen prep cooks.

Jasmine tea ($2) arrived in a white porcelain pot with a matching cup and saucer. Fresh spring rolls ($3.99, commonly known as summer rolls) had been rolled tightly then sliced into bite-sized rounds, each a gorgeous cross-section of green, orange and white. Because the rolls had been cut into bite-sized pieces, each mouthful offered the perfect balance of sweet dipping sauce, crunchy cabbage and spicy mint.

Nicky's Thai Kitchen

2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained
321 South Ave.
  • Hours: Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Tuesday-Thursday, 5-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5-10 p.m., Sunday-Monday, 4-9 p.m.
  • Basics: Great Thai food tastes even better when served with this kind of care and attention to detail.
  • Recommended dishes: Fresh spring roll, steamed dumplings, glass noodle salad, pumpkin curry, roast duck noodle soup, Choo Chee tofu, duck with basil sauce, Thai custard with sweet sticky rice
  • Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$6.99; entrees, $6.99-$13.99; desserts, $3.99.
  • Summary: Wheelchair accessible; nonsmoking; park on street; credit cards accepted; reservations accepted; BYOB, no corkage.
  • Noise level: medium.

Next came a plate of unusual steamed dumplings ($5.50). The pork filling had been placed on a wrapper that was gathered up around it and cinched, but didn't fully enclose the pork. Because the dough never overlapped, no gummy edges were created. The filling was light and delicate, a little sweet and just a tiny bit spicy. I could easily have eaten the entire plate myself.

The elegant details extended to decor as well. The room is painted in a very pale blue and light brown -- cool soothing colors that carry over to the white-topped tables and gray-woven place mats. Each table displays a tall, thin vase filled with elegantly arranged branches. There are wooden carvings and velvet panels typical of Thai restaurant decorations, but they are fewer in number and carefully hung, giving them a greater impact. And the food is served on modern white porcelain, including teardrop-shaped soup bowls I especially loved.

The restaurant is BYOB, and it can supply glasses whose thin rims and balanced shapes make them great all-purpose wine glasses -- better, in fact, than those I've seen at many restaurants with their own wine lists.

One warning -- the dining room was extremely cold, despite an extra heater, so dress warmly on cold nights. Also, given the care taken with other details, I was suprised to order off paper take-out menus.

Thai food balances numerous tastes in every bite -- sweet, sour and spicy. In many Thai restaurants, sweetness predominates, with coconut milk and peanut sauce the most common culprits. At Nicky's Thai Kitchen, earthier tastes abound.

Pumpkin Curry ($8.95) was sophisticated and superb. Large chunks of roasted pumpkin provided intense doses of flavor, but were lightened by the presence of zucchini and carrots, as well as the sweetness of chewy and flavorful beef slices.

A chef's special of Duck Basil ($12.95) was straightforward and decadent. A base of sauteed onions and peppers was piled with crispy pieces of duck and duck skin, tossed in an intense dark brown sauce redolent with the taste of Thai basil and crowned with a pile of fried basil leaves.

Thai restaurants can be very good choices for vegetarians. Just be sure to request that they leave out the fish sauce if your dietary guidelines are strict. Choo Chee Tofu ($8.50) is a vegetarian entree so delicious it may convert even the most strident bean-curd hater. When bitten, a golden brown skin gives way to a soft and silken inside. The tofu is dressed in, rather than swimming in, a sweet red curry sauce brightened with an abundant chiffonade of kaffir lime leaves that perfume the air as well as the dish. Here, tofu is the signature ingredient, not just a substitute for meat.

Even salads and soups are special, and make great choices for a lighter meal. The Glass Noodle Salad ($6.50) was another dish that made good use of layering ingredients. A pile of crunchy cold iceberg lettuce was topped with just slightly warm glass noodles, colored a translucent red from their chile-lime dressing. The noodles were tossed with an abundance of red onion and cilantro, and ground chicken added a rounded sweetness to the dish. The contrasts between hot and cold, crisp and smooth, spicy and sweet were Thai style at its best.

Roasted Duck Noodle Soup ($7.50) is certainly a close cousin to the best chicken noodle soups, and a bowl of it brings the same intense feeling of content and comfort. A succulent broth with an intense onion base is thick with slices of duck breast and thigh, noodles, beans sprouts and cilantro.

More ordinary dishes contained generous amounts of high-quality ingredients. An abundant pile of golden batons of fresh mango entirely covered a pink salmon fillet in Salmon Mango Curry ($13.99). Pad Thai with shrimp ($8.50) contained more than six perfectly cooked, medium shrimp.

Though Jasmine rice is included in the price of the meal, the brown rice ($1.50) is well worth trying. This rice is more purple than brown and has a delightfully nutty flavor that stands up well to curries and sauces.

One final surprise came in the form of desserts. Thai Custard with sweet sticky rice ($3.99) turned out to be a small mound of sweet sticky rice topped with a square of omelet-like custard, then sprinkled with shredded coconut. The custard's slightly savory characteristics were tempered by the sweetness of the rice, and the crunch of the coconut was the perfect grace note.

Pumpkin Custard ($3.99) sandwiched a slice of cooked pumpkin between two thin layers of the same custard.

What makes this restaurant's virtues all the more extraordinary is that all of the food is prepared by a single chef -- owner Nicky Insawang -- and on my visits, only one server took care of the petite dining room, which looks as if it could hold approximately 25 diners. This handicap actually creates pleasant conditions for guests. We received our food in several courses, rather than all at once, allowing us to taste everything while it was fresh.

The meal was well-paced and orders were executed perfectly. Our server brought plates for sharing appetizers, new plates for main courses, and deftly handled an amount of food a bit too abundant for four people or a table for four.

Residents of Verona and nearby Oakmont are fantastically lucky to have Nicky's Thai Kitchen as their neighborhood Thai restaurant.

Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at cmillman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1198.


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