I am always slightly confused when a Thai menu lists basil stir fries, curries, and other entrees with a bewildering choice of main ingredients. I’m left wondering if beef, pork, shrimp, chicken, tofu, squid, salmon, duck, or even mock duck should be added to, say, a Massaman curry. Certainly, they all don’t go equally well with the sauce. Well, newcomer Bangkok Degree offers entrees with the usual choices on one side of the menu, but flip it over and you find a totally different approach. The bill of fare offers two notable sections on the reverse side — dubbed Traditional Grandma Dishes and Signature Dishes — in which the main ingredient is ineluctably spelled out for you.
Open since January on Park Slope’s Union Street, slightly downhill from Seventh Avenue, Bangkok Degree is an ambitious restaurant serving a tantalizing combination of predictable and inventive dishes, sometimes with luxury ingredients. Regional and old-fashioned recipes — as they are served in Thai homes, in much the same way Adda did for Indian food — also play a big role.
The kitchen employs two chefs: Chusak Srithongsul came here from Thailand, where he ran a restaurant called Krua Mae Chueam that offered recipes from his grandmother. The other, Wirot Sirimatrasit, has been part of Elmhurst’s lively Thai restaurant scene, where he still owns Dek Sen, specializing in street food and desserts.
The name suggests a higher education or maybe a weather report in Thailand’s capital, but the decor at Bangkok Degree is more tropical. Vines hang in profusion from the ceiling, and the walls are wood-paneled in an agreeable mottled shade of brown. Metal chairs seem like patio furniture, while a bar nestled at the end of the room serves no alcohol, since Bangkok Degree is gloriously BYOB. At the liquor store just around the corner on Seventh Avenue, you can pick up a prosecco, a riesling, or a fruity vouvray with a bit of residual sugar that will go spectacularly with your meal.
Also, the bar dispenses non-alcoholic beverages such as “butterfly pea lemonade,” named after a plant with the taxonomic name of Clitoria ternatea that gives the beverage a bluish color. Doctored with a shot of mezcal, it paired exceptionally well with a main course found among the restaurant’s so called grandma dishes. Hung lay ($18) is a crock of wobbly pork belly and potato in a northern-style curry (with little or no coconut milk) flavored with pickled garlic and ginger. Chewing the raw ginger matchsticks gracing the top of the dish along with the meat chunks blunts the fattiness of the pork belly.
Undoubtedly, the best dish on the menu for sharing with a group is the basil tray ($30), which is a rather nondescript name for a plate with a beguiling presentation. The centerpiece is a large but amorphous heap of chicken basil, the coarsely ground poultry cooked with inordinate quantities of the leafy herb, with a fair degree of heat being provided by pickled bird’s eye chiles. Served with rice, this dish is a Bangkok street food staple. Accompanied by two largish cones of rice, a fishy tasting chile vinegar, sliced cucumbers to cool the heat, and two runny fried eggs, this DIY dish is also super fun to eat.
The Signature Dishes section runs to items like a whole red snapper, head on, cooked with lemongrass and a host of other fresh herbs; a green curry of giant river prawns; and a Massaman curry from which a pair of beef ribs stick out punctuated with peanuts. The meat is absurdly abundant and pulls easily from the bone, and I’ve never tasted anything quite like this — mellow and supremely meaty — in a Thai restaurant before.
Drunken noodles are available as a hangover remedy in many Thai restaurants. This dish, made with the traditional broad flat rice noodles, is available at Bangkok Degree in its standard form, but another version labeled with the restaurant’s initials is much more interesting. DB drunken noodles ($23) is made with the kind of wavy dried noodles found in a ramen packet, dotted with shrimp, chicken, squid, and hot chiles, which, along with onions and eggs makes for the kind of punishing-yet-soothing dish one needs to correct the vertigo of too much alcohol consumption.
There are lots of appetizers, too, and one might put several together to form a memorable meal. Japanese food has become increasingly popular in Bangkok over the last couple of decades, a server from Elmhurst’s Ayad once told me, and there are a couple of dishes on the menu that represent riffs on the Nipponese originals. A tuna tartar larb ($16) forms the minced fish mixed with toasted rice powder into a puck along with a layer of cubed avocado, with fried wonton skins on the side for scooping up the fish.
There are also steamed dumplings concealing quail eggs, edamame painted with garlic butter, and perhaps most unusual, a salad the contains fermented tea leaves among the usual salad ingredients – a recipe that seems borrowed from the Burmese lahpet thoke. What we have here is a menu unafraid of borrowing from other areas of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and South Asia, giving an impression of just how restaurant food is handled by creative chefs today in Thailand. And a restaurant that instantly makes the Slope one of NYC’s premier Thai dining destinations.