Published March 07. 2013 4:00AM
Tucked next to the Metal Trades Council office and nearly in the shadow of the big green General Dynamics shed, Friendly Thai Bar and Restaurant casts a warm yet exotic glow on this hardscrabble stretch of Poquonnock Road in Groton.
If there are neighborhood bars in Bangkok, perhaps they are cousins to this tidy, welcoming place. The entrance to the old storefront is up two steps from the sidewalk and is flanked on either side by protruding bay windows, each filled with a four-top table - perhaps the best seats in the house. From these perches, diners may sip chilled coconut juice from tall glasses, slurp tom yom soup or scrape up the last bit of curry as they watch the neighborhood go by.
Minus the bays, the dining room is small, with perhaps another six to eight tables and six stools along the bar, which spans the right side, front to back. Woven fabric in gold, navy, brick red and hunter green, featuring rows and rows of elephants - sacred in Thailand and a symbol of royal power - covers the tables and the bar stools. Blown-glass pendant lights hang above the bay window tables and outside the front entrance. Strings of blue lights circle the room just below the ceiling. Treasures from Thailand, not too many, are displayed throughout, and a flat-screen TV plays silently above the bar.
If our server is any indication, then Friendly Thai is aptly named. During our visits, she was delightful, charming, funny and ready to answer our questions. She made us feel truly welcome.
The menu is rife with intriguing possibilities. For most dishes, diners sets their own spice levels, from a "1" (warm) all the way up to "The Hot 5!" With the curry sauces - red, green, yellow, panang, massaman, pumpkin, mango or pineapple - diners choose what they'd like in them - vegetables, tofu, chicken, beef, pork, shrimp, squid, scallops, crab, soft shell crab or combination. The same goes for the noodle and fried rice dishes and for an additional selection of entrees that don't fit into the other categories.
Another section features fish - salmon, tilapia, red snapper, soft shell crab, lobster tail and whole red snapper, in a variety of preparations and sauces. There's a similar section for duck and another for Chef's Specials.
Were it not for all the other amazing choices on the menu, a person could dine happily among the appetizers, soups and salads. The fresh rolls - lettuce, carrots, sprouts, rice noodles and sliced shrimp or tofu, wrapped in delicate rice paper and served with a peanut vinaigrette - lived up to their name. The produce was shockingly fresh, especially for February, responding to a bite with a crunch that likely could be heard across the room.
The tom yum soup - described on the menu as "hot and sour soup," "with lime juice, lime leaf, lemongrass, onion, tomato and mushrooms," to which we added chicken - was steamy and delightfully sour, but the lime's usual sharp bitterness was transformed into a floral richness in the hot, delicate broth. Forget chicken soup. This tom yum is a cure for what ails you.
The chicken satays were slightly bland but were redeemed somewhat by their two sauces - one peanut, one cucumber. The curry rolls - like spring rolls, fried, but with a ground filling of pork, sweet potato, onion and spices - were crunchy, yet delicate, with perhaps a note of cinnamon.
The papaya salad - somtum - was salty with fish sauce, crunchy with lettuce, tomatoes and peanuts, and topped with shredded green papaya. Delicious.
The massaman curry with tofu and the pineapple red curry with shrimp each were creamy and spicy and served with a mound of perfectly tender yet chewy jasmine rice to sop up the luscious sauces. In the red curry, the shrimp were fresh and snappy and, in the massaman, the tofu was a great texture and mingled perfectly with the scallop-cut potatoes and carrots in the rich, cashew-filled sauce.
To the rama noodles - wide, rice noodles sautéed with broccoli and carrot in a spicy peanut sauce - we added scallops and shrimp. The result was amazing - perfect noodles, silken scallops, snappy shrimp, all in a pool of nutty, spicy goodness. But perhaps it was the beef in Stunning Sauce - tender, shaved beef, perfectly cooked, with broccoli, cabbage and tomatoes in another amazing peanut sauce - that took the prize. My husband practically licked the plate.
Just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we tried dessert, Sweet Sticky Rice with Coconut Ice Cream. I can only describe the rice - a warm, sweet, sticky raft of it - as comforting. It was served alongside two generous quenelles of light, sweet ice cream and was simply delicious, a perfect ending.
I would imagine that for the folks who live and work in this part of town, having Friendly Thai as a new neighbor means there's really no need to go anywhere else.
As for those who don't frequent the neighborhood? No worries. Friendly Thai delivers.