“Phyllis, I don’t think this is a restaurant,” Edward said as he pulled into a parking spot on Tasker Street one block off Broad. “It looks like a take-out shop.”
“That is a take-out shop, but I think the restaurant is across the street,” I said. “There’s an awning over the entrance.”
Finding Circles can be a bit confusing. The restaurant began as a take-out shop until last year when Bangkok-born chef/owner Alex Boonphaya realized his vibrant, fresh Thai cuisine also needed a place for his guests to dine in.
All the cooking is done across Hicks Street. Servers carefully ferry trays of food protected by plastic covers to the tables. It was a miracle the food remained nice and hot.
The decor is simple and cozy. The space is painted in soft café au lait with black and white photographs of the city.
It is a rare occasion when the food is as fine as the service. Edward and I felt as if we were dining in someone’s home. Our waitress knew every item on the menu, describing some dishes as light and creamy, explaining the degree of hot and spice and letting us know the special of the night.
We began dinner with Thai rolls ($6), which consisted of eight small, plump, crispy treats sitting on a bed of cool, shredded carrots; red and green cabbage; and shallots. The wrappers were fashioned from rice paper, which were thin, light and crispy, and generously filled with seasoned minced pork; heady, earthy black mushrooms; and crisp water chestnuts. The filling was a first for us, and we enjoyed the play of flavors and textures. Sweet plum sauce can be cloyingly sweet, but Boonphaya hit the mark. It imparted a light, sweet flavor set off by the chopped peanuts he added to the sauce.
Crispy calamari ($7) can be a bore, but Boonphaya seasoned the crumbs splendidly before the not-at-all chewy squid rings were dusted and flash fried. The sweet and spicy chili sauce, which arrived with the squid, was a smart move. The ratio of sweet to peppery was just right.
Dumplings, whether steamed or pan-seared, are a mainstay of all Asian restaurants, but I have never tasted them filled with pork and crabmeat. The combination intrigued us. Five plump handmade dumplings ($7) were prepared with a blend of minced pork and delicate crab, gently pan-seared and served with a French-inspired tasty soy dipping sauce.
We decided to take our server’s advice and order the chicken and duck special ($18.95). As for the degree of spice, we felt medium was the way to go.
Boonphaya began with a boneless breast of duck that he seasoned and crisped to such perfection that the meat remained juicy and tender while the luscious skin was crisp and bursting with flavor.
We do not usually enjoy boneless chicken breast, but this version was a marvelous payard, pounded thin and cooked just a minute or so on each side. A tasty mélange of fresh vegetables, including broccoli, julienned carrots, red and green bell peppers, scallions and shallots were strewn on the plate. A light, brown sauce, which could have emerged from a French kitchen, dazzled this most generous entrée.
A choice of white or brown rice came with the meal. Brown rice can be soggy and mushy, but ours arrived almost toasted with a nut-like crunch.
Circles is the only restaurant I know of where the food is prepared in one place and carried across the street. It was pretty busy on the night we dined yet our waitress perfectly tended to everyone’s needs. There were a number of regulars, and they all brought bottles of wine.
I noticed an unusual drink that went by and our server gave us a sample. It was made with black tea, half-and-half, cardamom and vanilla and served over ice.
“Goodness, it tastes like the best vanilla milkshake I ever had,” I said to my husband.
Boonphaya came to America at age 12 and graduated from Florida’s Le Cordon Bleu. The French techniques he honed at this school are evident here and there in the fresh, colorful and vibrant Thai dishes he prepares for his patrons.
Three-and-a-half tips of the toque to Circles.