Thursday, March 13, 2003

Simmer down

Posted on Thu, Mar 13, 2003 at 4:00 AM

After driving around the massive and intensely confusing Waterford Town Center for 15 minutes (I was the one muttering "This place is insane" repeatedly), I finally found the little storefront restaurant called Thai Singha. If you're facing the entrance to the center from the road, go as far left as you can to find it. I'm emphasizing the location because you will want to make the trip down the Alafaya Trail and sample these Siamese splendors.

Somboon Pornmukda owns Thai Singha, along with her husband, Chef Manoch. "We had four restaurants in Philadelphia," she said, "starting -- how old is my daughter? -- 13 years ago." Their travels from Thailand to Orlando, by way of Mexico, Europe and the City of Brotherly Love, influences the menu in delightful ways.

"Thai people create new dishes," Somboon said, citing as example the rack of lamb ($16.95), grilled with shiitake mushrooms and a French-inspired sauce of green peppercorns, cognac and red curry. I don't think venison is indigenous to Thailand, yet here it appears as sumptuous slices sautéed with sweet basil, hot chili paste and mushrooms ($16.95) for an intriguing combination of dark and hot tastes.

Ever adaptive, Thai Singha takes a Florida note by cooking an alligator curry with eggplant ($16.95). The gator was already sold out when I visited, but my second choice, "triple flavor duck," ($13.95) was a hit, an enormous serving of crisp-skinned duck in a sweet and mellow chili-garlic-tamarind sauce. Dishes come in five degrees of heat, and even my "level 3" peeled a layer from my tongue, and I mean that in a good way.

The seafood is lovely. The simple lemon grass and shrimp soup ($3.50) has layers of flavors coming from firm shrimp, sharp lime leaves and barely cooked mushrooms -- so much so that time is needed to savor them all.

A meal can be made from the steamed mussel appetizer ($6.95), such is the size of the serving and the deep fish and herb flavor of the broth ($6.95). The soft-shell crab special (from frozen crab when it's out of season, but fresh during the summer) merged savory crustacean with angel-hair pasta in a velvety red curry sauce and green peppers.

For a small place, they take big strides for excellence. Somboon told me that the familiar pad Thai noodle dish is typically made to order, a chef throwing fish sauce, sugar and spices on as the sauce. Here, the sauce is simmered for days, for a taste so complex and intense that it's like discovering the dish all over again ($9.95).

With simple surroundings and great ambitions, Thai Singha is a cozy family-run restaurant, a place that, if you're lucky enough to live close, should become a habit.

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