A spate of Thai restaurants have opened in the past few years that hew to a similar mold: over-designed and dramatically lit, they’re restaurants masquerading as clubs. Joining this field is Tong, which calls itself a Thai brasserie, whatever that means. Just south of Union Square, Tong is in a soaring, bi-level, 30-foot space dominated by an illuminated Buddha-patterned glass wall, and matching gold-on-gold wallpaper. All the surfaces — made of plastic, lacquer, or polished wood — are out of the pages of a Dwell discothèque issue. But here’s the rub: unlike its brethren, whose menus present the same standard Thai selections as less luxe joints, Tong, courtesy of Chef Peter Pitakwong of Highline, moves the cuisine forward, taking advantage of fresh ingredients and proper technique, at a price point that could have Tong supplanting the NYU cafeteria this semester.
For Massaman beef, Tong offers braised short ribs with Massaman curry ($13), a superior fatty, fork-tender replacement for the usual mystery beef sticks, in a homemade curry marred by an overabundance of whole shallots and sugar. Another curry, country-style, with tofu ($12), doesn’t make the mistake of frying the tofu to use as a meat replacement. Instead, the melting soy accentuates a refined, tangy, tamarind-imbued broth enlivened by langon, dates and edamame.
Appetizers mostly work, from a Thai-spiced duck confit (at $7, nearly as cheap as buying the leg at a grocery store) over a salad of herbs and fruit, to baked mussels in rice-batter cups lavished with crunchy sprouts and smoked sriracha ($6). But not everything is a success. An appetizer of tuna tartare ($7) was fresh, with a pleasant lemongrass flavor, but it had a revolting runny texture, the cold, barely-set egg reminiscent of a wicked head cold.
This being an Asian restaurant, I wasn’t expecting much from dessert, but was delighted by a bowl of Thai tea ice cream that came with an otherwise forgettable Thai petit four plate. The same goes for a refined dish of custard in elderflower broth with fresh fruit and miniscule tapioca balls.
I was expecting the worst after seeing the space and the paucity of diners, but Tong won me over with a French chef’s obsessive take on traditional Thai at a price comparable to any random takeout joint, even if the heat was a bit weak. From the gracious, if over-eager, service to the free wine and beer while they were awaiting a liquor license, I don’t see Tong staying empty for long. With so many restaurants in this city, I probably won’t visit often, especially once it becomes a mob scene. But you can bet the delivery guy will know me by name.