Madison's Ha Long Bay Restaurant stimulates senses
MADISON—Going into its fifth year on Williamson Street, Ha Long Bay Restaurant is thriving. The popular Southeast Asian restaurant is open daily, and we learned that its spacious dining room is busy almost every day during lunch and dinner hours.
We returned recently, after not setting foot in the place for quite a while, to find the same attractive setting and fine fragrant food that we remembered.
The dining room walls are painted in avocado and pumpkin—colors designed to stir an appetite—and we remembered the roomy black leather booths along one wall and comfortable tables and chairs throughout the rest of the space. Small Thai lamps at each table are examples of the little flourishes of Asian decor about the place.
Food-wise, the kitchen continues to turn out delectable plates of Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian food—all particularly well suited to warm hibernating palates and awaken the senses.
On a chilly Sunday afternoon, we stepped off a frozen sidewalk and into the warm aroma of pots of soup simmering with lemongrass, galangal, fish and Thai chilies.
A friend and I began with an appetizer of chicken satay ($6.25): four meaty strips of chicken that have been marinated in turmeric, coriander, chili powder, garlic and shallots, then skewered and grilled and served with a chunky peanut sauce.
Satay typically comes with a plate of cucumber salad on the side, a light, refreshing counterbalance that we welcomed even on a frigid December day.
Nothing seemed more appealing than big bowls of hot, spicy soup, so my friend and I each ordered one.
She opted for the hot and sour Thai tom yum with chicken ($5.95), which was served in an enormous ceramic bowl that held enough soup for two meals.
Thai tom yum was just what my companion needed, being both hot and searingly aromatic enough to cut through even the stuffiest of winter colds.
The soup commonly contains chicken stock and such fragrant ingredients as lemongrass, lime leaves and lime juice, chilies, galangal and coriander. The clean, aromatic broth is then supplemented with generous amounts of tender meat.
I was looking for something similar, and I found the answer in the kitchen's Thai tom kha ($6.95): a magical blend of coconut milk, chicken stock, Thai chili, galangal, ginger, mushrooms, lemongrass, lime leaves and cilantro. Instead of chicken or shrimp, I chose tofu to fill out this phenomenal soup. Unlike my companion, I managed to eat the entire bowl in one sitting.
We also decided to share a noodle dish. The only problem was what to order.
Named for a well-known bay in Vietnam, Ha Long Bay offers dozens of noodle plates in its extensive menu. After 10 minutes of discussion, we opted for an order of pad kee-mao Thai with beef ($9.95). Also known as “drunken noodles,” this dish consists of stir-fried rice noodles with chili paste, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes, broccoli, peapods and whole basil leaves.
The thick, wide noodles come in a brown sauce made of fish sauce, soy sauce and garlic, which provided a fine home for thin strips of tender beef.
You might not be surprised to learn that after all the food, we had little appetite for dessert, which includes coconut sticky rice with mango or ice cream ($3.95), blueberry rangoon ($2.50) and sesame balls ($2).
The only drawback to this wonderful east-side restaurant is its preparation time and service. Things tend to be slow. In most cases, that probably isn't a problem because this is an easy place to sit, relax and socialize.
If you are on a tight schedule or among a large group, be aware that this dining room's wait time is longer than most.
But you know what they say about the things that come to those who wait. That's especially true here.