Say what you will about Slow Food Columbus (or the Slow Food movement in general, for that matter), but their events are never boring. When I learned they were starting a new event called “Off the Menu”, which would allow chefs at local restaurants to serve dishes they traditionally eat or make for their staff but that you don’t usually find on their menu, I knew it was something that I’d be interested in. Then when I saw that the inaugural one would be held at Nida’s Thai on High, a place that I haven’t been to yet, but have been wanting to try for ages, that sealed the deal for me. I decided to go alone to this one, because after discovering Paul’s shellfish allergy, we wanted to err on the side of caution.
I was greeted at the bar with a choice of complimentary cocktail – their brilliant bartender Vivian Loh (who I’m familiar with from CU and Twitter) comes up with some inventive combinations, and these were two of the new summer drinks. I could have chosen a gin and tonic made with cucumber and cilantro, or the one I went with, which I don’t remember the name of. I remember that it had Cointreau, cardamom syrup, almond liqueur, and a couple of things that slip my mind – it was sweet, strong and GOOD.
The menu for this event focused primarily on two regions of Thailand that are different than we’re used to – none of the curries that usually show up on Thai menus were included, which is sort of the point of the event – to go outside the comfort zone of both the restaurant and the diners. A nice bit of information about the cuisines of the different regions was also provided.
First up was the Soup Nor Mai (Spicy Bamboo Shoot Salad). This course was one that I wasn’t expecting to enjoy, but I ended up being pleasantly surprised. It didn’t taste anything like it smelled, thankfully. It had a nice layered complexity to it, where each bite brought out a different aspect of it – a bit fishy, a bit vinegary, mint in this bite, cilantro in the next, but all around good stuff. I would order this regularly.
I think the next course was the overwhelming favorite of the entire room. The Kor Moo Yang (Grilled Pork Collar) wasn’t the most tender cut of meat, but it was definitely one of the most flavorful. It was brilliantly seasoned, was served with sticky rice and a sauce that you spooned over (that reminded me a bit of the vinaigrette usually served with Vietnamese dishes) and was hands down my personal favorite. If this ever made it to the regular menu, Nida’s would be a frequent stop of mine. Hell, it just may be a frequent stop anyway, but this would be a bonus.
If the Kor Moo Yang was a universal favorite, the Namm (Preserved Pork) was the most divisive dish (it is the larger slices on the top right). The taste was great, but the chewy texture was a bit offputting for some. To me, it reminded me a bit of the tendon meatball one finds in pho, so I didn’t mind it one bit. Others had differing opinions. Most everyone seemed to enjoy the Sai Grog Isaan (Isaan-Style Sausage), though.
The first set of dishes were all from the Isaan region of Thailand, and before embarking on the specialties of Central Thailand (where Nida’s hometown, Bangkok, is located), we were served a palate cleanser of Nam Ta Krai (lemongrass juice). It had an almost savory quality to it even though it was highly sweetened. Delicious in small quantities (I would buy a cocktail that had this as a mixer in a hot second), but cloying as a large glass.
The Kai Pa Loh (Hard Boiled Egg with Pork in Soy) was also pretty universally enjoyed across the board. Pork shoulder was braised in a cooking liquid redolent with five spice, and then served with a hard boiled egg half. The pork was incredibly tender, and the dish was incredibly flavorful without being overly so. And although I’m not usually a fan of tofu, I really liked it in this dish, because it gave the tofu a creamy texture that was extremely pleasing.
The Gang Pa (Spicy Soup with Tilapia) was probably the spiciest dish of the night, which is the greatest surprise to me because I always assumed that all Thai food was super-spicy. The heat was fairly understated, though (it only hurt if you breathed in while eating), but built up after a while. The whole dish was super-light, which is a nice change from some of the heavier dishes.
I love bean thread noodles, so I really enjoyed the Pad Woon Sen (Stir Fried Bean Thread Noodles with Tomato and Tofu), even though others at my table found it a bit unremarkable. With the addition of a bit of meat-based protein (I’m not a fan of fried tofu), I could see myself eating this as a main dish. I just wish more restaurants in town would offer it as an option.
Unfortunately, I was not a fan in the least of the Gra Pow Moo (Ground Pork with Chicken Gizzards in Basil), but I owe that completely to my aversion to chicken gizzards rather than the chef’s preparation. It’s a textural thing for me, others at my table seemed to enjoy it, though.
And I was also pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the Num Kang Sai (Thai Fruit with Coconut Milk on Ice). I couldn’t identify what the original fruits are (the most I got from our server was that it was some sort of melon jelly), but I liked what the sweet coconut milk did in combination with it. I understood the purpose of the ice in there (to keep the whole thing ice cold until you were done eating it), but it got a bit confusing trying to figure what was ice and what was fruit. And I would have enjoyed it more with a different ratio of fruit to coconut milk – the coconut milk was rich (and sweet) enough that I ran out of fruit long before I finished the dessert and ended up leaving most of the coconut milk behind.
I really respect the team at Nida’s for being the first to be willing to go “off the menu” and give diners a new experience. I particularly liked that this was an opportunity for me to try new things without any real pressure, which allowed me to discover new things about my own likes and dislikes. It also allowed me to experience the beautiful Nida’s space for the first time, which has given me the impetus to want to go back again for a meal.
I can’t wait to see which restaurant they focus on for the next “Off the Menu” – with all of the culinary talent we have in Columbus, I’m looking forward to see what our local chefs come up with.
If you’d like to join Slow Food Columbus (members can go to events for a substantial discount): Slow Food USA (make sure to specify the Columbus convivium as the one you’d like to join)
If you’d like to go to the restaurant: Nida’s Thai on High, 976 N. High Street, Columbus, OH 43201, 614-219-9199